Gratitude, Thanksgiving, and the golden land

 

Image removed: a still from "This Is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers," 1973. (Removed because a reader observed that it perpetuates the very negative stereotypes which I had intended for this post to call into question. My apologies for causing hurt or offense.)


Today we remember a long-ago feast of gratitude. Perhaps that feast was held by Pilgrims along with their Wampanoag neighbors, who had helped the colonists survive the hardships of a brutal winter marked by sickness and loss (which had come after a difficult transatlantic crossing). Now there was a good harvest and sense of plenitude. (See Thanksgiving History | Plimoth Plantation.) That's more or less how the story unfolds on the Peanuts "This is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers" special, and if Charles Schulz illustrated it, it must be true, right? (Hint: depends on who you ask.)

As a Jew I've always felt some identification with the Pilgrims who fled religious persecution and set off for a land where they could worship as they chose in peace. The same was true of both of my sets of grandparents during the 20th century. For many Eastern European Jews America was the Goldene Medina, the golden land of opportunity where all were equal and where religious freedom was guaranteed. In America anyone could get ahead if only they were willing to work hard. Something in me will always resonate with this vision of the United States as a place of equality and freedom.

Of course, the Pilgrims' arrival here was the beginning of an era of European colonization which left this land's Native inhabitants disenfranchised. That complicates the religious freedom narrative a bit.  European religious freedom and expansion came at a high cost. Between European notions of land ownership and that era's triumphalist sensibilities -- not to mention "manifest destiny," the establishments of Indian reservations, and the import of smallpox and other European diseases --  the colonists set in motion a paradigm shift which would badly damage the fabric of Native life.

The tale of the First Thanksgiving may be biased mythologizing. And the fantasy of an America entirely free from prejudice, where anyone could "bootstrap" their way to prosperity, turns out to be not exactly the whole truth either. Both that classic Jewish immigrant story, and the Thanksgiving story as I learned it when I was a kid, are sanitized and rosy-hued. Intellectually I know that there is more to both of those realities than the neat narratives can explain. And yet there's something about these stories which is still compelling for me, even though I know they're not the whole truth.

What do these tales do for us? What purpose do they serve in our psychospiritual lives? I think the persistence of these stories shows us something about how we want to see ourselves and our nation. I think both stories encode a yearning for a home where harvests are plentiful, gratitude is free-flowing, and opportunities abound. They can teach us something real and true -- not about the way things were or are, necessarily, but about the way we wish things were.

In Jewish tradition we say that Shabbat offers us a taste of the world to come. When we tell these old stories about America as a haven of perfect equality and freedom, about the Pilgrims and the Indians sitting down in harmony, about a place of opportunity where a Jew can aspire even to the highest office in the land, I think we're seeking that same kind of taste of what it would be like for our nation to live up to our holiest ideals. Maybe today we celebrate the abundance, freedom, and thankfulness which characterize the America of our deepest hopes.

Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate.

 


Letter from the sukkah

SukkahOn the festival's first night I carried a tray out to the sukkah bearing dinner, kiddush cups, wine and juice, a lighter for the candle I encased in a many-pointed glass star so that the wind wouldn't blow it out. Our son complained that he couldn't see the moon, but we came back outside later when it had just risen -- huge and yellow over the dark horizon of the hills -- and he jumped up and down with joy.

I spent much of the first day of Sukkot bundled up in the sukkah: jeans, socks, fuzzy slippers, a shirt, a sweater, a jacket, a knitted hat and scarf, and fingerless gloves. Above me the cornstalks rustled in the breeze. Occasionally yellow maple leaves drifted down from one of the trees overhead and made their way through the schach of the roof to land on my laptop. I was chilly, but I stayed out for a long time.

Being in a sukkah feels like being indoors and outdoors at the same time. The fresh air says "outdoors;" the feel of roof and walls says "indoors." But not too indoors. I can see sky through the roof. The usual views of our backyard and the valley are broken into squares by the sukkah's wooden lattice. All around me, decorations and our son's apple-themed art hang as though in midair.

Sukkot is so short, in the grand scheme of things. Seven days. I didn't want to miss it; I didn't want to waste it sitting indoors at the desk where I sit the whole rest of the year. The commandment is leishev ba-sukkah, "to dwell in the sukkah" -- literally, "to sit in the sukkah," which always makes me think of sitting zazen. The point of sitting in the sukkah is just sitting in the sukkah. Gloves and all.

PomegranateI try repeatedly to photograph our sukkah in a way which would show you what it looks like, what it feels like. But as with the panorama of the autumnal Berkshire hills, the pictures of the sukkah don't capture its reality. Autumn light streaming past golden tinsel garlands and shiny glitter pumpkins, the endless soft rustle of the roof, the little lights which gleam at nightfall. All I can capture are glimpses.

The sukkah has to be experienced in four dimensions, including time. The sukkah only exists for a short window of time. And yet the sukkah is also a portal in time, a door to every other year when I have sat in a sukkah. The ghosts of ten sukkot are imprinted on this back yard. Surely God, Who inhabits all of space and time simultaneously, can see next year's sukkah, and the next, and the next...

In the sukkah I can hear crickets chirping. Soon hard frosts will quiet the hillsides. Soon -- but not yet. On the first evening of the festival, as we ate dinner in the sukkah, we listened to an invisible neighbor playing "Auld Lang Syne" on clarinet. Our own private Sukkot serenade. The soundscape of the week also includes chipmunks rustling in the hillside's fallen leaves, and Canada geese calling overhead.

The sukkah, some say, represents the cloud of glory which followed the Israelites in their 40-year wilderness wandering. This is a house of divine presence. The walls and roof may be barely-there, but Shekhinah surrounds me with her embrace. I think of the angel song, that prayer for surrounding our son with wonder, strength, light, comfort, and the presence of Shekhinah all through the night.

Weather will blow in. Eventually the sukkah will come down. Temporariness is an inextricable part of the design. And yet this is where we're supposed to rejoice. Not despite the leaky roof, short lifespan, short-term design -- but with them, in them, through them. Go outside in order to go inside. Through this parody of a roof, recognize the sheltering Presence which curls protectively over us all.


