When surprises turn out just right: a conversion, though not as I planned

29791142_10155434505157371_4627250841242018874_nTwo years ago, before Shavuot, my friend Rabbi Brent Spodek asked me to serve on a beit din -- the rabbinic court of three who preside over Jewish legal matters -- for the purpose of taking part in welcoming a new soul into the Jewish people. Rabbi David Markus was the third member of the beit din. We gathered at Isabella Freedman before that year's Shavuot retreat, met with the prospective Jew-by-choice for meaningful conversation, then accompanied him to Lake Miriam for his mikvah immersion. 

One year ago, before Shavuot, Rabbi David convened the same trio for the same purpose. We met again in one of the yurts beside the lake at Isabella Freedman; had a deep and rich conversation with the woman who was choosing Judaism; then accompanied her to the same lake before that year's Shavuot retreat. Both of these were extraordinary experiences for me as a member of the beit din. We joked last year that since each of them had brought someone now, it would be my turn in 5778.

At the time I truly thought we were all kidding. I've been a rabbi since 2011 and no one had ever sought to study toward conversion under my auspices. And then two people independently came to me seeking study toward conversion to Judaism. I wanted them to have an experience of community, so I opened up a class and encouraged others to join. And it became clear that this year it would actually be my turn to be em beit din and to convene my colleagues for this humbling and holy purpose. 

I had a lot of time to plan how I wanted the beit din and the conversion to flow, and I had everything all planned out. The beit din and immersion would take place at a beautiful spot: Surprise Lake, the lake at the Hudson Valley summer camp of the same name where our three congregations were convening for a Shavuot retreat. My whole Journey Into Judaism class signed up for the Shavuot retreat and made plans to come down early to support their classmates who were taking the proverbial plunge.

And then storms and tornadoes tore through the area and Surprise Lake lost power, and the retreat was canceled, the day before the beit din. Some scrambling ensued. My rabbinic colleagues moved heaven and earth to make a Plan B possible, including helping us find lodging in a region where every hotel and motel is booked solid with folks still taking refuge from storm damage. And on Friday afternoon, my whole Journey Into Judaism class (plus family members) drove down to the Hudson Valley.

We met at the mikvah in Poughkeepsie, which is housed in an Orthodox shul. The shul was opened just for us, and a mikvah attendant showed us around. My students gathered in a classroom, and the beit din gathered in the shul library, and one by one we met with the candidates for conversion. Then we met with them together. And then we held a tallit-chuppah over their heads and sang Reb Zalman's mother's niggun (which we had sung often before class) as we walked down the hall to the mikvah.

The mikvah attendant (colloquially known as a "mikvah lady") helped us ensure that the immersions were kosher to her usual standards. The men on the beit din stood outside the door of the mikvah, listening for the splash and the sound of our voices from inside. Each of my three candidates stepped down into the water, immersed and made the blessing, and immersed again, and immersed a third time, and emerged reborn as a woman fully in the living flow of Jewish spiritual and national identity.

And then we returned to the library to sign their documents and bless them, and then we all drove to Rabbi Brent's shul in Beacon. There we were awaited not only by a celebratory potluck Shabbat but by a large crowd from his congregation who welcomed our new Jews into the room with a rousing chorus of "Siman Tov u-Mazal Tov." (I don't think they expected that -- to be so heartily welcomed by a room full of strangers -- though of course they weren't strangers; they were fellow Yidden.)

It wasn't the day I had spent so long planning. We weren't outside in the sanctuary of nature, immersing in a natural body of living waters surrounded by trees -- instead we were in a windowless interior room in a shul none of us had ever seen before. There was an unfamiliar woman inspecting them for stray hairs before their immersions, and giving them a lace doily to cover their heads to make the immersion bracha. And because all of this was in God's hands and not mine, it was absolutely perfect.

We'd talked a lot about how when one joins the Jewish people, one is joining the gantze mishpacha, the whole clan: not just my shul, not just places where the practice and custom matches what we do in our small-town Reform-Renewal community, but the whole thing. When one joins the Jewish people, our Conservative and Orthodox and Reconstructing and post-denominational cousins become one's family too. The Jewish family is big, diverse, complicated, sometimes exasperating, and sweet.

I couldn't have dreamed up a better example of that truth than arranging to immerse on 24 hours' notice at an Orthodox mikvah. Some of my students had never set foot in an Orthodox synagogue before (there isn't one in Berkshire County). But the wonderful people at Schomrei Israel opened their doors to us without hesitation, because that's what you do for fellow Jews. And then we showed up at an independent synagogue served by a Conservative-ordained rabbi and we were welcomed there too.

No matter how broad our conversations in our Journey Into Judaism class, they couldn't convey the experience of being part of this multifaceted people -- of being welcomed into this multifaceted people, with our wide range of customs and practices, modes of dress and styles of observance, melodies and prayerbooks. I couldn't convey in words what it feels like to walk into a strange synagogue in a strange city and feel like kin even when we differ, because our Jewishness connects us.

Last week's storms and the damage they caused threw a giant monkey wrench into my careful plans, and the way the day turned out was exactly what we needed. It taught my students something I couldn't have taught them on my own. It gave two communities the opportunity to enact the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. It gave us a lived experience of feeling welcomed and cared-for and part of something much bigger than even the trio of shuls that had planned a joint retreat.

I'm endlessly grateful: to the folks at Schomrei Israel and Beacon Hebrew Alliance for welcoming us, for my hevre on the beit din for joining me in this holy work, to the members of my class for driving down to support their classmates, to the three who entrusted me with their journey, to Soferet Julie Seltzer for lending us her apartment for a night, and to the Holy One of Blessing Who ensured that the whole day unfolded exactly the way it was meant to, with surprises that turned out just right.

 


Up the mountain, breaking Shabbes, and the things I can't control

Last week I did something that felt very strange: I counseled three people to break Shabbat.

I've been teaching an adult education class this year that I've called "Journey Into Judaism." We're all on a journey into authentic spiritual life, into the continuing unfolding of who we are and who we're called to become. Some of the students in my class are Jewish and seeking deeper connection with their traditions. Others enrolled because they're partnered with Jews. Others enrolled because they felt a pull toward becoming Jewish and wanted to learn more. 

This Friday, on the cusp of the Shabbat that will lead into Shavuot, three of my students will take the plunge into Judaism both literally and metaphorically. After spending some time with the beit din (the rabbinic court of three who will officially preside over their transition), they'll immerse in a mikvah and then emerge to a new chapter of their spiritual lives. Last Friday was the final Shabbat before their immersion, so -- following a very old custom -- I told them it's customary for them to break Shabbes.

