Longing and belonging (a sermon for Kol Nidre 5775)

 

Do you know what it's like to feel out-of-place? Have you ever walked into a room and felt uncomfortable? Or maybe you can remember, or imagine, standing with a cafeteria tray in your hands and realizing you have no idea which table to sit down at. Maybe it's an experience of walking into a cocktail party and noticing that everyone else seems to know each other. Or you show up at an event in your finest suit, only to discover that you're the only one who didn't know it was a jeans-and-sandals affair.

There is nothing easy or comfortable about feeling as though you don't belong. And it's hard enough to walk into a room full of strangers and feel out of place; it's even more painful to walk into a room of people you know and feel out of place there. To feel like the square peg in a round pegboard. To feel isolated by invisible circumstances, depression or illness. To feel as though you just don't fit.

We have all felt that way.

Have you ever traveled far from home and felt lonely? Been away from your family, or away from familiar settings, and felt alien and alone? Maybe it was your first night away at summer camp. Or a business trip where you found yourself in an anonymous motel. Or your first time traveling abroad in a place where you didn't speak the language and couldn't find your way around. Have you ever been far away and thought, "I just want to go home"?

Or maybe you've felt that way without even going anywhere. Maybe you've yearned to return to childhood when everything was safe and someone else took care of you. Maybe you've wished you could return to the time when your parents or grandparents were still alive. To a moment when things seemed easier. To the time before you had experienced sorrow. Or maybe you've yearned to return to the childhood you didn't have, the one where everything was safe and someone else took care of you. Maybe you've sat in your own home and felt distant from your surroundings, distant from your family, lonely in the midst of a crowd.

We have all felt that way, too. The poet William Stafford writes, in his poem "Great Blue Heron:"

Out of their loneliness for each other
two reeds, or maybe two shadows, lurch
forward and become suddenly a life
lifted from dawn or the rain. It is
the wilderness come back again, a lagoon
with our city reflected in its eye.
We live by faith in such presences.

It is a test for us, that thin
but real, undulating figure that promises,
“If you keep faith I will exist
at the edge, where your vision joins
the sunlight and the rain: heads in the light,
feet that go down in the mud where the truth is.”

Not only everyone, but every thing, in the world feels "loneliness for each other." And, Stafford teaches, if we keep faith -- if we believe -- real connections will exist, "at the edge," rooting us down "in the mud where the truth is."

Continue reading "Longing and belonging (a sermon for Kol Nidre 5775)" »


Before Yom Kippur

Prayer Before Yom Kippur



I now prepare
to unify my whole self—

heart
mind
consciousness
body
passions

with this holy community
with the Jewish people everywhere
with all people everywhere
with all life and being
to commune with the Source of all being.

May I find the words,
the music, the movements
that will put me in touch
with the great light of God.

May the rungs of insight and joy
that I reach in my devotion
flow from me to others
and fill all my actions in the world.

May the beauty of God rest upon us.
May God establish the works of our hands.
And may the works of our hands establish God.


(Rabbi Burt Jacobson)


Yom Kippur begins tonight and will continue through tomorrow night. This year it once again coincides with Shabbat -- the two holiest days of the year, layered atop each other.

May this doubly-holy day offer all of us opportunities for inner work and transformation.

I hope that you can forgive me for my imperfections this past year: times when I wrote something you didn't like, or failed to write about something you consider important; times when I didn't respond to comments or didn't do so quickly enough; times when my writing revealed unconscious racism or was hurtful in other ways.

For my part, I have done my best to let go of my internet-related frustrations from the old year -- the posts and emails and comments which were hurtful or frustrating for me -- and aspire to move into Yom Kippur bearing no grudges, with no cosmic or karmic baggage weighing me down or blocking my journey of teshuvah.

May this Shabbat-and-Yom Kippur be meaningful, real, and sweet. G'mar chatimah tovah -- may we all be sealed for good in the year to come.


Three psalms from Leonard Cohen before Yom Kippur

6.

Sit down, master, on this rude chair of praises, and rule my nervous heart with your great decrees of freedom. Out of time you have taken me to do my daily task. Out of mist and dust you have fashioned me to know the numberless worlds between the crown and the kingdom. In utter defeat I came to you and you received me with a sweetness I had not dared to remember. Tonight I come to you again, soiled by strategies and trapped in the loneliness of my tiny domain. Establish your law in this walled place. Let nine men come to lift me into their prayer so that I may whisper with them: Blessed be the name of the glory of the kingdom forever and ever.

 

19.

You let me sing, you lifted me up, you gave my soul a beam to travel on. You folded your distance back into my heart. You drew the tears back to my eyes. You hid me in the mountain of your word. You gave the injury a tongue to heal itself. You covered my head with my teacher's care, you bound my arm with my grandfather's strength. O beloved speaking, O comfort whispering in the terror, unspeakable explanation of the smoke and cruelty, undo the self-conspiracy, let me dare the boldness of joy.

 

43.

Hep me in the rain, help me in the darkness, help me at my aimless table. Bend me down to the rain, and let the darkness speak to my heart. Blessed are you who speaks from the darkness, who gives a form to desolation. You draw back the heart that is spilled in the world, you establish the borders of pain. Your mercy you make known to those who know your name, and your healing is discovered beneath the lifted cry. The ruins signal your power; by your hand it is broken down, and all things crack that your throne be restored to the heart. You have written your name on the chaos. The eyes that roll down the darkness, you have rolled them back to the skull. Let each man be sheltered in the fortress of your name, and let each one see the other from the towers of your law. Create the world again, and stand us up, as you did before, on the foundation of your light.

 

These can be found in Leonard Cohen's Book of Mercy (McClelland & Stewart, 1984; re-released, 2010.)