Fourth of July: not a yontif, but still has meaning

320px-US_Flag_BacklitTen years ago when I first heard Reb Zalman (zichrono livracha / may his memory be a blessing!) teach in person, he sighed that the Fourth of July had once been an important yontif  (holiday), but seemed no longer to be so for many American Jews. He was talking about how certain ideas don't necessarily hold the power for us that they did in earlier eras. (For instance, "King" used to work well as a metaphor for God, but today it doesn't have the resonance it used to, so we've needed to find different partzufim, different "faces" of God, to which we can better relate.)

I suspect that when Reb Zalman was a young man it was easier than it is today to feel unambiguous patriotism. That may have been especially true for Jews who came here in the wake of the Shoah and saw America as the goldene medina, the golden land of opportunity and freedom where it was safe to be a Jew and where anyone could succeed. Certainly that was true for Reb Zalman, as it was true for my grandparents -- all of whom escaped wartorn Europe, all of whom lost loved ones in the Shoah, all of whom found new opportunity in this land.

In my generation, at this moment in time, patriotism can be a complicated thing. Many of us have mixed feelings about our government and its actions, regardless of which party is in power. We're increasingly aware of how our nation's exercise of power around the world can be problematic. We're also increasingly aware of systemic racism and injustice -- places where our nation hasn't lived up to our hopes.

I love many things about this country; I love many places in this country; I love many of the ideals of this country. But I don't love everything that this national entity does. And patriotism seems inextricably linked with nationalism, and nationalism has led to a lot of suffering around the world in recent history. As Lee Weissman tweeted a few days ago:

It seems to me that nationalism played a role in both World War I and World War II. (Certainly German nationalism was one of the forces which fed into Hitler's ascent to power and the horrors of the Shoah and the deaths of millions.) Nationalism played a role in the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, in which at least a million people were killed and some 12-14 million people were displaced. And I think nationalism plays a role in the continuing conflict in Israel and Palestine.

In our household we talk a lot about cosmopolitanism, embracing the notion of being a citizen of the world in all of its interconnectedness. Here's how my husband Ethan described cosmopolitanism in an interview with Henry Jenkins:

[Kwame] Appiah, a Ghanaian-American philosopher, suggests that cosmopolitans recognize that there is more than one acceptable way to live in the world, and that we may have obligations to people who live in very different ways than we do. This, he argues, is one of the possible responses to a world where we find ourselves interacting with people from very different backgrounds. Cosmopolitanism doesn’t demand that we accept all ways of living in the world as equally admirable – he works hard to draw a line between cosmopolitanism and moral relativism – but does demand that we steer away from a fundamentalist or nationalist response that sees our way as the only way and those who believe something different as inferior or unworthy of our consideration or aid.

(Read the whole interview at Henry Jenkins' blog. And hey, while you're at it, read Ethan's award-winning book Digital Cosmopolitans: Why We Think the Internet Connects Us, Why It Doesn't, And How To Rewire It.)

What does one do with all of these feelings on the Fourth of July?

For me, the glorious Fourth feels a little bit like the tailgate party outside a Green Bay Packers game. Does that sound sacreligious? I suppose that's evidence for Reb Zalman's theory that for many Jews today, Independence Day is less a yontif than it was for our forebears. But I don't mean it as a knock on the day. It's great to celebrate one's team and the community which has arisen around that team -- as long as one doesn't fall into the fallacy of imagining that people who support a different team are inferior.

How will we celebrate the Fourth? Weather permitting, we'll go to the sweet little parade in a nearby town. Everyone will be wearing red, white, and blue. There will be bunting and streamers and balloons galore. There will be a marching band, and kids on tricycles, and people riding in classic convertibles throwing candy. Everyone will cheer. Then my family will go to the synagogue picnic, where little kids will splash in a kiddie pool, and adults will grill hot dogs and hamburgers, and we'll eat watermelon and popsicles. Then, after the kids are put to bed, we'll sit on our deck and watch distant fireworks across the valley.

It feels great to celebrate community. But at the end of the day, just as I know that there are other teams in the NFL besides the Packers for whom one might reasonably root, I know that my community -- this nation -- isn't the only wonderful one in the world. I know that our customs and contexts aren't the only way to live. (They're not even the only good way to live. Those who've been fortunate enough to live in, or even to visit, more than one country get a sense for how norms and customs differ, without any one set being the "right" ones  -- that's part of why travel is so wonderfully broadening.) And that's okay. I don't need my country to be the "best place on earth" -- I just need it to be the best version of itself that it can be.

I want to live in an America which lives up to the ideals I hold dear. Some of those ideals were built into the fabric of its founding (equality, rights, liberty and justice for all.) Others have arisen in recent decades as humanity as a whole has become more enlightened (equal rights for women and for people of all races, equal marriage rights, equal rights for GLBTQIA folks, and so on.) When I think about the positive valances of patriotism, I think of those ideals. I think of times when I've felt hope that this country could be a better place, a kinder place, a more just and righteous place. That's what I'd like to be cultivating today.

Some months ago a friend and I went to the Williams College Museum of Art to see, among other things, original copies of some of America's founding documents. I felt a frisson of awe looking at that looping old handwriting, the paper so fragile but the words so enduring. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [sic] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness..." I admire the idealism and the optimism with which those words are imbued.

Is today a yontif, a holy day, for me? Not exactly. But it is a day for pausing to celebrate where we are, before we pick up our tools again and continue the work of -- in the words of our Constitution's Preamble -- trying to "form a more perfect Union." Happy Fourth of July to all who celebrate.

 

Related: the poem Not There Yet. "When Moshiach comes / everyone will celebrate / interdependence day..."


On "Otherness" at Christmas

 

With family, at holiday party, 1982; with friends, in uniform, 1992.

From the age of eleven on, I attended an Episcopal school called Saint Mary's Hall. Six years of white sailor middy and pleated skirt, saddle shoes, "dress uniform" (white skirt and knee socks) on Mondays for chapel. I loved it there. The yellow brick archways and live-oak-filled courtyards, the motto which appeared on the entrance steps I climbed every day ("teach us delight in simple things"), the years I spent learning Latin and French, literature and biology. The friends I made, many of whom are still in my life.