Shabbat isn't something that just "happens." It requires a combination of intention and action; otherwise, it's just plain old Friday-night-and-Saturday. In common Jewish parlance, we "make" Shabbat (or Shabbes -- "Shabbat" is the modern Hebrew pronunciation, "Shabbes" is a more old-fashioned Yiddishized pronunciation, but they're the same word.) We make Shabbat when we enter into holy time mindfully. Through blessing candles and the fruit of the vine and bread, we sanctify time.

And as for "breaking" Shabbat, that means different things in different communities. Most members of my synagogue community don't "keep" Shabbat in the traditional forms. But my students and I have talked a great deal about Shabbat consciousness and holy time, and about different ways of honoring Shabbat, and about what Shabbat can look like. We've held two immersive Shabbatonim for the purpose of giving them full, deep, rich, sweet experiences of Shabbat from start to finish.

And last week I told them to break Shabbes. On purpose.  

In some communities, non-Jews are not permitted to observe Shabbat, and prospective Jews-by-choice are instructed to secretly break Shabbat each week before their immersion, because the covenant of Shabbat is between God and the Jewish people and they aren't yet part of that group. I don't hold that thick a line between "us" and "them" -- I am happy to share the sweetness of Shabbes with seekers of all stripes -- but it is true that once my students immerse, Shabbat will be "theirs" in a different way.

In some communities, prospective Jews-by-choice are encouraged to break Shabbat on purpose right before their immersion, to see what it would feel like to do so. If they've grown accustomed to candles and challah and wine, what would it feel like to forgo those things? If they've grown accustomed to seeking a heartspace and headspace that's apart from weekday consciousness, what would it feel like to intentionally open the bills on a Saturday afternoon and shatter that sense of separateness and peace?

The old paradigm of rabbinic authority was often top-down. But that's not the paradigm that's embraced in the community I serve. We aspire to practice an informed wrestling with the tradition, making conscious choices about how our practice evolves. I shared with my students the custom of breaking Shabbat before their immersion... and all of them engaged with it thoughtfully, and made their own decisions about how to honor it and what they were, and weren't, willing to forgo.

And I couldn't be more thrilled. Because in learning the custom, and pondering it, and checking in with their own discernment about their spiritual needs and their evolving Jewish practice, they unconsciously lived out exactly the kind of Judaism that is my hope and my prayer for them in days and years to come. They showed me that Shabbat means something to them, and that Jewish practice means something to them, and that they have taken permission to engage with the tradition on their own terms. 

A few days ago I spoke with Rabbi David, who will sit on the beit din, about the logistics of how the day will go. "I want their experience to be beautiful," I fretted -- feeling anxiety about the weather, and about the setting, and about all the things I can't control about how Friday will unfold. Rabbi David gently reminded me that I can't "give them" a perfect experience no matter how hard I try. My job is to lead them up the mountain. What they experience at the mountaintop is in God's hands, not mine.

I needed to be reminded of that, especially on the cusp of Shavuot -- another liminal space-and-time, another long-anticipated moment, another time when I want so deeply to be able to give those whom I serve a renewed connection with Torah and with our traditions and with our Source. What we experience on the mountaintop isn't up to me. That's not in my hands. My job is to lead people safely along the path, and to trust the Kadosh Baruch Hu -- the flow of holiness and spirit that we name as God.

The universe handed me another reminder this week that I'm truly not in control: the storm and tornadoes that tore through the Hudson Valley. The summer camp that was supposed to be our weekend retreat location remains without power. As a result, our retreat has been canceled. Thankfully, we've found an alternative way to hold the beit din: at a regional mikveh, with celebration (potluck supper, Kabbalat Shabbat, song and dance and joy) to follow at a local shul. 

My students' doorway into Jewishness will not exactly take the shape I had intended or planned, but it will be their doorway -- and as a doorway, entered mindfully, it will be holy. This will still be a Shabbat for them unlike any other that has come before. It will still be the Shabbat after I surprised them with the instruction to break Shabbes... and the first Shabbat for them in the flow of Jewish national and spiritual identity, the first Shabbat of the rest of their new and renewing Jewish lives. 

 

For my students, with endless gratitude.


Once more, with pigment

28194225709_171c7c0b75_zTying tzitzit has become one of my favorite mitzvot. It's funny to remember that a mere four years ago the practice was new to me. I learned how to tie tzitzit in order to try out the mitzvah of wearing a tallit katan, the "small tallit" that some Jews wear in order to fulfill the mitzvah (connective-commandment) of wearing tzitzit, fringes, on the corners of our garments.

I tried out the mitzvah myself in order to feel good about asking my students to do so, too. In those days I taught the fifth through seventh grade class at my shul. I wanted my students to learn how to tie tzitzit and to have the experience of wearing them, but they weren't yet old enough to take on the mitzvah of tallit gadol, the "big tallit" that adult Jews wear to pray.

In some shuls, tallit gadol is worn by kids of any age when they come up to the bimah to lead a prayer or song, but in my community the minhag -- custom -- is for tallit gadol to be formally taken on at b'nei mitzvah time as part of taking on an "adult" relationship with mitzvot. So we made tallit katan, and everyone tried it out and shared what it was like. (Here's the post I wrote then, about making my own tallit katan, and trying the mitzvah myself before assigning it to my students: String theory.)

In more recent years, the seventh graders have designed and decorated tallit gadol, a process that culminates in tying on the fringes that make it a ritual garment. But this year I'm working again with kids who have some time before their celebrations... so this year's "tallisareum" (a term I borrowed from Reb Zalman z"l) is a tallit-katan-making enterprise again.

In the years since I first learned to tie tzitzit in order to teach my students, I've learned Reb Zalman's mode of tying tzitzit, with the spiraling knots that make a diagonal line down the rows of seven and eight and eleven and thirteen knots. And I've learned more about different customs around colorful tzitzit.

The text from Torah that instructs us to wear tzitzit also instructs us to include a thread of blue. I asked my students what they thought that might represent. Their first thoughts were "sky" and "sea," which turn out to be exactly right: the blue represents the water of the sea, which represents the sapphire of the sky, which represents the sparkling floor described in Torah beneath the divine throne. (Actually Torah says it was like a sapphire floor, but not actually a sapphire floor. Nava Tehila wrote a beautiful setting for that verse. In any event, the blue reminds us of sea and sky and God.)

I've also seen the custom of including a green thread among the fringes on one's tzitzit. I asked them what they thought that might represent, and they suggested green growing things. Right again: the green thread is aimed at reminding us of our obligation to care for the environment. (I learned that from Rabbi Hanna Tiferet some years ago.) That seems particularly appropriate this week as we approach Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees, a festival that reminds us to care for the earth.