A Communal Al Chet for 5775

I experienced my first Jewish Renewal Yom Kippur at the old Elat Chayyim in Accord, New York ten years ago. 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. That year at Elat Chayyim, before the holiday began, we each wrote down the places where we felt we'd missed the mark in the previous year. Then the index cards containing our words were mixed up and re-distributed. When it came time for the Al Chet prayer, we sang each others' words. The intimacy of that experience moved me deeply.

For the last several years, we've adapted this practice at my shul. At Selichot services on the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah I play quiet guitar music while people write down places where they've missed the mark, things they feel they need to release in order to reach forgiveness on Yom Kippur. Some of our Hebrew school kids engage in this same practice during Hebrew school. Then I collect the basket of cards and type up what's in it, and that becomes the Al Chet which our student hazzan and I 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.

(And if you're going to be at CBI on Saturday morning, you might consider not reading any further, so that these words can reach you fresh when we sing them from the bimah...)

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Yom Kippur, Eid, and remembrance of sacrifice

Happy_yom_kippur_1This coming weekend, when my community will be observing the solemn-yet-joyful fast of Yom Kippur, the Muslim community will be celebrating Eid al-Adha, "the feast of the sacrifice," commemorating the story of how Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son and God provided a sheep for the slaughter instead.

Jewish readers may be nodding along in recognition; after all, we read that story just last week at Rosh Hashanah. (In my community, as in many communities, we read the story of the casting-out of Hagar and Ishmael on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and the story of the akedah, the "binding of Isaac," on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.)

Of course, there are differences in how our two traditions have memorialized this shared story. In Torah, the son who was almost sacrificed is clearly named as Yitzchak (Isaac.) In the Qur'anic account the son is not named, though there is a passage in which the son consents to what is to come, which becomes a model for the virtue of gracefully acceding to God's will.

In the class on Islam I took several years ago, I learned that there are Muslim commentators who  taught that the son in question was Isaac, and others who taught that the son in question was Ishmael. Muslim tradition offers support for both viewpoints; Wikipedia notes that

Though it is generally believed by Muslims that Ishmael was the son who was almost sacrificed, among scholars and historiographers of early Islam there is much debate. There are such persuasive arguments for both, that in fact, it is estimated that 130 traditions say Isaac was the son, while 133 say Ishmael.

(If this subject interests you, don't miss Was Abraham commanded to sacrifice Isaac or Ishmael?, which cites a wide variety of Muslim sources on each side of the debate, and also includes both the Torah text and the Qur'an text in English translation.)

I remember learning that classical tafsir (Muslim exegesis / scriptural interpretation) was "polyvalent" -- in other words, it presumed that sacred text naturally supports more than one reading. But as the tradition continued to develop, commentators began to lean toward resolving ambiguities. The Persian scholar al-Tabari (d. 923 CE) argued that the almost-sacrificed son was Isaac. Later commentators, among them al-Tha'labi (11th century CE) and al-Kathir (d. 1373 CE) argued instead that it was Ishmael. Perhaps these later commentators were writing with the intention of further differentiating our communities, and asserting the primacy of their narrative and genealogy over ours.

Today most Muslim sources indicate that the son in question was Ishmael. And Ishmael's willingness to allow God's will to unfold makes him the paragon of islām, the spiritual virtue of surrender or submission to God, from which that religious tradition takes its name. That Arabic word comes from the 3-letter root s/l/m, which connotes peace and wholeness. Peace and wholeness are found when one is able to "let go and let God," to borrow a phrase from the Twelve-Step lexicon.

Over on this side of the family tree, that same root -- ש /ל/ מ -- is at the heart of the word shalom. And our tradition too contains interpretations in which the son indicates his willingness to be sacrificed. (In my Akedah cycle, poem #2 draws on the midrash which depicts Isaac saying to Ishmael that if God were to ask him to be sacrificed he would not object. In that midrash, God promptly replies, 'This is the hour,' and sets the akedah in motion.) I wondered whether that version were influenced by the Muslim telling of the story, in which the son's submission is a central virtue -- but then I realized that Bereshit Rabbah was written down in the 5th century C.E., and Islam began in the 7th century C.E., so the arrow of causality isn't so clear.

(And, of course, on the Christian branch of this family tree, the son's willing submission to the will of the father is exemplified by Jesus' willingness to die on the cross. But that's a whole other post. Maybe I'll manage to write about that before Easter.)

I spoke in my Rosh Hashanah sermon (Children of Sarah and Hagar) about the the Isra'iliyyat, the body of interpretive traditions transmitted during times of close connection between early Muslims and Jews. It seems to me -- in broad generalization -- that during times of tension, both comunities have pulled back from accepting (or even acknowledging) our influences on one another. I'd like to see us instead choose to honor our cross-pollination and interconnection.

UrlOur traditions both hold dear the story which says that God provided a ram for sacrifice in the place of the boy. Jews celebrated that story last week in shul, and will link back to it again at the end of Yom Kippur when we blow a tekiah gedolah on the shofar which reminds us of the ram God provided so that Abraham's son might live. Muslims will celebrate that story this coming weekend, with feasting and prayer and providing food (mutton, from sheep sacrificed in remembrance) for those in need.

In both versions of the story, God sends an animal to stand in for the child. My friend and teacher Rabbi Arthur Waskow has suggested that we can read this story as a divine instruction not to kill our children in the name of faith, but instead to pour our zeal into feeding those who hunger. What might our world look like if every nation could take that instruction to heart?

I am perennially moved by the ways our traditions have shaped and informed each other. To me this is one of the most beautiful things about being a person of faith in the world: exploring the differences and similarities in the ways we tell our sacred stories of encounter with the Infinite, and honoring how others' stories have informed and impacted our own.

To my Jewish readers: g'mar chatimah tovah, may you be sealed for good in the year to come. To my Muslim readers: eid mubarak, a blessed festival to you!