And I didn't mind going to chapel every Monday, or learning the Lord's Prayer, or even singing the school hymn, which was "Fight the Good Fight." I enjoyed going each December to Christmas vespers services at the church we could walk to, down the street from the campus, where students would tell the story of the birth of Jesus, and students would play handbells, and we would all sing "Adeste Fideles" which I was unreasonably proud of actually understanding in Latin.

I didn't mind being one of the few Jewish kids at my school. I'd been going to synagogue with my family my whole life. I'd spent two years at Jewish day school. After my celebration of bat mitzvah, I became a teacher's aide and a bat mitzvah tutor at our congregation. I'd gone one year to Jewish summer camp. Nothing about attending an Episcopal school felt strange to me. It was just normal, and it was where my friends and teachers were, and I loved it there.

In retrospect, it's a little bit amazing to me that I felt so perfectly comfortable in my "otherness," especially given that adolescence is so often a time when our differences pain us. But I don't remember ever experiencing a disjunction around being a Jewish kid at a school where most of the kids were Christian or where attendance at weekly Episcopal chapel services was mandatory. Nobody expected me to be, or to become, anything other than what I was. I was different, but that felt safe.

Continue reading "On "Otherness" at Christmas" »


Three more holidays at the very end of Sukkot

There are three distinct and special celebrations at the end of Sukkot. The first of them, Hoshana Rabbah, is today.

HoshanaRabba09_9Hoshana Rabbah -- "The Great 'Save-Us!'" -- is the seventh day of Sukkot and a minor holiday in its own right. On this day, traditionally, we make seven circuits of our sanctuaries with our lulavim and our Torah scrolls while reciting prayers called Hoshanot which ask God to bring healing and salvation. Seven is a number with spiritual significance in Judaism: seven days of the week, the seven "lower" (accessible) sefirot (aspects of God), the seven ancestral figures (some invite seven men and seven women) welcomed into the Sukkah as ushpizin (holy guests) -- and now on the seventh day of this festival we circumnambulate our sanctuaries seven times, singing and praying. There's also a very old custom of taking the willow branches from our lulavim and beating them against the ground; the falling willow leaves are an embodied prayer for rain. (For more on that: The Ritual of Beating the Willow.)

Even if you're not dancing or processing around a sanctuary with branches and Torah scrolls, reading some hoshanot and reflecting on their meaning is a lovely observance of Hoshana Rabbah. I like the ones written by my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, which online here at the Reb Zalman Legacy Project blog, and also here at the Shalom Center (with commentary from Rabbi Arthur Waskow below the hoshanot themselves.) And here's a brief excerpt from a translated hoshana, provided by Rabbi David Seidenberg of NeoHasid.org.

Shemini Atzeret -- "The Pausing of the Eighth Day" -- is the eighth day of Sukkot. Yes, Sukkot is a seven-day holiday, but tradition tells us that on the eighth day, God (Who has been so enjoying spending time with us in our sukkot) says "awww, do you really have to go? Can't you linger a little longer?" So we stay in our sukkot for one more day, one more chance to engage in intimate connection with Shekhinah, the immanent and indwelling Presence of God. This is a day for spaciousness, a day of pausing, a day to celebrate the white space which cradles and contains all of the texts and teachings and observances of the holiday season now ending. The Days of Awe and Sukkot are a dense and busy time, full of obligations and sermons and teachings; Shemini Atzeret is a chance to pause, to take a breath, to receive the blessings of stillness.

This day is a hinge-point in our liturgical year between the summer season and the winter season. On Shemini Atzeret, we recite special prayers for rain, and we enter into the liturgical winter-season when our Amidah contains a one-line prayer for rain every day instead of the summertime one-line prayer for dew. I've written a contemporary prayer for rain which can be read / davened on this day, which you can find in the VR archives here; you might also enjoy my Sestina for Shemini Atzeret, which I wrote last year and which I still really like. Shemini Atzeret is the 22nd of Tishrei, which begins tonight at sundown and lasts through tomorrow (Monday).

Children-kiss-torahSimchat Torah -- "Rejoicing in the Torah" -- is the culmination of all of our celebrations during this holy season. We read the very end of the Torah scroll, then read the beginning again, celebrating the neverending nature of our collective story. We dance around the room with Torah scrolls singing songs. Here's the poem I wrote some years ago for this festival, Mobius, which is also available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems (Phoenicia, 2011.)

So when is Simchat Torah? Well, it depends on who you ask. In Israel, Sukkot lasts for seven days; the seventh day is Hoshana Rabbah; and the 8th day is both Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Reform communities outside of the land of Israel also operate on this calendar. (I'm not sure about Reconstructionist communities; Jewish Renewal communities' practices vary.) In Diaspora, Orthodox and Conservative Jews move from 7 days of Sukkot (the final one being Hoshana Rabbah) to two days of Shemini Atzeret, the second of which is Simchat Torah, making the whole shebang a 9-day observance insted of an 8-day one. (In my local community we'll celebrate Simchat Torah on Monday night, in conjunction with the local college Jewish student group.)

It's possible to experience a kind of holiday fatigue at this moment in the year. Tisha b'Av, then the month of Elul, then Rosh Hashanah, the Ten Days of Teshuvah, Yom Kippur, a week of Sukkot...! But there's beauty and meaning in each of these three final days of this holiday season. I offer this blessing: may each of us find a point of access into the beauty and wisdom of Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. May we connect with the gift of being able to ask for help in healing our world, the gift of holy pausing and sacred rest, and the gift of Torah, the story which never ends.

 


America

O beautiful for spacious skies (highway, south Texas)

 

for amber waves of grain (winter rye, western Massachusetts)

 

For purple mountains' majesty (Berkshires, western Massachusetts)

 

Above the fruited plain (strawberry field, western Massachusetts)

 

America, America, God shed His grace on thee (border crossing, northern New York)

 

And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea (rocky coast, Maine: Atlantic)

 

to shining sea (jetty, southern California: Pacific)!

 

(lyrics from America the Beautiful.) Happy Fourth of July to all who celebrate!