And finally there's the custom of including pink and blue threads, representing the pink and blue colors of the transgender flag -- a reminder that we are all created in the Divine image regardless of gender or gender expression; a reminder of our obligation to treat people of all genders with kindness and respect. I learned that from my friend, teacher, and Bayit co-founder Rabbi Mike Moskowitz (you can see a photo of his beautiful trans inclusion tzitzit on his website.)

When my students tied their tzitzit on their tallit katan this year, each of them chose a different combination of threads. Some wanted trans inclusion colors. Some wanted earth / environment awareness colors. Some wanted the darker blue of the sea and sky. I love that they all made their own choices about what they want their fringes to remind them: not just that they are Jews, not just of the mitzvot writ large, but specific mitzvot of creation care and trans inclusion and remembrance of the Holy. 

The assignment, once the tzitzit are tied, is the same as ever: wear it at least once, and report back on what it was like. Each student can make their own choice about whether or not to visibly display their fringes. (Based on what previous classes have reported, the experience of walking around for a day with tzitzit on is a consciousness-raiser even if the fringes are tucked in.) I can't wait to hear what they teach me about whether and how their color choices impact their experience of this mitzvah.

 


The gift of an immersive Shabbat

39754613342_8305a9af90_zWhen I started teaching my Journey Into Judaism class, I knew what experience I most wanted to give my students: an immersive Shabbat. 

The texture of time shifts over the course of the day. There's the anticipatory energy of Friday night (welcoming Shabbat into our midst like an eagerly-anticipated guest), which is different from the settling-in of Shabbat morning, which is different from a leisurely Shabbes afternoon, which is different from the aching, yearning tenor of Shabbat mincha-time, which is different from havdalah as evening falls. 

I wondered: would my students be willing to commit to spending an entire Shabbat together? We could begin with Friday night dinner around my table. Continue with Shabbat morning davenen at the synagogue. And then stay at shul for lunch, and spend the afternoon together, and close the day with havdalah. If we did it during the wintertime, havdalah would come relatively early in the day. The more I thought about it, the more excited I became. 

So I floated the idea to my students, braced for the likelihood that the idea might not go far. We'd read Heschel's The Sabbath, and Heschel writes gloriously about Shabbat as a palace in time -- but it's a far cry between reading his elegant prose, and committing to giving up 25 hours of precious weekend time for an experience no one in the room had ever actually had before. And even if they were potentially interested in the idea, what were the odds of managing to get seven household schedules to align? To my delight, every one of my students agreed that this was worth trying to do.

We met in my condo on a Friday night. I set as beautiful a Shabbes table as I know how, with the embroidered white tablecloth given to me by Russian friends many years ago, and my usual Shabbat candlesticks and kiddush cup and challah cover. I added a vase of tulips, a sign of yearned-for spring. When everyone arrived we sang Shalom Aleichem to welcome the angels of Shabbat. We blessed candles and wine, bread and the children. (To my great delight, my son asked why there were two challot -- usually we have only one, since we're a small household -- so I got to teach about the double portion of manna that fell on Shabbat!) 

The kids ate grilled cheese sandwiches, and watched favorite cartoons, and played games and with the cat. The adults ate soup and quiche, and drank wine, and talked and laughed and enjoyed one another's company. Sometimes our conversation was silly and sometimes it was serious. Over the course of dinner, conversation topics around the table ranged from funny kid stories to talk about God and spiritual practice. We ate ice cream with raspberries. We closed the meal with brich rachamana. I went upstairs to put my son to bed, and by the time I came down my dishwasher was running merrily and my kitchen was clean. 

On Shabbat morning we regrouped for morning services, along with the other folks who came to shul. We feasted on a gorgeous, leisurely potluck lunch, with spacious time for relaxing and even enjoying dessert. I taught a class on God, which began with harvesting the room's questions about God, and continued with conversation about R' Brent Spodek's beautiful sermon I (don't) believe in God, and about different names of / faces of God (which ones resonate for us, and which ones don't, and why), and learning about the four worlds and how the God we think about may be different from the God to whom we yearn to relate. 

Maggid David Arfa taught a beautiful class on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and environmentalist Rachel Carson and wonder. He brought a variety of short texts (from Rabbi Heschel, and from the tradition writ large -- I especially loved the one from R' Moshe Cordovero about how even a stone contains divinity.) And then we looked closely at a Rachel Carson article and an excerpt from Heschel's work and talked about cultivating awe as a core quality of spiritual practice, and whether awe is enough or whether it's meant to call us into action and relationship, and about what brings us closer to feelings of awe and wonder.

Two of my congregants led a session on different forms of Jewish contemplative practice. One of the practices they offered was a guided meditation that began by urging us to give ourselves the gift of this time during which we can release ourselves from the perceived obligations to "do" things, and instead simply be. Afterward we talked about how that, right there, is the essence of Shabbat. The shift from doing to being (and having that be "enough," rather than the constant striving to accomplish and produce) is what makes Shabbat radical, what makes it meaningful, what makes it a transformative spiritual practice in itself.

As the light of the afternoon waned, I led a session on eit ratzon / time of yearning, featuring niggunim and poetry and teachings about the special emotional and spiritual qualities of the end of Shabbat. I shared teachings about how God's yearning for us and for relationship with us preceded the act of creation itself -- and since creation (tradition teaches) began at sundown preceding the first day, Shabbat afternoon is the time when we and God may most deeply feel our yearning for each other. We sang. I read poems. We spoke about the things we wanted to carry with us from this special day. And then we made havdalah.

My students thanked me afterwards for the gift of a full Shabbat. I don't know whether they understand the extent to which their participation was a gift for me. I know what a whole Shabbat can feel like -- the way time liquefies and changes, the way the heart and soul soften and open -- but most of the time I don't get to live into that experience. Most of the time I don't get the luxury of a full Shabbat, a whole Shabbat that stretches mindfully from sundown to sundown. And most of the time I don't get to have the experience of immersing in a full Shabbat with others who are open to how the flow of Shabbes can open the heart.

I'm intensely grateful to my students and my congregants for their willingness to take the plunge and give themselves over to Shabbat from start to finish... and I'm delighted that people are already starting to brainstorm about how we can do it again! Unlike our other holidays, Shabbat is a transformative experience open to us every single week.  I hope this will turn out to be not the only immersive Shabbaton to take place at my shul, but rather merely the first... and that those who so generously gave themselves over to the experience will come back to do it again, and bring others along with them for the ride next time. 