 

Related:


Rabbi Alan Lew z"l on these ten days of teshuvah

For ten days, the gates are open and the world is fluid. We are finally awake, if only in fits and starts, if only to toss and turn. For ten days, transformation is within our grasp. For ten days, we can imagine ourselves not as fixed and immutable beings, but rather as a limitless field upon which qualities and impulses rise up with particular intensity...

These are the words of Rabbi Alan Lew, may his memory be a blessing, in my favorite book to reread at this time of year -- This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation.

For ten days -- ten magical days -- the aseret y'mei teshuvah, "ten days of teshuvah" -- we inhabit a liminal space, a space of in-between-ness. We have entered the Days of Awe through the gate of Rosh Hashanah; we will exit them through the gate of Yom Kippur; but for now, we float in the middle.

For now, if we are fortunate, the experience of Rosh Hashanah (or the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah or the Torah reading or the experience of being with family and friends or the experience of not being with family and friends) has opened something up in us.

If we are fortunate, we are having moments of wakefulness, moments of realizing oh my goodness, this is my life, this is the only life I have. Moments of feeling the urgent tug toward change. Moments of knowing that whoever we have been, whoever we think we are, is not the only way for us to be.

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A transformative Yom Kippur

28285590_a11731b5f8_zI wonder how many of y'all reading this blog now were reading ten years ago when I attended my first Yom Kippur retreat at Elat Chayyim? I had felt for years as though Yom Kippur were eluding me. I could tell that it was supposed to be transformational, but I'd never been able to entirely find my way in. I always came out of it feeling that I wanted more.

And then I went to the old Elat Chayyim for a Yom Kippur retreat, and the experience opened me up. It was everything I had barely dared to dream the holiday could be. From then on, I went on retreat every year for Yom Kippur, until midway through rabbinic school when I began serving others during the Days of Awe instead of going someplace to be filled-up myself.

I took a few minutes this morning to reread my post about that first Jewish Renewal Yom Kippur. I am humbled and moved to discover how many of those teachings have become integral to my sense of what Yom Kippur is and can be. Here are some glimpses:

I learned a new interpretation of the practice of beating the breast during the recitation of missteps: rather than castigating ourselves, we're knocking gently on the heart, asking it to open...

At one point, we went outside to talk individually with God for ten minutes. My insight during that walk was that talking to God from Elat Chayyim is like making a local call! I said as much to the group when we reconvened, to much laughter. The fact of laughter on Yom Kippur surprised and warmed me...

Teshuvah is like climbing a ladder, but the rungs are spaced farther apart than we can reach. We can't reach one rung while remaining safely on the previous one. There's nothing to do but leap...

One of the refrains of the holiday is "On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed." From this we can intuit that while the heart may be solid on Rosh Hashanah (so words can be inscribed on it), it must be soft like wax in order to be sealed on Yom Kippur. So it is incumbent on us to soften our hearts...

Read the whole thing: Yom Kippur at Elat Chayyim (2004.) And thank you, again, dear Reb Elliot and Reb Jeff*, for the immeasurable gifts of that retreat: gifts which are still unfolding for me in my rabbinate, my service, and my experience of the holiday even now.

 

 

Related:

 

*In this case I mean Rabbi Jeff Roth, of the Awakened Heart Project -- not the other Reb Jeff, though I thank Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser for everything he taught me about high holiday prayer and leadership too.

Also: if you have no plans for Yom Kippur and are in (or can get to) New England, there will be an amazing retreat at Isabella Freedman; read all about it. Or, if paying for a retreat is beyond you, you're welcome at my shul, where we do not have tickets; all are welcome.


The sweetness of honey; the gates, open

15345560796_e8d6443d17_nAs a child, I loved being able to drizzle my Rosh Hashanah challah with honey. I remember eating leftover challah toast with honey on the mornings right after the holiday. The golden honey pooling on the rich white bread always seemed deliciously decadent, especially in our Pritikin household. I knew that the honey was a kind of prayer -- "sweet foods for a sweet year." (That's what's behind the custom of dipping apples or challah in honey on Rosh Hashanah.)

But I thought that was a one-time thing. Honey on challah, honey on apples: we ate those on the holiday itself, and then maybe for a few days until the Rosh Hashanah challot were nothing but crumbs. I didn't learn until I was in my mid-thirties that there are customs of continuing to eat honey on one's challah, and praying for a year of sweetness, until Shemini Atzeret.

Shemini Atzeret means "the pause of the eighth day." It's the 8th day of the 7-day festival of Sukkot, the day when (tradition says) after we've lived seven days in our sukkot, God murmurs "this has been so sweet; don't go yet; linger just a little longer?" So we stick around and celebrate one more day of festival together. And though we read during the closing service of Yom Kippur that "the gates (of repentance) are closing," some hold that they remain open until we reach Shemini Atzeret. Hence the tradition of continuing to put honey on our challah all the way until then.

I love the feeling of urgency which comes during the last service of Yom Kippur. The day is almost over; the long day of fasting and prayer and song is almost gone; and what has it gained me? Have I gone deep enough into the liturgy and into my own heart and soul? Is it going to change me? I want to be compassionate and kind to everyone I meet, I want to be mindful -- but have I done the inner work I need to do? The gates are closing, the liturgy tells us. The day is passing. We pray the whole closing service with the doors of the aron kodesh, the holy ark which contains our Torah scrolls, open to remind us that the gates are open and the way to God is open. The sun goes and turns.  Let us enter Your gates!

I appreciate that urgency. (I think I need it. Every year when we reach Ne'ilah, that closing service, it lifts me to a place I couldn't have reached otherwise.) But I also appreciate the teaching that the gates remain open during this whole holiday season -- that we can still sweeten our bread with honey, an embodied prayer for a sweet year to come, until Sukkot is drawing to its close. Even after the dramatic end of Yom Kippur with its long and piercing tekiah gedolah, the gate of teshuvah (repentance / return) remains open to us.