Summer solstice and Rosh Chodesh Tamuz

NewmoonTonight at sundown we'll enter into the new lunar month of Tamuz. In a day or two, we'll reach the solstice -- in the northern hemisphere where I live, this is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year which is also always the beginning of the days starting to shorten again. The name of this month on the Jewish calendar recalls the Sumerian deity Tamuz, who died at this season and went into the underworld. Like Tamuz, we too will experience a kind of remembered death during the season to come, as we descend into mourning for the temple which has long fallen.

I've spent the past few weeks collecting teachings about the month of Tamuz in Jewish tradition (the Tammuz page at Tel Shemesh is extraordinarily helpful) and about the summer solstice in Jewish tradition (hat tip once again to Rabbi Jill Hammer; also to Rabbi T'mimah Ickovitz for her solstice teachings) and preparing a short ritual for the new moon of Tamuz which is also a ritual of havdalah, separation, between the spring now ending and the summer we're about to begin.

Tonight (many of) the women of my congregation will gather in my backyard for this havdalah new moon ritual and then for some learning about this new moon and about the solstice in Jewish tradition. There are some tough things about Tamuz. In the coming month we'll remember the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem; we'll enter into the Three Weeks, the period called bein ha-meitzarim, "between the narrow straits," during which we prepare ourselves to mourn the fallen temple and the broken world at Tisha b'Av.

And yet this month contains blessings, too. Rosh Chodesh Tamuz is the birthday of the patriarch Joseph. Like the Sumerian god Tamuz, Joseph descended into the earth -- not into the underworld, but into a pit, and then into Egypt. And it was because of that descent that he was able to ascend so high, and to bring his entire people with him. May our descent during this season also be for the sake of ascent!

For those who are interested: here are two pages of collected teachings about Tamuz and the summer solstice, and also a two-page ritual for entering into summer / celebrating havdalah ha-tekufah, a solstice havdalah. (This is what we'll be working with at our Rosh Chodesh group tomorrow night, so if you're part of that group, you might want to skip these downloads in order to encounter the ritual and the teachings fresh. Or, you might want to download them in advance in order to spend more time with them! As you prefer.) I am deeply indebted to Rabbi Jill Hammer, from whom this ritual is adapted. Feel free to use and enjoy. Chodesh tov / a good new month to all.

Download RoshChodeshTamuzRitual [pdf]

Download RoshChodeshTamuzTeachings [pdf]


Preparing for the season that's coming

Erika at Black, Gay, and Jewish mentioned in a post yesterday that there are 25 days until Pesach. 25 days! That doesn't sound like very long. Maybe this is a good time to remind y'all that if you're still searching for a haggadah, the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach is available as a free download. Read all about it: Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach 7.2 (2012, 48 pages, abridged from last year's long version though a few improvements have been made and a few new things added) and Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach 7.1 (2011, 84 pages.)

People have graciously said some very kind things about my haggadah: "I was blown away by the insights and freshness that I found in your haggadah" (Tony) and "I am in the process of converting, and I have struggled to find a haggadah that reflects not only my Judaism, but my feminism and my politics. This is finally one that I can share with my family as I lead my own seder for the first time. Thank you for offering the world this method of telling the story of our freedom" (Natalie) and "I used your haggadah as my foundation for leading the second seder for my family... They told me afterwards it was the most meaningful seder they had ever attended -- actually they told me it was the FIRST meaningful seder they had ever attended" (Rhonda.) I hope that if you use it, it helps you connect with Pesach in deep and meaningful ways.

I've been putting a lot of energy lately into preparing for what comes after Pesach: the Counting of the Omer. For years I've toyed with the idea of trying to post something -- a thought, a teaching, a blessing -- relating to each day of the Omer count. Now that I'm blessed to serve as a congregational rabbi, I found my desire to make the Omer meaningful for people (maybe especially people who don't usually think in terms of counting the Omer each night during that holy seven-week span) even stronger. So I seized that desire and ran with it.

This year I'm actually going to manage it, and I'll be sharing those daily postings at the From the Rabbi blog which I maintain for my shul. The trick, I've realized, is to queue up the postings before the Omer begins, so that once we're in the Omer count, I can let each day's unique combination of divine qualities wash over me instead of fretting about whether or not I've posted anything today. I've been working on these for weeks, and they're finally complete. I'm looking forward to the first post going live, on the evening of the first full day of Pesach, as we approach sundown and prepare to begin Counting the Omer. Anyway, I'll post more about those here soon, including instructions on how to subscribe just to the Omer posts on that blog.

What else can I tell you? It's an overcast morning here, cool and grey. Purim already feels a long way distant. Pesach approaches, inexorably. Spring is on the way.


Living in Jewish time

It's a funny way of inhabiting time, this Jewish calendar of ours. Every seventh day a holiday. Every new moon a holiday. And then, studding the year like jewels in a crown, the festivals, each with its own music, its own flavor, both literally and metaphorically.

Right now we're ascending toward the full moon of Shvat, the New Year of the Trees. Making shopping lists: we'll need three kinds of fruit (fruits with shells, fruits with pits, fruits which are soft all the way through -- each representing a different sphere of existence, body and heart and mind), maple syrup (why not celebrate the rising of spiritual sap with some literal sap?), juices of different colors for the chemistry-set pleasure of slowly transforming the pale white grape juice of winter into the vivid flame of deep purple autumn.

One month later comes Purim. Our carnival holiday, costuming and amateur theatrics. The remembered taste of hamentaschen (I always love apricot and plum the best.) The annual re-enactment of the almost-tragedy which turned comic, Haman's attempt at a Final Solution which was deflected by Esther's bravery and wisdom, the villain ultimately hoisted by his own petard. I met this morning with a friend and congregant to plan our annual Purimspiel, and and together we dreamed up a scheme for bringing the art of Jewish puppetry to my shul. Now I am pondering hot glue guns and papier-mâché.

One month after that, Pesach. The season of our liberation. The remembering and re-telling of our Exodus from the Narrow Place of enslavement, in mythic history and in our own hearts. The fifteen steps of the seder, from sanctifying the day all the way to concluding the evening with song. I can almost taste the crunch of matzah smeared with horseradish; the matzah balls my grandfather (of blessed memory) used to make. The scent of roasted egg.