Waking up, and waking again

32381704706_b95c629574_zOne of the pieces of my work at Congregation Beth Israel for which I am most grateful is our Friday morning meditation minyan. We call it a "minyan" in recognition of the fact that the term can mean both the time of prayer ("I'm going to morning minyan") and the group that prays (a minyan is the quorum of ten adult Jews required by tradition for communal prayer that involves a call-and-response), but it's not a formalized group and there is no formalized prayer -- just sitting in meditation. 

The fact of this standing Friday morning meditation group is one of the things that drew me to CBI, back when my dear friend Reb Jeff was the rabbi and I was just beginning to contemplate whether I might be ready for rabbinical school. I figured, if this were a synagogue where people meditate and are interested in Jewish contemplative practice, it might be a good home for me. (Turns out I was right about that!) I've kept the minyan going since I began to serve the community as its rabbi in 2011. 

Our practice is simple. We begin in silence. After about fifteen minutes I offer a very short teaching, or guided meditation, or practice. (Most recently our practice had to do with cultivating compassion for ourselves and others. Often I offer a meditation designed to help us release the week in preparation for Shabbat.) After another fifteen minutes, we close with a three-breath practice from Thich Nhat Hanh that I learned from my friend and colleague Rabbi Chava Bahle, and with a  niggun. 

I love sitting in companionable silence in our beautiful sanctuary. Sometimes sunlight streams in through the big windows; sometimes snow falls outside. Sometimes we hear the rooster crow next door. And at the end of our practice time, I love opening my eyes and seeing the dear souls who have joined in over the course of the morning. Emerging from contemplative practice can feel like opening my eyes in the morning -- leaving what is almost a dream-state, waking up to a new reality.

And immersing myself in prayer or contemplative practice can feel like a repeated opportunity to wake up. In my experience, spiritual life is characterized by a kind of ebb and flow between wakefulness and sleep. I wake up (to the realities of the world around me, or to my own inner life, or both) and then I fall asleep again, and then I notice that I'm asleep and wake up. Rinse, lather, repeat. Spiritual life is a perennial process of noticing where I have been asleep, and waking up again. And again.

There's a story about the teacher of my teachers, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z"l (of blessed memory) -- actually, it's about one of his children. His daughter asked him, "Abba [Father], when we're asleep we can wake up. When we're awake, can we wake up even more?" (His answer, of course, was yes -- as is mine. We can always wake up even more. Our daily liturgy blesses God Who wipes the sleep from our eyes, and I understand that as a truth both in the physical realm and the spiritual realm.) 

Waking up even from our ostensible wakefulness is part of what spiritual practice is for. Prayer and meditation can help to wake us up -- even if we think we're already awake, we can always wake to deeper truths, to higher levels of reality, to the work we are here to do in the world. (Spiritual direction can also be a tool that helps us wake up to who we are called to be.) I'm grateful to my Friday morning meditation group for their willingness to return and return again to the work of waking up together.

 

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Renewing my relationship with haftarah

31456168932_b7025790ef_zAt the shul where I serve, we don't usually read the haftarah, the reading from the Prophets that in more traditional synagogues is paired with the weekly Torah reading. This decision was made years ago, largely for reasons of attention span and time. People don't want services to be "too long," and generally don't have much patience for lengthy chanted texts in a language that's not the vernacular. 

The downside of this is that my community almost never hears the beautiful melodies of haftarah trope.  The only time I typically chant haftarah is on Rosh Hashanah, and on that day I always chant the traditional blessings before and after the haftarah, too. But in place of the traditional haftarah text I chant a contemporary poetic rendering of the reading for that day, in English, set in that melodic mode. 

Chanting English language poetry in haftarah trope is something I learned from my teacher Hazzan Jack Kessler. He's crafted some beautiful settings of contemporary poetry for use in this way -- and not only contemporary poetry, but also other prophetic texts. I've been blessed to hear him chant the Declaration of Independence in haftarah trope when I've been with my ALEPH rabbinical school community on the Shabbat nearest to the Fourth of July. 

I love this practice for at least two reasons. I love the fact that it keeps the plaintive lilt of this melodic system in our hearts and minds -- especially since this is a melodic system that would otherwise be lost in communities like mine where we don't chant the classical haftarah most of the time. The system of the טעמי המקרא / ta'amei hamikra (the markings on the text that denote snatches of melody, a.k.a. trope) is a fascinating one, and I love the way the trope markings serve to give the text phrasing and nuance. I also love how this practice offers an opportunity to lift up texts, contemporary and otherwise, that serve a prophetic function. As a lover of poetry, I am always delighted by opportunities to uplift poems that might speak to people where they are. 

One of this year's b'nei mitzvah students at my shul expressed an interest in haftarah. We looked at the haftarah reading for her Torah portion, and found it not particularly engaging. So I told her about this practice I learned from Hazzan Jack, and invited her to consider whether there is a contemporary poem that speaks to her. I reminded her that she's heard me chant contemporary poems in haftarah trope before -- a setting of the story of Chanah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, a Marge Piercy poem on the second day.  She did some digging, and came back to me with one of my poems from 70 faces (Phoenicia, 2011) -- the one that goes with her Torah portion. I've set it to haftarah trope, and will work with her on learning it. 

Setting one of my own poems in this melodic system was a moving experience for me. It gave me occasion to reflect on how I phrase the poem when I read it aloud, and how I want the trope marks to "set" the poem musically. And it made me realize that there's no reason for me to limit my English-language haftarah poetry chanting to once a year. I could make a more regular practice of chanting a relevant poem, in the place in the flow of the service where the haftarah goes. I would have to abbreviate somewhere else, of course, in order not to run overtime. Perhaps I'll chant a haftarah poem on weeks when I don't write a d'var Torah, or will shorten p'sukei d'zimrah (the introductory poems and psalms of praise) on weeks when I have a haftarah poem to share. But I love these melodies, and would love to weave them into the consciousness of the community I serve. 

I'm grateful to my b'nei mitzvah student for making this request, which has re-enlivened my desire to renew and reclaim this piece of the tradition in a way that my community can access and enjoy.

 

 

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In this place

C4f767653e18511c3a2ad131b105f7d3In this week's Torah portion, our forebear Jacob is on the run from his twin brother Esau. He lies down with his head on a stone, and he has a dream, or a vision, of a ladder rooted in the earth with its top penetrating the very heavens. On that ladder he sees angels moving up and down continuously, traveling between earth and heaven and earth again. When he wakes, he exclaims "God was in this place, and I -- I did not know!"

I can't think of a more appropriate Torah portion for our New Member Shabbat. As I look around the room at all of your faces, I know that God is in this place for sure.

Finding God in this place is what we're all about. Not only "this place" in the sense of the synagogue building, though we are blessed with a beautiful building and it is easy to feel the presence of the Holy when we gaze through these enormous windows at the willow tree and the mountains.