When we make teshuvah, we sweeten the year to come. Not because we gain any control over what's ahead, but because we've created a shift in ourselves which will allow us to experience more sweetness. That's the message I hear in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer which we sing on the days of awe each year. Who will be contented, and who will be restless? Who will be healthy, and who will be sick? We can't know what the new year will hold. But when we practice teshuvah, tefilah (prayer), and tzedakah (giving to others), we can ameliorate whatever is to come, because we create change in ourselves. We can't change what will be, but we can change how we experience whatever comes our way.

Of course, teshuvah doesn't happen only during this time of year. Teshuvah can be an every day journey, an every-week journey, an every-month journey. And I believe that God is always waiting with open arms, ready to welcome us with love, any time we turn away from our misdeeds and try to orient ourselves in the right direction again. Our liturgy teaches that "we are loved by unending love," and that's always true, not only during the holidays.

So what does it mean to say that the "gates" are open, or closing, or closed? Maybe the gates are our own. Maybe they are the gates of the season. Once we make it to the end of Sukkot, we will be spiritually worn-out from the intense emotions and intensive holiday journey of this time of year. We will need to close the door on this chapter and move into what's coming. We can't live all year in this state of heightened intensity. We are the ones who close the gates.

The gates which are now open are the gates of our hearts and souls. What do we want to draw forth from ourselves as we move through these gates? When the time comes for us to close the gates on this season, who do we want to have become?


Children of Sarah and Hagar (a sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 1, 5775)

 

The story I want to tell you begins on the final day of a retreat for spiritual leaders. We'd been asked to pair up and share a favorite spiritual practice.

My partner and I sat facing each other, our knees almost touching. I told her about my favorite prayer, the modah ani prayer of gratitude. I try to focus on these words first thing in the morning: if not the very first thing which comes to mind when our son wakes me, then at least the first conscious thought I summon into my mind. "I am grateful before You, living and enduring God. You have restored my soul to me. Great is Your faithfulness!" I love the modah ani because it reminds me to cultivate gratitude.

My colleague took this in, nodding. And when it was her turn to speak, she told me that her relationship with the words of formal prayer has shifted and changed over the years. Sometimes the words allow her to speak from her heart; other times the words may feel hollow, or her relationship with the words may feel complicated. (I can relate to all of those.) But the prayer practice which she cherishes most, she told me, is non-verbal. Her most beloved spiritual practice is prostration, which her tradition calls her to do five times a day.

This conversation took place on a Retreat for Jewish and Muslim Emerging Religious Leaders. I particpated in this retreat as a rabbinic student. This summer I went back as an alumna facilitator.

When my new friend told me about her favorite prayer practice, I felt an immediate spark of recognition. Jews prostrate in prayer, too. Though unlike our Muslim cousins, we only do it during the Days of Awe.

Y'all have known me for a while now, so you're probably aware that I love words. As a writer, as a poet, as a liturgist, as a rabbi, as a scholar: words are at the heart of everything I do. And yet the power of our annual moments of prostration, for me, lies not in the words but in the embodied experience.

If you practice yoga, and have relaxed gratefully into child's pose, you've had a flicker of this experience. If you have ever curled into fetal position and clutched yourself close, literally re-membering the position each of us once held in the womb, you've had a flicker of this experience.

But prayerful prostration is something a bit different from each of these. It's a visceral experience of accepting that there is a power in the universe greater than me. Of acknowledging that I am not truly in charge. There is something in the cosmos greater than I am, a force of love and connection which we name God, and in prostration I place myself in the palm of God's hand.

As we sing in Adon Olam:

ּבְיָדֹו אַפְִקיד רּוחִי, ּבְעֵת אִיׁשַן וְאָעִיָרה.
וְעִם רּוחִי ּגְוִּיָתִי, יְיָ לִי וְֹלא אִיָרא.

"Into Your hands I entrust my spirit, When I sleep and when I wake; And with my spirit, my body, too: You are with me, I shall not fear." I love that on our holiest days of the year, the days when we might feel the most wound-up, our tradition reminds us of the profound gift of letting go. And when we do so, we get a glimpse of what our Muslim cousins have the opportunity to feel five times a day.

I find this ancient practice very powerful. And it's always resonant to me that we do this on the first day of Rosh Hashanah: the day when our Torah reading tells the story of Sarah's jealousy and the casting-out of Ishmael and Hagar.

Continue reading "Children of Sarah and Hagar (a sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 1, 5775)" »


New poem: the story of Chanah

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, our haftarah reading -- the assigned reading from the later books of the Hebrew scriptures -- is the story of Chanah, from the book of First Samuel. For the last few years I've offered the haftarah as a storyteller telling a story. This year I'm sharing a poem instead. The poem draws substantially on classical midrash about Chanah. I hope it speaks to you.

 

Chanah Speaks


We didn't marry for love
but Elkanah (whose name
means "God is zealous")
had kind eyes and gentle hands
and I was not afraid.

How he'd learned
the ways of the marriage bed
I never asked.
We came to know each other
and came

to know each other again
and I walked around town
smiling that secret
newlywed smile.
Until the day I bled.

Regret pierced my heart.
But at the mikveh the women said
it can take a few weeks
don't panic, keep trying.
But I bled again.

And again. And then the moon
waxed and waned
and I stayed intact
and our hearts skipped like lambs --
and then I woke to blood.

The women stopped
meeting my gaze
at the mikveh, fearful
of my barren womb.
As if my eye meant harm.