Jewish time has ebbs and flows. Right now our spiritual sap is rising. At Purim-time, we retell a story in which God is (on the surface) entirely absent -- and yet divine sovereignty is hidden in plain sight all over the columns of the holiday's text. At Pesach-time, we're called to take the leap of faith of leaving slavery and plunging into the sea, trusting God to part the waters when we get too deep. We spend seven weeks doing the inner work of preparing ourselves for Sinai, and then Sinai comes.

At Shavuot, we remember and re-experience the Sinai moment, a deep encounter of connection with the Infinite -- and then we head toward the burning heat of remembering the breach of Jerusalem's walls and our communal broken hearts. Then we immerse in the weeks leading up to the Days of Awe, another season of inner work, in order to emerge with due fanfare and whole hearts at Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur takes us inward; Sukkot is our chance to go outward; at Simchat Torah we dance circles with our circular story. In the dark of (northern hemisphere) winter we kindle tiny lights until the whole chanukiyah is ablaze. And then, after a fallow period, our sap begins to rise again as Tu BiShvat approaches.

It's a neverending spiral from one festival to the next. From rejoicing to mourning to rejoicing again, from extroversion to introversion and back, from autumn to winter to spring to the next autumn. The whole year is a slow wheeling dance with God.

I used to wonder what it was like to be a dancer. To have a whole choreographed performance internalized in your body, such that even as you're dancing one movement, you know what movements come next, and after that, and after that. I still can't imagine the literal experience, but on some level, I think maybe it's a little bit like this experience of being rooted in the Jewish year. Doing the dance steps of Tu BiShvat, knowing that the Purim steps come next, and the Pesach steps, the Omer steps, the Shavuot steps. It's a balancing act, being wholly in this moment even as I try to lay the groundwork for moments to come.

And this is something every Jew does, or can do, or might aspire to do. It's not because I'm a rabbi that I get to learn the steps of this year-long dance... though being a rabbi does give me, sometimes, deeper opportunities to practice the steps -- and the joy of knowing that keeping my community dancing is, quite literally, my job. What an inestimable blessing.


Three Tu BiShvat Haggadot (Tu BiShvat is on its way!)

The moon of Tevet is beginning to wane. It will shrink down to nothingness and then grow again. When it next reaches roundness, the date will be the 15th of the month of Shvat: the full moon of the deep-winter lunar month when, Jewish tradition tells us, the sap begins to rise again to nurture trees for the year to come.

Tu BiShvat is the (observed) birthday of every tree, also known as the New Year of the Trees. It offers an opportunity to take a journey through the four worlds of existence (action / physicality, emotions, thought, and essence) and to experience those four worlds and the round of the seasons through consuming fruits and juices with holy intent.

This is a holiday I didn't grow up celebrating, but it's become a favorite in my adult life. In south Texas where I grew up -- and in the part of the world where the Tu BiShvat seder originated -- trees are preparing now to bloom. Here in western Masschusetts, this time of year is usually characterized by ice and snow...though also by the rise of sap in the sugar maples, followed by plumes of sweet steam rising from sugar shacks all over the hills.

Back in 2006 I shared a Tu BiShvat haggadah here. (Hard to believe that was six years ago!) This winter I've had occasion to revise it. It now exists in three editions: one for adults and teens, one for kids in first through fourth grades, and one for little kids. We'll use each of these three versions of this haggadah at my shul in our various Tu BiShvat celebrations this year.

These haggadot contain poetry, environmental teachings from Jewish tradition, kabbalistic (Jewish mystical) teachings about the four worlds, and illustrations of fruits to color in. (You can probably guess which of these three haggadot is geared in each of these ways.)

And I share them here, in case any of y'all need a Tu BiShvat haggadah this year! Feel free to use these as-is, or to use them to spark your own Tu BiShvat creativity. (I only ask that you keep the identifying information there, and/or credit me for the editing / compiling / creativity.) May your celebration of the New Year of the Trees be joyful, meaningful, and -- perhaps quite literally -- sweet.

Tu BiShvat Haggadah for Adults / Teens [pdf]

Tu BiShvat Haggadah for Kids  [pdf]

Tu BiShvat Haggadah for Little Kids [pdf]


Preparing for 10 Tevet

This post may be triggering for survivors of rape and sexual abuse. If that is you, please guard your boundaries carefully, and feel free to skip this one if you need to.

 

For many liberal Jews, fasting means the experience of forgoing food and drink on Yom Kippur. Others also observe the custom of fasting on Tisha b'Av, the day which commemorates the fall of both Temples in Jerusalem. These two days are Judaism's major fasts. But there are also five minor fast days on the Jewish calendar. Minor fasts last from dawn until nightfall, and (in the traditional understanding) one is permitted to eat breakfast if one arises before dawn for the purpose of doing so, though one must finish eating before first light.

Of the five minor fasts, one is the "fast of the first-born," observed by first-born males on the day preceding Pesach, in commemoration of the story of the tenth plague and how the Hebrew boys were spared. The other four minor fasts relate to historical happenings, tragedies which still resonate in Jewish memory. One of these falls this week: 10 Tevet (on the Gregorian calendar, this year that's Thursday, January 5), which commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, a siege which culminated in the fall of the first temple in 587 BCE.

What does it mean to fast in memory of the beginning of a siege 2,601 years ago which led to the fall of a temple some thirty months later -- especially when for many of us, the sacrifices which went on in that temple feel so foreign we can't begin to relate to what they meant? And what might Asara b'Tevet mean to someone who eschews the fast itself, or someone who is perhaps only now learning that this minor fast day exists?

We remember the siege of Jerusalem because it was the beginning of the process which led to our exile from that city and from the place where we knew how to connect with God. And though it can be argued that the exile ultimately led to the flowerings of rabbinic Judaism, of a Judaism which is rooted in the portable connections with God which we create and sustain through study and prayer everywhere we go, the exile was still a trauma. I think there's value in recognizing that.