Some of us find God in this place via davenen, which is to say, prayer. Davenen is a Yiddish word. But the Hebrew word for prayer is להתפלל, which means to judge oneself. Some of us find God here by entering into prayer, and in so doing, coming to know ourselves more deeply. What arises in me as I bless the creator of light this morning? And what will arise in me as I bless the creator of light tomorrow morning, or next Shabbat, or the Shabbat after that? As we pray together, we witness our own subtle movements of soul. As we say and sing these familiar words we connect ourselves with the community and with our tradition, and maybe we find God in that connection.

Some of us find God in this place via service -- not the "service of the heart" that we know as prayer, but service of others. Those who gather here each month to cook meals for homebound seniors as part of our Take and Eat crew find God in dedicating their hands and hearts to feeding the hungry. Those who bring childrens' pajamas to our collection box, so that those who can't afford warm winter sleepwear for their children can rest easy knowing that their kids are safe and warm on the coldest nights... those who bring toys to our gift collection box, so that those who can't afford gifts for their kids this winter can rest easy knowing that there is something for them to give... in serving others here we make this place holy, and maybe we find God in that.

Some of us find God in this place through Torah study. Whether that means sitting here in the sanctuary discussing the weekly Torah portion, or studying a text during the kiddush after services, or participating in our book group, or taking part in our Introduction to Judaism class -- all of these are forms of Torah study, and all of these are doorways to noticing the presence of God.

Look around the room and recognize that God is in this place. God is in this place because we make this place holy with our choices, with our study, with our service, with our prayer. 

One of our tradition's names for God is המקום –– "The Place." God is in every place where people truly meet one another. God is in every place where people pray, and in every place where Torah is learned. We read in the Mishna (Avot 3) that wherever two people gather and study Torah together, the Shekhinah is with them. Shekhinah is one of our tradition's names for the immanent, indwelling Presence of God. Sometimes we experience God as transcendent -- up there, out there, far away, too vast to imagine. And sometimes we experience God as immanent -- right here, with us, even within us. In Torah (Exodus 25) we read ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם -- "Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them." Or maybe it means "Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell within them."

We have made a sanctuary here in northern Berkshire. May it be a place where God dwells with us and within us. May we always wake to the presence of God in this place, in this moment, in this interaction, in this breath. May each of us be a blessing to this congregation, and may this community be a blessing for each of us, now and always.

 

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog. Image by Albert Houthouesen.

 


My latest for The Wisdom Daily: on readiness

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...No matter what I do, I can’t truly be ready to stand before God on Rosh Hashanah and face my own autobiography. I can’t truly be ready to stand before God on Yom Kippur and make complete teshuvah, re/turn myself in the right direction again and relinquish my attachments to my mistakes and my old stories. Here’s the kicker: since I can’t be ready, I have to do it anyway.

This is true with every big life transition: changing career, moving house, marriage, divorce. Even when we think we know what we’re getting into, the truth is that we can never fully know. Even when we think we know who we’re marrying, or why we’re ending a marriage. Even when we do everything we can to prepare for change, we can’t be wholly ready when the change comes....

That's from my latest at The Wisdom Daily: You'll never be ready to grow.


Three moments of Shabbat morning gratitude

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1.

We have set up a circle of chairs behind the synagogue, surrounded by mountains and wetland and field. At the beginning of morning prayer the air is chill, but by the time we reach the bar'chu, the formal call to prayer, some of our folks have scooted their chairs into the patch of shade beside the small cement wall. When they turn east, they turn to face the wall -- and suddenly our little cement wall becomes the Kotel, the Western Wall, in Jerusalem. (It even has little finger-sized holes in it where one could place kvitlach, petitionary prayers!) I will never see that wall the same way again.

 

2.

During the Amidah, the standing prayer which is central to every Jewish service, there is a place (called the Kedusha) where the prayer calls us to imitate the choirs of angels singing "Holy, holy, holy." There is a custom of rising on our tiptoes with every repetition of the word kadosh, holy. As I am singing the Kedusha, a wee plane begins to take off from the tiny North Adams airport in the meadow behind the shul, rising into the sky precisely as we are lifting up onto our tiptoes. It is as though the plane is an angel, being buoyed by our prayers. It is as though we are angels, singing praise up into the sky.

 

3.

We sing Mi Chamocha -- the prayer which our ancestors sang after crossing the Sea of Reeds -- to the melody of "The Water Is Wide," and we intersperse the Hebrew with the words of that folk song. This is a tradition which Rabbi David brings from his synagogue on City Island, and it has become my favorite way to sing that prayer, especially when we're together and can sing it in harmony. The water is wide; I cannot get o'er. But when I know that God is with me -- when I know that I am loved by an unending love -- then whatever comes, whatever life brings, I know I won't have to cross the waters alone.

 


Revising my sermons; revising me

One of the things I talked about last week at Kenyon, with my students who were there to learn how to blog, was the question of whether one is an external or an internal processor. Some people think and ponder and mull and then sit down to write and everything pours onto screen (or paper) fully-formed. Others sit down to write, and as they do, the piece takes shape. The writing is integral to the thinking.

I am an external processor, for sure. I do my best thinking through writing. I suspect that this has always been true -- ever since I started writing in a cloth-bound diary at the age of ten, which I did for years. "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" asked EM Forster. I know the feeling! Of course, revision is always part of my process. But I think best when I have keyboard at hand.

This is one of the reasons why my high holiday sermons go through so many iterations. I start jotting down ideas in early summer -- sometimes a quote, or a thought, or a yearning. Then three of those questions or ideas sprout their own documents, and when I can make the time, I sit down and write. Eventually I have drafts which are the right length -- but that's still only the beginning of my process.

I let them sit. I come back to them a day or a week later and notice, sometimes, that what I had thought was extraneous is actually the heart of the thing. Time to tear it apart and rewrite around that. Or I discover that what I've written would make a fine lecture for a class on a subject in which I am interested, but it isn't a sermon, especially not one for the Days of Awe, this lofty and powerful season.

The stakes feel high. When it comes to many of those whom I serve, this feels like my one chance this year to reach them -- to make them feel something, to awaken something in them, to give them hope and inspiration. And there's a lot going on in high holiday services: melodies we don't hear at other seasons, prayers we don't otherwise recite. Can I cut through that to reach people where they are?

By any ordinary count the journey toward the High Holidays has yet to begin. Some begin with Tisha b'Av, the emotional low point of our liturgical year, and from there count the days up toward Rosh Hashanah. (See, e.g., Rabbi Alan Lew's tremendous This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared.) Some count the 49 days between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah, a reverse Omer.