Continue reading "New poem: the story of Chanah" »


Praise for Days of Awe

I've received some lovely feedback on Days of Awe: the Velveteen Rabbi's Machzor for the Yamim Nora'im. One of the most generous responses has come from reviewer Susan Katz Miller, who writes:

RtoLHalfCover-smallMeanwhile, many of the most progressive Jewish communities have been working to create services that will honor tradition, while also breathing new life into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (as well as all the rest of the days in the Jewish calendar). One of those visionaries is Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, an accomplished poet and Jewish Renewal rabbi often known by her blogging moniker, The Velveteen Rabbi. This year, Rabbi Rachel has published (with Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser) a gorgeous new Machzor (the prayerbook specifically for the High Holidays). Days of Awe inspires with new translations, lively illustrations, and poetry that avoids platitudes. Along with her own marvelous poems, she includes poems from Yehuda Amichai, Leonard Cohen, Marie Howe, David Lehman, Alicia Ostriker, Omar Khayyam, Phillip Schultz, Hannah Szenes, Herman Taube, and Rumi. The translations and interpretations come from rabbis including Shlomo Carlebach, Jill Hammer, Burt Jacobson, Marcia Prager, Rami Shapiro, David Shneyer, Hannah Tiferet Siegel, and the much-beloved Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of Jewish Renewal.

In addition to infusing the services with carefully curated poetry and translations, this prayerbook invites and welcomes all (interfaith, disaffected, seeking) by explaining the sense and structure of the services. For instance, the repetition of the Kaddish through the services can seem bewildering and stultifying. Rabbi Rachel stops to explain that the Kaddish acts as a door to mark the transition to each new section of the service, and her Machzor illustrates this concept with a series of lovely photographs of different doors inserted with each recurrence of the Kaddish...

I expect Days of Awe will...exert an influence throughout the increasingly diverse and complex Jewish world.

You can read Susan's review at her blog: High Holy Days: Now With Great Poetry! (Susan is author of Being Both, which I wrote about last year.)

Meanwhile, in addition to kvelling at kind responses like Susan's, I'm also collecting edits for an eventual second edition of the machzor. This is the first year that this machzor will be used anywhere (to the best of my knowledge, it's being piloted in three congregations across the United States, as well as possibly in a small havurah in Thailand), and I am looking forward to collecting feedback so that I can improve it for a second edition. Stay tuned for more on that as the new year unfolds.

 


New year's card

DEAR GOD

ElulCardPhotosSpiritual life unfolds
    in staccato bursts of prayer:
        @God thanks, help, please.

Do You miss the measured curves
    of pen and ink on cardstock,
        our prescribed correspondence

each morning, picture postcard
    every afternoon, night's letter
        brief but complete? I do too.
    
But I trust Your mailbox opens
    to these ad hoc forms,
        praise You for gifts tucked

in the folds of my days:
    the cat's rusty purr, scent
        of candy-colored Play-Doh,

boy leggy as a flamingo
    bouncing on our bed at dawn.
        Teach me to listen like You

with endless love. Grant me
    another year to practice.
        Unfurl my heart's armor.

Comfort, please, the sick;
    console those who mourn
        open the faucet of blessings.

In return I'll turn
    toward You like a sunflower.
        Ever grateful for Your ear,

bent to hear
    what I need to say.
        Here's to the year.

 

 

לשנה טובה תכתבו ותחתמו

May you be inscribed for a good and sweet year!

with love,

Rachel (Barenblat), Ethan (Zuckerman), and Drew

 

(For those who are so inclined, here's a link to my archive of new year's card poems...)


Announcing a hardback edition of Days of Awe

As of summer 2015, the hardback edition is no longer available. Liturgical development is an iterative process; I would rather release the machzor as a digital file or a paperback book than as a hardcover book. Apologies to anyone who wanted a hardcover edition!

 


A few people have asked, so I also want to add -- there are also other Jewish Renewal machzorim which are fantastic. I'm particularly fond of the New Kehilla Machzor edited by Rabbi David Shneyer and Machzor Kol Koreh edited by Rabbi Daniel Siegel. (You can see an excerpt from Kol Koreh in this post from Reb Daniel: Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot.)

Days of Awe was designed with the needs of my own community in mind, and I'm thrilled that it's being used in a few other communities this year as well -- but if you are interested in Jewish Renewal prayerbooks or in machzorim in general, I commend to you both New Kehilla and Machzor Kol Koreh. With machzorim, as with everything else, there's no single way to "do Renewal."

Enjoy!


Announcing Days of Awe

 


RtoLHalfCoverIntroducing...

Days of Awe

a machzor / high holiday prayerbook

for the Yamim Nora'im (Days of Awe / High Holidays)

edited and assembled in the transdenominational spirit of Jewish Renewal

Featuring liturgy both classical and innovative; translations both faithful and creative; original artwork and photographs intended to stir the soul; teachings from Rabbis Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Burt Jacobson, Rami Shapiro, Hanna Tiferet Siegel, and many others; and powerful poetry by poets ranging from Yehuda Amichai to Marie Howe, David Lehman to Alicia Ostriker.

6 x 9

348 pages

Cover art by Natalia Moroz

Edited and assembled by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

with Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser

 

$7.53 bound L-to-R (like an English book) at Amazon

$8.46 bound R-to-L (like a Hebrew book) at Lulu

If your congregation is interested in a bulk order, email me and we can talk about how to make that work.

 

About the project

For many years now, we at Congregation Beth Israel have used a looseleaf machzor created by Reb Jeff (a.k.a. Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser) called B'Kol Shofar. And also for many years, I've been supplementing that machzor with handouts, additions, and extra pages. A few years ago I began writing and collecting High Holiday material -- poems, prayers, different renderings of classical liturgy -- with the hope of compiling a machzor which would incorporate both the basic framework and many transliterations and translations from B'Kol Shofar which have become familiar and beloved to me and to our community, and all of the new material I've been collecting, hopefully stitched together with an invisible and light editorial touch.

