Second edition of Days of Awe

RtoLHalfCoverLast year I released a pilot edition of Days of Awe, a machzor (high holiday prayerbook) for the yamim nora'im (days of awe.) It was used in three communities that I know of, one of which is the community I am blessed to serve.

The book had a team of proofreaders, and had gone through more than 30 printed revisions before I released it, but I knew that once it was used in realtime -- "pray-tested," as it were -- I would find things which needed to be updated.

Sure enough, I found things I wanted to fix. And I discovered a few places where I wanted to add material for the second edition. In January of 2015 I began revising. A native Hebrew speaker helped me better proofread the Hebrew.

I included a new aleinu variant, and a Shaker-inspired Ahavah Rabbah. (I learned both of these from Rabbi David Ingber of Romemu.) I replaced some art which hadn't printed well with new art which reproduces better.

I added more poetry. Some is my own (like the trio of new poems for the shofar service, inspired by teachings from Rabbi Daniel Siegel and from Reb Zalman z"l), some is by other writers. I added a second option for the Torah blessings, so that people now have the option of the classical wording or a more inclusive variation. Throughout, I kept the pagination the same as the pilot edition so it can be used alongside the pilot edition if needed.

I made about 50 changes, based on my own impressions of leading davenen with this volume, my student hazzan's impressions, and the feedback I received from those who used the pilot edition last year both inside and outside my own community. The second edition is now available: bound L to R (like an English book) at Amazon, and bound R to L (like a Hebrew book) at Lulu.

I'm happy to make the source files available if you want to print and bind your own copies (or use it on an e-reader)... with two stipulations: 1) Please don't sell the books anywhere at a profit, since the rabbis, artists, and poets who donated their work to this project did so on the understanding that no profit would be made from their work; and 2) If you use the machzor, either on your own or in community, please drop me a line after the holidays to tell me what worked for you and what didn't. 

The creation of new liturgy is iterative. I know that this second edition is as perfect as I can make it -- and I also know that by the end of this year's high holidays, I'll discover things I want to improve. For now, I'm deep in preparations for this year's holiday services, and I'm looking forward to using this second edition as I join with our student hazzan in leading prayer. For all that is meritorious in this machzor I thank my ALEPH teachers; any remaining imperfections in this machzor are my own.

 

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

 

 


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.

 


New poems for the Shofar service

On the eve of this year's first meeting with Randall, the student hazzan who will co-lead our high holiday services with me, I found myself humming the weekday evening liturgy...in the nusach, the melodic mode, of the Days of Awe. This is one of the ways in which my years in the ALEPH rabbinic ordination program rewired my brain! As soon as the high holidays are even a glimmer of future on the far horizon, their melodic waves lift me up.

I've been continuing to revise Days of Awe, the machzor which I released last year in pilot form. (More about that in another post.) One of my changes has been swapping out the poems which had previously appeared at the beginning of each section of the shofar service. I wrote those poems years ago, and one of my congregants suggested to me that we could use something new in that place.

I am indebted to my friend and teacher Rabbi Daniel Siegel for his writings on the three themes of the shofar service: sovereignty, remembrance, and the shofar itself. I commend to you his posts Malchuyot, Zichronot & Shofarot and especially Malchuyot, Zichronot, & Shofarot Take Two. Rereading those posts and marinating in those teachings (and also marinating in Reb Zalman z"l's teachings about the shofar and its spiritual meanings, as collected and cited in a variety of places, including the Jewish Renewal Hasidus blog) informed these poems greatly.

These poems will appear in the second edition of Days of Awe, though if they speak to you, you're welcome to use them even if you're not using the rest of the machzor.

 

 

MALCHUYOT

What does it mean
to proclaim Your sovereignty
when we don't understand kings?
Before the Big Bang, there was You.

In the old year
we allowed habits to rule us.
Help us throw off that yoke
so our best selves may serve You.

Help us surrender. The cosmos
is not under our control.
Help us fall to our knees
and find home in Your embrace.

Let Your power increase in the world.
Help us be unashamed of yearning.
Strengthen our awe and our love
so our prayers will soar.