Some begin their preparations for the holidays at the start of the month of Elul, and dedicate those weeks to a process of internal teshuvah, repentance / return, perhaps focusing especially on relationship with self and with God in order to be able to focus on interpersonal teshuvah during the Ten Days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. (See, e.g., See Me: Elul poems.)

But for those of us who are blessed to be in my line of work -- and I mean that wholeheartedly; I still wake up some days and marvel that I get to do this! -- preparations for the Days of Awe begin months in advance. My community maintains a 90-item to-do list on a wiki page which begins with "seek and find cantor" and ends with "get volunteers to take down the sukkah after Shemini Atzeret."

There are a lot of balls to keep in the air. A lot of cats to herd, if you prefer that metaphor. A lot of details to manage. The danger for me is that I can get so caught up in the details that I don't do my own inner work of preparation. Over these last five years, I've learned that working on my sermons in bits and pieces all summer can be part of my inner work. As I revise them, I'm also revising me.

 


Praying in the nursing home

NursinghomeWhen I arrived at the nursing home with my guitar and a pile of prayerbooks, they kindly gave me a bellhop's cart. Better yet, they provided a staff person who could lead me through the labyrinth to the right elevator which would take me to the hallway nearest to the private dining room. In that room there is a china closet with  wine glasses inside, and a window with a distant mountain view. Aside from the speaker mounted in the corner, periodically blaring announcements, it feels almost like a home.

We'd never done this before -- bringing the service in to the nursing home. I have one congregant there, and he used to be among our most faithful daveners. We've missed him, the last few years as he's been increasingly unable to come to shul. And then his daughters asked whether we could bring shul to him. So we put the word out, and we hung a sign on the door of the synagogue in case anyone dropped by this morning expecting our usual services, and we met in the nursing home instead.

I had brought ten copies of a handout I had prepared, containing a song and a tiny excerpt from this week's Torah portion. I had brought a pile of fifteen siddurim. At first it seemed as though that would be sufficient, but as more and more people arrived, we pulled extra chairs in from the dining hall next door. Eventually people shared prayerbooks and looked on with each other, which had not been intentional on my part, though I think it actually led to a deeper feeling of connection with each other.

We sang as many old melodies as I could come up with, from "Mah Tovu" to "Adon Olam." The music is a carrier wave for the meaning behind the prayers, and I wanted to reach the patriarch who sat with us, eyes closed, clenching his daughters' hands. We touched on every prayer in the morning service, but did some of them in abbreviated form; what I wanted most was for the rhythms and sounds to gently enter our elder's heart. I chanted a bit of Torah and offered a blessing for everyone present.

After the Torah reading I shared a glimpse of the ideas about which I had planned to speak, about the Torah of wholeness and how each of us is a Torah (stay tuned -- I'll post that tomorrow), and then I offered an impromptu teaching about how our ancestors carried in the ark both the second set of tablets and the shattered first set of tablets. From this we learn to cherish not only our wholeness, but also our brokenness. We are precious not only when vigorous, but also when broken by illness or age.

When it was time for the kiddush afterwards we stood in a circle around the refreshments which our patriarch's daughters had provided. We sang the borei pri hagafen blessing over bunches of grapes because we had gotten our wires crossed about who was bringing juice and wine; we sang the borei minei m'zonot blessing over coffee cake because the same miscommunication had meant there was no challah. It didn't matter. All around the room were smiles, and clasped hands, and open hearts.

I love leading services in the sanctuary at my shul. We have an extraordinarily beautiful space, with tall windows looking out over an amazing panorama of wetlands and mountains and meadow. And yet there's something special about bringing our community and our familiar prayers into a setting like this. As a friend noted to me afterwards, praying in this way helps one to realize that the words and the heart behind them are what connects us -- not the building, no matter how beautiful it may be. 

 


Shabbat, technology, and tube socks

It really wasn't my intention to base multiple Hebrew school lessons this year around repurposed undergarments. But sometimes this rabbinic life takes me into places I didn't exactly expect to go. Case in point: yesterday I found myself preparing for my fifth-through-seventh-grade class by standing in line at the local Dollar Store (not my favorite shopping destination, but this time it was suitably affordable for my needs) with a double armful of cheap white tube socks.

I wanted to teach my students about Shabbat. I knew I wanted to begin with a short conversation about who creates holiness, God or us. (Psst: both, together.) I knew I wanted to convey that Shabbat is the holiest day of the year and it happens each week; that on Shabbat, we who are made in God's image rest as Torah teaches that God rested on the seventh day of creation; that Shabbat is a day to stop doing and to just be, to be "human beings" instead of "human do-ings."

In years past, I haven't been wholly satisfied with our conversations about different Jewish ways of understanding the commandment to rest and not do work. One year I taught a lesson about the 39 forms of labor which are traditionally understood to be prohibited on Shabbat, but it was hard to connect those to my students' lived experiences. It's too easy for them to start seeing Shabbat practices as deprivations, instead of as opportunities for connection, holiness, a different state of mind.

I know that most of my students have cellphones. And I'm pretty sure that if I suggested to them that they turn off their phones every Shabbat, they would balk. (As might their parents.) What I wanted instead was to get them thinking not about whether they use technology on Shabbat, but how they use it. For instance: is there a difference between using one's phone to call a friend and connect, vs. using one's phone to play a solitary game which keeps one disconnected from the world?

If nothing else, I thought there might be some interesting fodder for conversation. 

So I decided to make and decorate cellphone bags. Not with an eye toward shaming my kids for using their phones on Saturdays, but with an eye toward shifting how they use those phones on that special day. (And even if they don't actually use the bags most of the time, maybe the act of making them would be a consciousness-raiser.) The challenge was, I don't have a very large education budget, and I didn't want to spend money on fancy cellphone cases which I wasn't even sure the kids would use.

Enter the tube socks.

Continue reading "Shabbat, technology, and tube socks" »


String theory

It's a good thing my rabbinic smicha wasn't contingent on my sewing skills. That was the thought which kept going through my head as I struggled with carefully snipping seams (without snipping fabric), placing careful stitches to keep the seams from unravelling further, and then stitching four squares of folded fabric to make reinforced corners. I am not a seamstress, so this pushed the limits of my sewing capabilities. My stitches are far from beautiful or even. But they're functional, and that's what matters. Then I lined up threads in groups of four -- three short, one long -- and pushed them through the reinforced corners. And then I twisted them and tied them.1 By the time I was done, I had made myself a tallit katan.