As I worked on this project, I had a few goals in mind:

  1. I wanted the machzor to be visually beautiful. Days of Awe features original artwork and photographs (some contributed by artists from my congregation, among them photographer Len Radin, artist Heather Levy, and papercut artist Anna Kronick; some from other artists, among them woodcut artist Loren Kantor, soferet Julie Seltzer, printmaker and jewelry artist Jackie Olenick, and rabbinic student Salem Pearce)  as well as what I think is a pleasing and readable layout.
  2. I wanted the machzor to sparkle with great poetry. Days of Awe features poems by a wide range of amazing poets, among them Yehuda Amichai, Alicia Ostriker, Myra Sklarew, David Lehman, Philip Schultz, Judy Chicago, and Rumi as translated by Coleman Barks. (It also features some of my own poetry.)
  3. I wanted the machzor to be user-friendly. Days of Awe features transliterations of everything which my community does aloud (and then some), and translations of absolutely everything, along with clear directions on where to turn next. Whether you're a lifelong high holiday afficionado or attending your first Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur service, this book will help you through.
  4. In classic Jewish Renewal spirit, I wanted the machzor to blend tradition with innovation. Days of Awe pairs traditional text (much of what you would find in any machzor, including of course cherished prayers like Unetaneh Tokef and Avinu Malkeinu) with new liturgy both in Hebrew and in English (including rabbinic pastor Shayndel Kahn's Aleinu, Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel's Hashkivenu, and Rabbi Goldie Milgram's Psalm 150.)
  5. I wanted the machzor to be inspiring. Days of Awe features deep holiday teachings from Rabbis Jill Hammer, Burt Jacobson, Marcia Prager, Rami Shapiro, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, David Seidenberg, and others.

Days of Awe was created with the needs of my own community in mind, but I hope that it will suit other communities as well, and I'm honored that a few other communities are already planning to use it for their high holiday services this year.

 

Not-for-profit labor of love

Days of Awe is a not-for-profit endeavor, a labor of love given freely to my local community and to the Jewish world at large. I'm a proponent of remix culture, and I believe that every new prayerbook is at heart a remix, bringing a beloved old text into renewed life.

Over the last few years I've contacted the poets, artists, and liturgists whose work I hoped to include, and received their permission to use their work in this way, as long as I kept to my intention of selling the book at cost. No profit is made: I'm charging exactly what it costs to print and bind. A list of sources / credits appears at the back of the book, so you can see which artist is responsible for each illustration and photograph and piece of calligraphy, and so you can look up the source for each written poem or meditation.

This project has consumed an uncountable number of hours over the last few years. I am so proud of the end results, and so pleased to be able to share them with all of y'all. If you use the machzor, either in your community or at home alone, please let me know what it's like for you -- I welcome feedback of all kinds.

Available at Amazon $7.53 L to R binding (paperback) | Available at Lulu $8.46 R to L binding (paperback)

 

 


Seasonal

PodA kind of emptiness comes at the end of this long cycle of holidays. After challah and honey, feasting and fasting, services upon services upon services. Just listing the names of all of the observances of the last few weeks tires me out again.

Sometimes memory telescopes in a way that makes far things seem near. At this moment in the year, though, I tend to find that it works the other way around. Things which happened not so long ago feel like ancient history. That first dinner, on the cusp of Rosh Hashanah...? It was another eon.

In a way, in Jewish time, it was another eon. That dinner was before we ushered in the new year. That was 5773, relegated to memory now. I like the fact that I spent my last hours of the old Jewish year sitting around a table with my family, eating and talking and being together.

I went for a walk  few days ago. I didn't have the energy to contemplate driving someplace particularly beautiful or noteworthy, so I walked up and down our driveway a few times. It's a long driveway, and parts of it are steep. I paused from time to time to take photographs, working at reminding myself that even mundane places are worthy of attention.

I don't know what these seed pods are, but I find them strangely beautiful. I feel a little bit like these pods right now: burst open, after the pressures of all of these rituals and services and prayers. The silky stuff of my heart exposed under the early autumn sky.

Continue reading "Seasonal" »


Six jewels from this year's Days of Awe

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Marveling at how the evening's storms gave way to an incredible glow of post-storm late-evening light.  Making havdalah and then singing the songs of Selichot with my community on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah. With my mother present, too -- an extra-special gift, to see her there in our small sanctuary, looking impeccably-put-together, and enthusiastic about experiencing Selichot at our sweet smalltown shul. (It's a bit more formal where she usually goes.) That night I got to play my new guitar, and to debut my beautiful new white High Holiday tallit. The feel of the fabric and the wood under my fingers. The way my heart settles back into the well-worn groove of these words and these melodies. As Elul draws toward its close, this is the first real step on the High Holiday journey.

 

2.

Sitting on the floor of the sanctuary with our visiting cantorial soloist (rabbinic student David Curiel) and his wife Amberly and their almost-one-year-old daughter, on the day which would become erev Rosh Hashanah. It was midafternoon, a few hours before the holiday, and we had just rehearsed a few melodies, and we caught a moment together to play with the baby and just be together before the festival began. The synagogue was empty except for us. The chairs were all set up, beams of sunlight poured through the windows, and everything seemed to vibrate with silent anticipation.

 

Nibbles3.

Joining my family for a festive meal Rosh Hashanah services on the eve of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. We sang the usual round of blessings for candles, wine, challah, apples. And then as we were about to move on to dinner, our son piped up, "Mommy! You forgot to bless ME!"

Of course: every Shabbat he receives the priestly blessing after we bless candles, wine, and challah. How could he have known that this is a Shabbat custom and not a Rosh Hashanah one? Nu: a new family custom was born on the spot. I placed my hands on his head and gave him kisses as I offered the blessing he knows so well. Let him begin the new year, as he begins every Shabbat, knowing that he is blessed and that he is loved.

 

4.