Continue reading "New poems for the Shofar service" »


Revising Days of Awe

One of the great pleasures for me of last year's Days of Awe was getting to co-lead davenen (with the fabulous student hazzan Randall Miller) using a pilot edition of Days of Awe, the machzor which I created building on the wonderful work of Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser. Days of Awe was several years in the making, and went through more than thirty printed proof drafts -- and, of course, once we used it in realtime for our high holiday services, I found things which I wanted to fix. I knew that would happen; that's why this was a pilot edition! Still, it was interesting to see what needed revision.

Some of the edits are minor, e.g. places where two Hebrew vowels were trying to occupy the same space and therefore looked blurred, or Hebrew typos which needed a global find-and-replace, or places where I left out a line of transliteration. Others are more substantive. For instance, after the Days of Awe were over, I translated a relevant Lea Goldberg poem and now I want to include it in Ne'ilah. Or I realized while leading services last fall that I wanted to include the Hebrew refrain for "We Are As Clay." Or I realized that I hadn't included "Eliahu Hanavi" and "Miriam HaNeviah."

I've been working this winter on revising Days of Awe toward a second edition. Some additions, some subtractions, some general improvements. I've made a point of not changing any of the pagination. So if a community has copies of the pilot edition and then augments their collection with copies of the second edition, their prayer leader will still be able to give page numbers and they will work for both versions. The nifty material which is new to the second edition won't be in the first-edition volumes -- but a creative shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) should be able to work around that.

I'm uploading revised versions of both manuscripts (the right-to-left edition and the left-to-right edition) now. I plan to order a printer's proof of each, and spend some quality time with it, to make sure that I'm happy with how the changes look in print. (I may also reconvene my editorial / proofreading team.) What this means for everyone else is that Days of Awe is temporarily unavailable while I'm proofing the second edition. I assume that most people aren't thinking about the high holidays during January and February, so I figured this was a good time to do this work.

If you used Days of Awe last fall in your congregation or in your own solo prayer, and have suggestions to offer for the second edition, I welcome them!

 

 

Edited to add: the machzor is now available again, with all of the abovementioned changes made. Thanks for your patience!

 


Practice Makes Practice (a sermon for Yom Kippur morning, 5775)

The 20th-century American writer Dorothy Parker famously said, "Writing is the art of applying the tush to the seat." (She didn't say "tush," but the word she used isn't exactly appropriate to the bimah; you can extrapolate.)

This is one of my favorite aphorisms about the writing life. Writing isn't, or isn't only, a matter of talent or genius or having great ideas. One can have all of those things without ever writing a word. Writing requires perseverance. It requires showing up, day after day. It requires putting fingers to pen, or in my case fingers to keyboard, when the inspiration is there and also when it isn't there yet.

Over the years I've learned a variety of techniques for times when I don't "feel like" writing. Sometimes I promise myself a treat if I manage to write something. Other times I give myself a set period of time -- "thirty minutes and then I can get up and do something else." I can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. What matters is that I write.

The only way to get good poems is to write a lot of poems, and to accept that although some days are going to be better than others, I'm committed to continuing to write.

This is how spiritual life works, too. There are days when I wake up with prayers on my lips, when I can't wait to settle in to morning davenen, when I feel in-tune with the Holy One of Blessing from the get-go.

Those tend to be days when I'm on retreat. When someone else is taking care of the logistics of ordinary life, like meals and dishes. And childcare. And the to-do lists. And my responsibilities. It's remarkable how easy it is to feel prayerful and connected when someone else is providing for all of my needs.

But most of the time I am not on retreat. My spiritual life mostly happens in the "real world," where I have to juggle priorities, where I sometimes feel cranky, or get my feelings hurt, or make mistakes.

The best way to prime the pump for writing is to start writing and trust that some of what I write will be worth keeping. And the best way to prime the pump for spiritual life is to maintain my spiritual practices. There's a reason we call them "practices" -- because, like poetry, they require repetition, trial and error, showing up on the days when the spirit doesn't necessarily move you. Spiritual life requires putting your tush in the chair.

But it doesn't necessarily require putting your tush in the chair for hours on end. In fact, it's arguably better if you don't.

Continue reading "Practice Makes Practice (a sermon for Yom Kippur morning, 5775)" »


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...)

Continue reading "A Communal Al Chet for 5775" »


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.

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


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" »