The essay Walls and Gates (on Chabad.com) reminds us that "[a] broken wall means vulnerability, exposure, loss of identity." 10 Tevet is a day for recognizing, and mourning, siege which leads to brokenness and damage. For some, that means remembering the siege of Jerusalem long ago and mourning the shattering of that city's integrity. (For others, it might mean mourning the shattering of integrity indicated by Haredi violence in the Jerusalem suburb of Bet Shemesh in recent days.)

For still others, the commemoration of siege which led to brokenness may suggest another, more intensely personal, form of shattering. If your bodily integrity has been compromised, through rape or other sexual abuse, the 10th of Tevet may offer an opportunity for recognizing and mourning the breach in your safety and your wholeness. This profound trauma exists in every community. For me, there is something powerful about also understanding 10 Tevet as a day of remembering, and mourning, this breach of trust and of wholeness which so many suffer -- not instead of the traditional interpretation, but in addition to it.

Fast days are traditionally considered to be days of teshuvah (repentance/return), turning ourselves so that we are oriented toward holiness and toward God. Whether or not your practice includes fasting on the 10th of Tevet, I invite you to spend this Thursday engaged in teshuvah. And I invite you to spend this Thursday -- the 10th day of the lunar month of Tevet -- in mindfulness. Sit with what hurts: whether that's the memory of the siege of Jerusalem 2600 years ago, or the memory of your own experience of being besieged and broken-into, or the uncomfortable awareness that we allow the suffering of rape victims in our communities to remain invisible. Make a conscious effort to open your heart to this suffering.

May our observance of 10 Tevet, whatever form it may take, align us more wholly with compassion and kindness, and may those who have been besieged find safety and healing, speedily and soon.


Gleanings for Hoshanah Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah

At the end of Sukkot come three holidays in rapid succession: first Hoshanah Rabbah, then Shemini Atzeret, then Simchat Torah. On Hoshanah Rabbah we pray for rain and for salvation; on Shemini Atzeret we savor the mystical pause of the 8th day; and on Simchat Torah we rejoice in the wonder of our neverending story.

Hoshanah Rabbah will arise this Wednesday; Shemini Atzeret is this Thursday; and for Reform and Israeli Jews, Simchat Torah is also on Thursday (for everyone else, it'll be on Friday.) I haven't had time/space this year to create any new material on these holidays, but here are some highlights from previous years:

  • Adonai, open my lips - a Hasidic teaching about the mouth as the gate of prayer, for Hoshana Rabbah, 2009

  • Hoshanot - a niggun, and a contemporary prayer by Reb Zalman written for Hoshana Rabbah, 2010

  • A prayer for rain - my own contemporary poem on the themes of the classical tefilat geshem, recited on Shemini Atzeret, 2009

  • The pause of the 8th day - a Hasidic teaching about what it means to celebrate the 8th day of a 7-day holiday, 2007

  • Mobius - my Torah poem written for the final Torah portion in the scroll, read on Simchat Torah, 2008 (this poem is also available in 70 faces, Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.)

For more along these lines, you can visit the Hoshanah Rabbah category, the Shemini Atzeret category, or the Simchat Torah category on this blog. Enjoy, and chag sameach / happy holidays!


Tzom Tammuz

Today is the 17 of Tammuz, also known as Tzom Tammuz ("the fast of Tammuz"), one of Judaism's lesser fast days, which inaugurates the "Three Weeks" of mourning which will culminate in Tisha b'Av.

A few years ago I wrote a post called Reflections on 17 Tammuz. Here's a taste:

According to the Mishna, this was the day the Romans breached the walls around Jerusalem, which led to the destruction three weeks later of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Tradition also holds that today is the anniversary of Moses breaking the tablets of the Ten Commandments when he came down the mountain to find the Israelites worshiping that golden calf...

For those who don't observe the Three Weeks in the traditional ways, and don't yearn for the restoration of sacrifice atop the Temple mount, can 17 Tammuz still hold meaning?

To see how I answered, read the whole essay -- and feel free to comment in response, either on that original post or on this one.


On holy anniversaries

The Counting of the Omer is ending. The festival of Shavuot begins tomorrow evening at sundown. I'll be celebrating with folks from Congregation Beth Israel (North Adams), Congregation Beth El (Bennington), and a few faculty members from Williams, at the Williams College Jewish Center. Our plans call for a brief evening service at 7:30pm, followed by a wonderful line-up of evening teachings.

This year we're doing something special to kick things off: master storyteller Diane Wolkstein will grace us with her rendition of the story of Ruth, since Ruth is the text traditionally studied at Shavuot. And then, as we've done in years past, clergy and congregants from the different communities will take turns offering Torah teachings of various sorts, interspersed with breaks for dairy snacks and schmoozing. We usually go until 1 or 2am; not quite the traditional all-night study session, but definitely something out of the ordinary, and a chance to connect with the unique spiritual insights which sometimes arise when one is engaging with powerful texts during the night. The celebration is open to all, so if you're so inclined, please join us.

We understand Shavuot as the anniversary of the date when Torah was revealed at Sinai, the date when we and God entered into holy covenant, a moment when the entire Jewish community (past, present and future) was mystically present and mystically experienced an ineffable connection with the infinite. One popular metaphor holds that Shavuot is the wedding anniversary of our people's marriage to God, and the Torah is our ketubah, the beautiful handwritten document which articulates our promises one to the other.

As it happens, tomorrow is also another kind of anniversary for me -- the more mundane kind, though no less wonderful for all that. As my thirteenth wedding anniversary wanes, Shavuot will be getting underway. It is a blessing indeed to have the opportunity to celebrate these awesome moments of remembrance... but in the case of both of these relationships, the relationship far supercedes the day on which we celebrate it. Torah is always being revealed, and we're co-creating this marriage day by day. The love manifest in this sacred text, and the love manifest in our marriage, are always being renewed. I am more grateful, and more lucky, than I can say.

 

 


A Passover letter to my son

Dear Drew,

This year, like last year, your experience of Pesach won't include our formal seder. For reasons of familial logistics and timing, we won't begin the seder until your early bedtime of 7pm. It's just as well; at sixteen months you are a creature of habit where bedtime is concerned, and we will all be well-served by giving you the pre-bedtime ritual of cuddling, books, and familiar lullaby which is part of your daily routine.