Interstitial time: hanging out with my family at the house my parents rented in Williamstown. Sitting on the deck with my parents and with my sister and her family, watching my son play with her kids, enjoying fabulous chopped liver on good wholegrain crackers (our son preferred the crackers plain) and sipping white wine in the beautiful cool northern Berkshire late summer evening. Having the spaciousness to just be together, talking about everything under the sun.

 

Kippah5.

Standing with our hazzan before the open ark at the start of Ne'ilah, the closing service. We had just spent five minutes making wordless niggunim out of many of the melodies of the Days of Awe, as people came up before the open ark to quietly whisper whatever they most needed to say to God. Then I put down my guitar and we moved into the closing stretch of the final service, which began with the final repetition of the Thirteen Attributes.

The lights were off: the room was lit only by the ark lights, the flickering yahrzeit candles, and the setting sun. I had just reconciled myself to the fact that though it had been a beautiful holiday, and I could feel that we had done a good job of leading davenen and channeling what we wanted to channel, it seemed that I wasn't going to get my own intense experience of connection with God. In that moment, I was okay with that.

And then we started singing "Adonai, Adonai, merciful and compassionate," and I closed my eyes, and suddenly I was weeping as I sang. My whole heart broken right open. God, God, full of mercy and compassion! Even in our worst moments, the times when all we can feel is failure and sorrow, God's endless mercy and compassion are open to us. I can't quite verbalize it now. But it opened my heart right up. And I was so grateful. I feel so blessed.

 

6. 

Breaking my fast, as has become my custom, the way my grandfather Eppie used to do: with a nip of ice-cold vodka. One of my congregants (the one who leyns Jonah, blows shofar, and arranges our break-the-fast) brought the bottle of Absolut forth from the shul freezer and we raised our wee cups. "To the memory of your grandfather," he offered, "and the memory of mine, too." Nasdrovie! The liquid was cold fire going down; it spread to my fingertips, warming me. And then a few other congregants came up to me during the break-the-fast, asking, "where's the vodka in memory of your grandfather?" (So I brought it out of the kitchen and into the social hall, where others partook as they so chose.) That warmed me, too: the realization that this community which never knew Eppie thinks of him now every year as Yom Kippur ends, as do I.


Isaiah, Trayvon Martin, and Yom Kippur (A sermon for Yom Kippur morning)

Several weeks ago, on the Shabbat morning immediately before Tisha b'Av, I sat down at the table in our social hall to study Torah with those who had joined us for services. We studied the haftarah reading assigned to that particular Shabbat, which comes from the prophet Isaiah, just like our assigned reading for today.

Here is a taste of the haftarah we read together that morning:

Why do you make sacrifices to Me? says your God.
I am overfull with burnt offerings; I take no delight in bloodshed.
Bring no more vain offerings. They are hateful to Me.
New moon and Shabbat when you gather --
I can't bear the iniquity of this community.
I hate your new moons and your appointed festivals.
They are a burden to Me. They weary Me.
When you spread out your hands in longing, I will hide My eyes.
When you call out in prayer, I will not hear.
Your hands are bloody with wrongdoing.
Wash yourself, make yourself clean: put away your evil acts before My eyes.
Turn from evil and do good.
Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, tend to the fatherless, plead for the widow.
Come now and let us reason together, says God.
Though your sins be scarlet, they will become white as snow.
Though they are red as blood, they will become white as clean wool.

"I hate your new moons and your appointed festivals." I tremble every time I read that passage. Because I love our new moons and our appointed festivals! I love how our tradition teaches us to mark time, to pursue spiritual transformation and teshuvah. Of course, today we offer prayers, not animals. But what I hear Isaiah saying is: because our hands are bloody with wrongdoing, God is sickened by our worship. As one of the people sitting around the Torah study table put it, on that Shabbat morning before Tisha b'Av: if we aren't also pursuing justice, our rituals are meaningless. Worse than meaningless, because they delude us into thinking that spiritual life is "enough" even if our world is unjust.

I love our rituals. I have made it my life's work to try to connect people, through those rituals and texts and practices, with God. But I hear Isaiah's words, and I know that he is right.

There's a visible tension here between priest and prophet. In antiquity it was the job of the priests to keep Temple sacrifices going, to make atonement for the people through appropriate slaughter and prayer, to maintain and lubricate the flow of blessing into the world through their service in the Temple. And it was the job of the prophets to speak truth to power. To say, what y'all are doing isn't enough; God demands more of us. God demands justice and right behavior. If you don't act justly, then it doesn't matter one bit whether you're doing the sacrifices the way you were taught. The sacrificial system isn't enough.

In our Jewish lives today there exist neither priests nor prophets. The priestly system came to its end when the second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 C.E. The end of prophecy is slightly harder to pin down, though the mainstream Jewish answer is that the era of prophecy came to an end even earlier.

We have neither priests nor prophets in today's world. But I don't think that means that the work they used to do is no longer necessary. On the contrary: I think it's our job, all of us, to be both priest and prophet for ourselves and for those around us. It's incumbent on all of us to sustain the rituals which keep our community life flowing smoothly -- and also to hear God's call for justice.

Three days before Tisha b'Av I sat with a group of y'all here and we talked about Isaiah's furious words. Two days before Tisha b'Av, we learned that George Zimmerman had been acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin.

Continue reading "Isaiah, Trayvon Martin, and Yom Kippur (A sermon for Yom Kippur morning)" »


Yom Kippur and Shabbat: Lightning and Light (A sermon for Kol Nidre)


This summer, for the first time, our son has been afraid of thunder and lightning. I can't blame him for that. Thunder and lightning can be scary. Especially when you are small, and you don't remember ever having experienced them before. At times like those, even the comforting presence of your stuffed animals isn't enough: you need a parent to cuddle you and tell you everything's going to be okay.