Next week I'm going to be teaching my fifth-through-seventh-grade class about the mitzvah (connective-commandment) of tzitzit: wearing fringes on our garments. In theory they should already be familiar with this one. They've seen adults wearing tallitot (prayer shawls) in shul. And every Saturday morning, in the third paragraph of the Shema, we pray the verses which instruct us to place fringes on the corners of our garments in order that we might remember the commandments, and the Exodus from Egypt, and our relationship with God. Here's the way I usually sing them (the translation is designed to be singable to the same trope melody as the Hebrew):

And God spoke to Moses saying: speak to the children of Israel and say to them
that they should make tzitzit on the corners of their garments for all time,
and they shall place on the tzitzit a little thread of blue.
And these shall be for you as tzitzit, that you may look upon them,
that you will remember all of the mitzvot of Adonai and you shall do them,
so that you will not go running after the cravings of your heart
or the turnings of your eyes which might take you into places where you should not be!
So that you may remember and do all of My mitzvot, and be holy like your God.
I am Adonai your God,
the One Who brought you out from the land of Egypt to be your God.
I am Adonai your God!

(These verses are part of Jewish daily prayer too, though most of my students have never experienced weekday davenen.) But just because we sing the words all the time -- even given that I sing these particular words in English to make sure they're understood, and hold up my own tzitzit as a visual aid -- that doesn't necessarily mean that my students have ever paid attention, or thought about what the mitzvah means. I want to change that.

Continue reading "String theory" »


Moments

640px-Omega_pocket_watchThere is only one of me; I can only be in one place at one time. And yet my job calls me to inhabit several moments in time simultaneously. This is the nature of rabbinic work.

On the one hand:  today. This is the day that God has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it! I offer a morning prayer for gratitude, I open up my calendar, I scan to see with whom I am meeting today and what is on my to-do list.

On the other hand: Shabbat. I study this week's Torah portion, I prepare verses to read from the scroll, I think about songs and prayers. I pick up my guitar and my fingers automatically go to the chords for our Shabbat melodies.

On yet another hand: the Days of Awe. Now the machzor is released into the world, and I'm having weekly Skype dates with our student cantor. Every time he sings a line of high holiday nusach, the holidays come rushing in around me like waves.

On another hand still: a funeral which took place many months ago, and the ritual unveiling of the headstone which will take place some months hence. A "then" which is past, and a "then" which hasn't happened yet.

I remember preparing the eulogy for that funeral. I remember standing on the cold winter earth. I imagine what it will feel like to return to that spot with the family to dedicate the stone which marks that spot, which memorializes that life.

One of the names for God which we most frequently use is מלך העולם, melech ha'olam, usually translated as "king of the world" or "sovereign of the universe." But the word olam can mean both space and time (as in l'olam va'ed, "for ever and ever.")

My son sometimes asks me at bedtime where God is, and I tell him that God is everywhere. ("But invisible," my son prompts, and I confirm that yes, he's got that right.) God is also everywhen -- present in every moment. Past, present, and future all at once.

It's my job to be in this moment -- if I am sitting with a congregant for a pastoral conversation, they deserve my full presence. And also to be in that moment, and that other moment -- remembering what has come before; anticipating what's yet to come.


Reflections on a b'nei mitzvah

3260530587_6495049153_nLeading services on a Shabbat when one of our kids is called to the Torah as a bar or bat mitzvah can be an interesting challenge. For one thing, our numbers swell -- from our usual 15-20 to 60, 80, even 100. For another, the people who've gathered for a lifecycle event usually don't all know each other, and they often don't know our melodies, and there are always some -- including the junior high school contingent -- who are not Jewish and perhaps have never been to a synagogue before in their lives.

A particular kind of output of energy is required to lead this kind of kahal (congregation.) In some ways it's more like High Holiday services -- our folding walls folded back, the big sanctuary full of people, my concomitant outpouring of voice and song and self -- than like a "regular" Shabbat morning.

I take pleasure in being able to introduce our liturgy, the rhythms of our prayer, to people (both non-Jewish and Jewish) who may not have much familiarity with these words or the flow of the service. I explain a bit as we go, trying to make sure that my explanations serve as useful guideposts to the service but not obstacles or roadblocks to the way the service needs to flow. I try to make people laugh out loud at least a few times. When I get chuckles from around the room, I know I'm reaching people.

Often I don't know until after the service is over whether it's "worked" for people -- whether it reached them where they are, whether it opened them up to an emotion, whether they are emerging feeling a little bit different than when we began. Often I never find out whether it worked, or for whom. But sometimes after the service people will spontaneously offer me a response, and I treasure those. I love knowing that our morning of worship took someone someplace they maybe didn't expect to go.

Of course, the greatest joy for me is watching one of our kids shine. Watching those years of learning, the hard work of practicing the Torah portion and overcoming the hurdle of reading from an unpointed handwritten scroll, all of the effort that went into preparing a d'var Torah which will teach something about their Torah portion and how it relates to life that they know -- watching all of that pay off. Watching their family kvelling, taking visible pride in their child's lifecycle milestone.

These days I can't help imagining what it will be like when it is our son on the bimah (pulpit). What will his voice sound like at thirteen? What will his sense of humor be like? What will be his passions, his obsessions, to which he will struggle to relate his Torah portion? Will I weep when we offer him blessings? I try not to write scripts. He's only four and a half. We have a long way to go before we get there. I don't want to focus on what's coming and miss what's happening now. But there's a certain sweetness in the anticipation.

Could I have imagined, at my own celebration of bat mitzvah, how much joy I would take in this rabbinic life? I'd like to think that if I could send a message back through time, twelve-year-old me wouldn't be all that startled to hear that this is what I do now, and that I love doing it, every time. I remember aspiring to learn the service well enough that if the rabbi were to call in sick, I would (I imagined) be able to lead the congregation in prayer all by myself. Maybe this is exactly where I was always meant to be.

 

Photo: taken the day before my bat mitzvah. With my maternal grandparents, the rabbi, and the cantor.

 


Spiritual life in the open

Empty-Hospital-BedAt my two most recent poetry readings, during the Q-and-A session, someone has asked me what it's like to live my life so publicly and to expose my heart in my poetry as I do. The truth is, writing poems of miscarriage and healing, or poems of postpartum depression, didn't feel "brave." It just felt ordinary. I make sense of my life through writing. I always have, ever since the adolescent days when I kept a diary in a series of cloth-bound notebooks which I kept proudly on my shelf. Sharing my writing with others who might be walking a similar path has become one of the ways I minister to people around me. I have learned that when I share my experiences (whether sweet or bitter) I feel less alone. And people who read what I write often tell me that they feel less alone when they read my words, too, and that feels like an added blessing.