I've been singing Pesach songs to you in recent days. Sometimes when you and I play in Dad's and my bedroom, I take out my guitar and play the niggun I use for singing the order of the seder. You like flipping open and shut the metal clasps which hold the guitar case together. Sometimes, when I start playing, you beam at me. I sing the order of the seder to you, I sing Dayenu to you, I sing Eliahu HaNavi to you -- three musical motifs, the seder in a nutshell.

I've tried reading you Sammy Spider's First Passover, which I read to you last year before you were old enough to be bored. These days you push the pages of the book faster than I can read them, annoyed that they contain so many words. I've taken to summarizing: "Sammy Spider sees the Shapiros cleaning their house!" (Flip) "Sammy Spider wants a seder too!" (Flip) -- that's about where your attention span is, these days. Maybe by next year you'll be more interested in the story as it unfolds.

But not yet. This year, your Pesach consists of me singing you some songs and attempting to read you a storybook or two. We'll cut up a matzah ball for you and see if you like it. I'll bet you'll like haroset, if we can make some in which the nuts aren't a choking hazard. And I'm curious to see what you'll think of matzah -- the storebought kind, and also the kind Aunt Melissa's friends make from scratch. This time last year, you weren't eating solid food yet; all of these tastes and textures will be new.

Continue reading "A Passover letter to my son" »


On Rosh Hashanah in Adar

Last week my congregation had the opportunity to help the Reform movement beta-test its forthcoming new machzor (high holiday prayerbook.) This is an early version in draft form; the best reports I've heard hold that the new machzor might be finished in 2014, so it's not coming out anytime soon! Anyway, we held a Rosh Hashanah service last Thursday night, using the new machzor as our roadmap for the service. It was surreal on many levels: praying the morning liturgy in the evening after nightfall, davening this liturgy which I so strongly associate with late summer in these cold, sleety days of not-yet-spring, davening with an intimate crowd a service which I associate with our sanctuary being packed to the gills, and maybe most of all, singing melodies which are intricately woven into one time of year at a different time of year altogether.

One of the things I love best about the way Jewish liturgy works is our system of melodies. There are a couple of melodic modes for weekday prayer, and another for Shabbat. (In many liberal congregations, the traditional Shabbat melodic modes have been largely replaced with what I'd call "tunes" -- composed melodies, written for various pieces of liturgy -- but the older tradition is to daven the Shabbat prayers in the Shabbat musical mode, as distinct from the weekday ones.) And it's not just a matter of weekday and Shabbat. There are melodic modes for different liturgical times of year, like High Holidays and Shalosh Regalim (the once-upon-a-time pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.)

Ten years ago I was almost entirely unconscious of this. But one of the happy side effects of 5+ years of rabbinic training is that I'm much more steeped, now, in liturgy and its attendant music than I used to be. I love the way that the different melody-systems play off of each other and the way they are distinct from one another. Shabbat prayer is meant to sound different from weekday prayer; festival prayer is meant to sound different from Shabbat prayer. Each one shines against the backdrop of the others. And each one feels connected with the particular time of year when it takes place -- which is why preparing to lead High Holiday liturgy, using the High Holiday melodic mode, at a time of year when the sleet and slush are piling up outside and I'm starting to think ahead to Pesach, just feels weird! But it gave me an opportunity to think about prayer in an interesting way.

One of the staples of the DLTI experience was co-leading services with my fellow students. And after services, we would "workshop" what we had done. After morning prayer had ended, for instance, the service-leaders might be called back up to the front of the room to run through some particular part of the service again, and our teachers would encourage us to take risks, try new things, or maybe try the same things we'd already done but with different intention or posture (physically and spiritually.) One of the things they would stress was that when we entered into a service again in that way, we were davening "in realtime" -- we weren't pretending to pray, we were re-entering the flow of the actual service and re-entering that moment of prayer as though it were happening for the first time right now.

That's how I thought about our "Rosh Hashanah in Adar" service. It wasn't a "mock" service; I didn't want to be merely pretending to pray this liturgy, even if the liturgy and its attendant tunes felt out-of-season. It was weird, re-entering the emotional and spiritual headspace of the Days of Awe in this moment just before Purim, but it was an opportunity to re-inhabit teshuvah (repentance / atonement) and to remember the joy of a new year beginning. In truth, teshuvah is something we're meant to be doing all year 'round; and every moment can be a new beginning if we're open to seeing it in that way.

It did feel good to run across prayers and melodies which are like old friends to me. And as far as the beta-test itself went, there's much that I enjoyed about the new Reform machzor... though they also made some decisions which I'm uncertain about. I'll be curious to see what form the machzor eventually takes; I'm guessing that by the time it reaches print, it may look pretty different from what we used in our davening. Anyway, it was a fascinating experience. Thanks, Reform movement, for giving me an opportunity to pray-test the new liturgy.


Mid-winter

Our back deck: table and chairs buried in snow.

I've spent enough time around neopagans of various sorts to know that today is a cross-quarter (a day which falls precisely between a solstice and an equinox.) In the Northern hemisphere, today is the midpoint between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. We're halfway between the first day of winter and the first day of spring.

Some call today Imbolc. In some traditions, the festival is celebrated with hearthfires, consumption of dairy, and weather prognostication; Wikipedia suggests that this might be a precursor to the North American Groundhog Day, which is also celebrated today. Others know today as the Feast of St. Brighid or as Candlemas. (The Wikipedia page is pretty good; if you're interested, you might also check out Imbolc 2011 -- The Spring Quarter.)

Call it what you will; I'm just happy to be able to mark the midpoint of winter! A week ago our local newspaper ran an article with the headline Whole winter's worth of snow already here. And it's snowed several times since then. I'm not sure I need to add much commentary to that.

The solstices and equinoxes have become meaningful to me since I moved to New England. I'm keenly conscious of the dark days of December, and I celebrate every drop of increased light we receive. These days I derive quiet satisfaction from the fact that if Drew and I stop to buy diapers on the way home from daycare, it's not pitch-black outside by the time we exit the store. Little steps.