So that's what I do. I tell him it's all going to be okay. I tell him it's only thunder, it's only lightning, it's not going to hurt him. When the lightning flashes, I tell him it's the clouds playing with their flashlights, just like he does. When the thunder cracks and rolls, I tell him it's the clouds playing their drums.

This is probably proof, if proof were needed, that I am a poet and not a scientist. I think in metaphors. We have friends who teach their kids about electrical charge building up in the clouds. I make up stories about the clouds having parties with their flashlights and their drums.

I did learn something extraordinary about lightning this summer, though.

And because they say the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else, I'm going to share it with you now. Here is what I learned about lightning, in a class on kabbalah and quantum physics which I took with R' Fern Feldman and Dr. Karen Barad at the ALEPH Kallah:

In a stormcloud, air molecules become polarized. The negatively-charged ions cluster at the bottom of the cloud, and the positively-charged ones cluster at the top.

You know how if you hold two magnets near each other, the ends which have the same charge will push each other away? The same thing happens with the stormcloud and the earth. The negative ions at the bottom of the cloud push the negative ions in the ground further into the ground, because like repels like.

The negative ions in the earth sink down low, moving away from the cloud. So the surface of the earth becomes positively charged. Now the earth and the cloud are charged in opposite directions: positive earth, negative cloud.

Here's the wild part: as the cloud sends electricity down, the earth sends electricity up. Before the lightning ever comes down from the cloud, the cloud is reaching down with its negative ions and the earth is reaching up with its positive ions.

If you look at time-lapse photography of lightning, this is what you see: the cloud sends little rivulets of light downwards, and the earth sends rivulets of light upwards. They are reaching for each other. And when they connect, most of the light goes up.

The moment I learned this, I thought about spiritual life. I thought of the story from Torah about Jacob camping out for a night and dreaming about a ladder with feet planted in the earth and a top stretching into the very heavens, with angels going up and down the ladder in constant motion. One of my favorite teachings asks: it makes sense for angels to be coming down the ladder from heaven to creation, but what's with the angels going up? And the answer is: the angels going up are our prayers. When we pray, our prayers become angels which ascend this cosmic ladder, and in response, blessings come pouring back down.

Continue reading "Yom Kippur and Shabbat: Lightning and Light (A sermon for Kol Nidre)" »


About lighting yahrzeit candles tonight

US_Navy_070426-N-4965F-003_Six_memorial_candles_are_lit_during_a_Holocaust_Remembrance_Day_ceremony_at_Sharkey_Theater_on_board_Naval_Station_Pearl_HarborAs our congregational administrator and I were setting up a table for tonight with a bunch of memorial candles, little folded index cards where people can write the names of those they're remembering, and boxes of matches, it occurred to me that not everyone is familiar with the custom of lighting a yahrzeit candle before Kol Nidre. So I very quickly pulled a few explanatory paragraphs together, printed them and put them in a pretty frame, and stood that frame up on the table with the candles.

I mentioned this on Twitter, and Emily Hauser suggested that I share this here, since some of y'all who read this blog might find merit in it. So here it is. It's necessarily brief; I could say a lot more! But for the moment, this will have to do. If you're lighting a candle tonight but weren't sure why, maybe this will shed some metaphorical light. And if you weren't planning to light a candle, but you have some beloveds who have died, perhaps this will inspire you. (And if you don't have any special yahrzeit candles on hand, you can light whatever you do have. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.)

(For more on yizkor, the memorial service, stay tuned -- I'll have a post on that when we reach Shemini Atzeret. The image which illustrates this post comes from the Wikipedia entry on Yahrzeit candles.) G'mar chatimah tovah / may you be sealed for good in the year to come!

About Lighting Yahrzeit Candles Tonight

Our tradition calls us to light yahrzeit (year-anniversary) candles on the anniversary of a loved one's death and also just before sundown on the eve of Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Pesach, and Shavuot: the four times when the Yizkor (memorial) prayers are recited.

You can light a yahrzeit candle for anyone you are remembering. Traditionally we light them for parents, spouses, siblings, and children, but you can also light one for a friend, grandparent, or anyone else whom you want to remember at this season.

There are no special prayers or blessings which must be recited while lighting a yahrzeit candle. Lighting the candle presents a moment to remember the deceased or to spend some time in introspection.

In the book of Proverbs (chapter 20 verse 27) we read "the soul of a person is the candle of God." Our tradition has long regarded flames as evocative of our souls. Like a human soul, a flame must breathe, change, grow, strive against the darkness and, ultimately, fade away.

May the candles we kindle tonight in memory connect us with those we have loved and lost, and may their memories heighten and enrich our experience of Yom Kippur.


As we approach Yom Kippur

Please_forgive_me_by_geekindisguise-d4rv291This late afternoon / early evening we'll enter into Yom Kippur and into Shabbat.

These aseret y'mei teshuvah (Ten Days of Re/Turning) have been chock-full of preparations in every realm: from the physical (setting up chairs, preparing for tomorrow night's break-the-fast) to the emotional (weathering the emotional rollercoaster of actually making teshuvah), the intellectual (finishing touches on those sermons!) to the spiritual and ineffable.

I wish I had the spaciousness to reach out to each one of you individually to ask your forgiveness for any ways in which I have missed the mark in our relationship in the last year. As it is, this blog post will have to do.

I know that I have missed the mark over the last year. If my words or deeds have caused you pain, I hope that you can forgive me.

Please know that I likewise extend forgiveness to you. If your words or deeds have wounded me, I affirm that I am doing my level best to forgive. I will not carry relationship snarls or tangles from the old year into the new one.

May we all emerge on the far side of Yom Kippur feeling lightened and cleansed. Shabbat shalom and g'mar chatimah tovah -- may you be sealed for good in the year to come.

 

Image source: geekindisguise on deviantart.