But I do think a lot about how my openness, particularly my poems of early motherhood, may someday impact our son. I hope and pray that when he is old enough to read Waiting to Unfold, he sees the love which was always a throughline, always present, even when I was struggling to find myself amid the waves of postpartum depression which threatened to drag me down. But I know that as the child of a poet, and the child of a rabbi, he may come to resent the ways in which my openness about my life means that his life is sometimes visible to the outside world, too. Maybe you've noticed that I rarely use his name on the blog anymore -- not because it's a secret, not because it's difficult to unearth, but because I'm becoming conscious that I don't want my life story (in which he is certainly a star!) to overshadow his narrative about himself.

I know that many of you, like me, have been avid readers of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer and Rabbi Michael Sommer's Superman Sam blog. They began the blog when one of their four children was diagnosed with leukemia. They posted there religiously about the ups and downs of his treatment; the blog is where where so many of us, me included, got to know their beautiful family and their extraordinary son Sam, may his memory be a blessing. I admire them for that -- and I admire them even more the way they've continued writing about their journey of grief in the wake of their son's death. When I read their blog now, I see them modeling for all of us how to make our way through the murky waters of grief. They are showing us, by example, how to grieve out loud and how to let other people offer care and love in response. They are living their spiritual lives in the open, and they teach me more than I can say.

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Some of this work's greatest blessings

It is a tremendous blessing to me every time I am able to walk alongside someone who is on the mourner's path.

To sit down in someone's kitchen or living room and let them tell me stories.

To give them a safe space in which to open the faucet and let their memories begin to pour forth.

To keep company with the family as they accompany their loved one as far as they can go.

To invite them into the painful and powerful tradition of shoveling earth onto the casket with our own hands.

To bless them that they should be consoled along with the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, and along with all who mourn.

To walk alongside them, to offer a listening ear and a welcoming heart.

To pray with them, letting the familiar cadences of the mourner's kaddish work in and through them.

To remember how precious this life is, and how unknown is the Mystery which follows.

 

I don't do this work in order to be more mindful of my own life, my own loved ones, but I am always reminded.

I remember how fortunate I am that my own loved ones are still here.

It is sobering to glimpse, at a distance, the path we all walk someday.

 

As Shabbat approaches, may all mourners find comfort. May we welcome them into our communities with kindness and understanding. May we tend their fragility more lovingly than we would tend our own.


A communally-written Al Chet for 5774

My first Jewish Renewal Yom Kippur was at the old Elat Chayyim in Accord, New York in 2004. The retreat was led by Rabbi Jeff Roth (of the Awakened Heart Project) and Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg (who was an utter joy to learn with in rabbinic school -- his classes are probably what I miss most now that I'm a rabbi!) One of the practices which moved me most was a practice of collaboratively writing our own Al Chet prayer.

The Al Chet prayer -- "For the Sins (Which We Have Sinned Against You By....)" -- is a laundry list of places where we have missed the mark in the last year. It's written in the plural (though several years ago I wrote a first-person-singular version, which I still daven sometimes.) We recite it in each of the five services of Yom Kippur. (In a traditional setting, it's recited once silently and once aloud in each service, making ten recitations in total!) By the end of the day, the words can feel somewhat repetitive.

At Elat Chayyim that year, we were each handed index cards before the holiday began. We each wrote down, on those cards, anonymously, ways in which we felt we had missed the mark in the previous year. And at each service, the cards were redistributed anonymously, and we chanted them aloud interspersed with the prayer's familiar refrain. I found it incredibly moving and powerful -- especially because almost everything others had written down was something I could have written, too.

For the last several years, we've adapted this practice at my shul. At Selichot services on the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah, midway through the service, I play quiet guitar music while people anonymously write down places where they've missed the mark, things they feel they need to release in order to reach forgiveness on Yom Kippur. And then, a few days before the holiday, I collect the basket of cards and type up what's in it, and that becomes the Al Chet which our cantorial soloist and I will chant on Yom Kippur morning.

For those who are interested, here's my community's Al Chet for this year. I share it in hopes that it might speak to you, too, and might help this prayer come alive for you in a new way

Continue reading "A communally-written Al Chet for 5774" »


Creating Community (A sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning)


For the building will be constructed from various parts, and the truth of the light of the world will be built from various dimensions, from various approaches, for these and those are the words of the living God... It is the precisely the multiplicity of opinions which derive from variegated souls and backgrounds which enriches wisdom and brings about its enlargement.

That's Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, known colloquially as Rav Kook. Let me say part of that again:

For the building will be constructed from various parts, and the truth of the light of the world will be built from various dimensions, from various approaches, for these and those are the words of the living God...

We might reasonably ask: what is Rav Kook talking about here? What is "the building"?

Often in Jewish tradition when we hear reference to a building, especially when it sounds like it might be a Building-With-A-Capital-B, the text is speaking of the Temple. The first Temple was built in Jerusalem in 957 BCE, and was sacked by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The second Temple was begun some fifty years later; it was sacked by the Romans in the year 70 (C.E).

But Rav Kook is speaking in the future tense, about something which will be built. He might mean the Third Temple -- for which, I should note, the Reform movement officially does not yearn! But the idea of a rebuilt Temple implies a time when the work of perfecting creation will be complete; the messianic era. Perhaps that's what he's speaking of. Perhaps he means Olam ha-ba, the World to Come.

But I don't think he has to be speaking about a literal construction project at all. I think he's talking about Jewish community.

Continue reading "Creating Community (A sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning)" »


The first Shabbat back home

8667917025_bdf841f59d_mIt's always a little bit hard to come home from the ALEPH Kallah. I love home! I love my family; I love my little shul; I love my smalltown life. But there is always a pang, a twinge, at leaving a community of hundreds of dedicated Jewish Renewalniks who care as much as I do about Judaism, about spiritual life, about healing creation.

This past Saturday morning when Shabbat services began we were only two people. I breathed deeply and told my one congregant that even if it were just us, we would have a perfectly sweet service. It's a beautiful July day; people are on vacation; it can be hard to muster a minyan in a small town in high summer. I know this, and it's okay.

But then another couple arrived. And someone else. And someone else. And then just as we were about to reach the amidah, we broke the minyan barrier and were able to daven the amidah aloud, and to read from the Torah scroll. I got to give blessings for the various aliyot. We said prayers for healing. We recited mourner's kaddish in the comforting presence of community.

We had a glorious kiddush, with fresh strawberries and dill crackers. And then we sat around the table and studied the haftarah reading for last week, Isaiah 1:1-27, and talked about theologies of trauma and teshuvah, and about God as the angry parent, and about redemption, and about how prayer doesn't mean much unless we back it up with ethical living.

It was so beautiful and so sweet! We may not have the combined energy of 600 Shabbat-blissed Renewalniks, but what we're doing is cut from the same holy cloth. I'm so grateful to be serving this community. I'm so grateful that this is what I get to do.


Photo by Len Radin.