On the Jewish calendar, 5771 is a leap year. (Seven out of nineteen years are leap years, containing an extra month.) We'll insert an extra month of Adar into our calendar, and the festivals which fall during Adar will be celebrated during the "real" Adar -- the second one. That extra month, Adar I, begins this coming Friday. In a non-leap year, it's one month from Tu BiShvat to Purim, and another month to Pesach; this year, Purim and Pesach are still a long way off.

Maybe that's why I'm making a point of paying attention to today. Our spring festivals won't be here for a while yet, but today marks a seasonal midpoint between winter and spring. The snow may still be falling, but I believe that spring will come.


Etrogcello, part 2

Back in the autumn, I posted about making etrogcello, a variation on the sweet lemon-flavored liqeur limoncello. Instead of being made with lemons, this is made with etrogim, the nubbled citrons of which we make ritual use during Sukkot. I based my attempt mostly on the recipe at When life gives you lemons: peeled the etrogim, set the peels to soak in a large sterile jar filled with vodka, put it in the dark, and waited.

We tasted a tiny bit of it back around the winter solstice (after it had been sitting there for about two and a half months), sweetening our individual nips with sugar or with Splenda. It was pretty awesome. It's bright and citrusy and smells distinctively like etrog, which is an amazing scent and not quite like anything else I know. Ethan liked it well enough that he asked whether we could finish the etrogcello with a diabetic-friendly symple syrup. So I did some digging to see if that would work.

On this limoncello recipe, one of the commentors, blgpts, offered insights on how to make limoncello using Splenda instead of sugar. (I also spent some time reading How to make limoncello, an astonishingly comprehensive post about the making of this liqueur. I'd like to note, for the record, that I was not nearly as obsessive about filtering as it sounds like that guy tends to be...) From all accounts, Splenda adapts beautifully to simple syrups. So I made a Splenda simple syrup and added it to the quart jar... and then returned it to the darkness of the pantry, to remain dormant for a few weeks more.

After I got home from my ordination, I decanted what was in the jar:

The fruits of my etrogcello labors.

The little bottles are meant as gifts (at least one is going to Jeff, who graciously gave me his leftover etrogim to work with) and the big one is for us. I'm planning to save it for Tu BiShvat, the "new year of the trees." We'll toast that new year with a nip of our own homemade etrog liqueur -- a reminder of Sukkot and autumn and our sukkah and the crunch of leaves underfoot, a reminder to look back to last fall and also forward to next fall even as we inhabit this moment in deepest midwinter.

I love (re)connecting Judaism with its seasonal roots. At the full moon of the month of Shvat, Jewish tradition teaches us, the sap begins to rise and trees begin to nourish themselves toward the growing season that's coming. Tasting the fruit of actual trees helps me to remember that this isn't just an intellectual and spiritual teaching. I love all the mystical teachings about the roots of the Tree of Life, but this isn't only a celebration of those things -- it's a celebration of real live trees and their continued existence, too.

Torah is famously compared with a tree ("It is a tree of life for them that hold fast to it"), but at this moment in the year I like to think about the ways in which trees are like Torah: they are beautiful, they nurture us with their shade and their sustenance, and even though they change in appearance as the year unfolds there's something constant and solid about them, something we can hold on to.

And Torah is yummy. Just like our etrogcello. L'chaim!


The return of the sun

December sunrise, a few years ago.

It's the winter solstice here in the northern hemisphere -- what we in Jewish tradition call tekufat Tevet. (For some beautiful Jewish teachings about this lunar month, I recommend Tel Shemesh's page on Tevet.)

There was a lunar eclipse last night, apparently, though I didn't wake up at 3am to see it; given that my son wakes and demands my presence at 5am, there was no way I was going to give up those precious minutes of sleep! I was blessed to witness one a few years ago. It was amazing, and sparked a poem. I hope to see another one someday. Just not this year.

Anyway, here in New England the day is cold and pale. The cloud-filtered light and damp air are beautiful, in a wintery kind of way. But the sun rose late and will set early, and (unlike in the photo above) neither of those is visible through the snowy clouds. On the bright side, this is the shortest day we're going to get: from here on out, we're headed back toward the return of the sun.

Happy solstice to all. May we all be blessed with light, on every level.


The forest beyond the trees

photo by flickr user EveMBH; licensed under creative commons.

Every year at this season the subject rises up again. This year you can find it in Slate, where Mark Oppenheimer and Jessica Grose debate Should Jews Own Christmas Trees? Or Andi Rosenthal's essay Tree of Life, which asks "why one particular type of tree--you know, that one--causes us such anxiety." Or take this recent tweet from @InterfaithFam: Having a Christmas tree doesn't make you "less Jewish" - or does it? I offered a three-part response on twitter, but -- go figure -- I think I have more to say than can be expressed in 520 characters.

This isn't just about conifers. The tree is a stand-in for the bigger issue of how we as a religious minority relate to the dominant religious/cultural tradition around us. (My perspective on this is a Diaspora one, and a USian one at that -- readers from elsewhere, feel free to chime in too.) The notion of Jews trimming Christmas trees raises communal fear of assimilation and disppearance. When we have this conversation, we should be conscious of that fear and of how it shapes our response.

This also isn't new. R' Joshua Plaut's essay Jews and Christmas teaches that many Western European Jews had Christmas trees (my maternal grandmother, z"l, used to reminisce about having a tree in Prague in the 1930s; apparently Theodore Herzl had one too) and how in the US, too, many Jews adopted the custom of trimming a tree as a sign of American-ness. Jewish writer Anne Roiphe wrote an essay in 1978 about her Jewish family's Christmas celebrations (and in response to the ensuing wave of criticism wrote Generation Without Memory and vowed to seek a more engaged Jewish life.) 

But the the Jews I know who have Christmas trees have chosen that practice because someone in their intimate family is a non-Jew for whom the tree, and the celebration it represents, is important. The Jewish Outreach Institute offers statistics: "28% of the 2.6 million married Jews in the U.S. are married to non-Jews and the rate of intermarriage [in 1990] was 52% of all marriages involving at least one Jew." Many of us have Christians in our extended clans, if not our intimate nuclear families. When we have this conversation, we should be conscious of that, too.

Continue reading "The forest beyond the trees" »