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" »


Hoshanot

Today is Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh day of the festival of Sukkot which is also a minor holiday of its own. The name means "The Great Hoshana" or "The Great 'Please Save Us'!" It's traditional, on each day of Sukkot, to make a circuit around the interior of the synagogue or around the Torah-reading table carrying our lulavim and reciting a hoshana (supplicatory prayer); on the seventh day, we make seven circuits and recite seven hoshanot.

R' Shlomo Carlebach singing a wordless niggun on Hoshana Rabbah.

My teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has written a set of contemporary poetic hoshanot in English. Reb Arthur Waskow notes that:

These Hoshanot in English by Reb Zalman follow the model of the traditional Hebrew Hoshanot, which are aimed at the protection and healing of the earth from locusts, drought, etc. These English versions do so not only in the line-by-line meaning, but also by celebrating, day by day, the aspects of the universe that (according to the first chapter of Genesis) were created on each of the original seven days. They also draw on the alphabetical pattern of the traditional Hebrew Hoshanot.

Here's how they begin:

Hosha'na for the sake of
the Aura of life
the Beams of Light
the Clearness of Light
the Dynamics of Light
the Effulgence of Light
the diFfraction of light
the Glory of light
the Haloes of light
the Illumination of light
the Joys of sight...

Even if you're not dancing around a sanctuary with lulavim and Torah scrolls, reading Reb Zalman's hoshanot and reflecting on their meaning is a lovely observance of Hoshana Rabbah. They're online here at the Reb Zalman Legacy Project blog, and also here at the Shalom Center (with commentary from Reb Arthur below the hoshanot themselves.) Reb Zalman has also written a separate bilingual hoshana (the Hebrew is an alphabetic acrostic; the English is a translation) which is online here, and which speaks out of contrition for how we've damaged creation.

Speaking of Reb Zalman, I'm happy to be able to report that his beautiful English-language siddur (prayerbook), Sh'ma, is once again available in print. I just ordered myself a copy; if you have any interest in Jewish prayer in English, it's $10 well-spent. You can order it online here.


Tomorrow will be Shemini Atzeret, "the pause of the 8th day" -- it's the extra day of celebration tacked on at the end of the seven days of Sukkot. It's customary to recite special prayers for rain on that day; last year I wrote a contemporary prayer for rain to be recited on Shemini Atzeret. If you're interested, you can find it here.


Music about mothers on my first Mother's Day

When I first discovered that I was pregnant, I began working on a series of poems which took the form of letters to the baby. I meant to write nine of them, and had vague notions of maybe someday making a single-edition chapbook to give to my son when he was old enough to appreciate them. As it turned out, I only wrote eight. Since I started the series long before we had a name in mind, I called them "Letters to Little Bean."

Two of those poems have been set to music by the composer Michael Veloso, who is a dear friend of mine. They'll have their world premiere at a Mother's Day concert by Cantilena, a women's chorale dedicated to performing music written for women's voices. Cantilena is directed by Allegra Martin, also a dear friend.

Longtime readers of this blog may remember Through, the collection of poems I wrote about my miscarriage a few months before Drew's conception. My anxiety about having a second miscarriage sparked the beginning of my first poem to Drew, which begins:

I don't like to cough too hard,
to move too fast.
Something twinges
and I'm afraid I'll shake you loose,
little bean...

That's the first poem for which Mike composed music. On his website, Mike writes:

I'd like to call attention to the first poem, Little Bean, written during the early weeks of Rachel's pregnancy, which is about her constant fear of miscarriage in the first trimester; many, many babies never make it past the first months, and I found her poem particularly moving in how it captures the fragility of that time, the daily terror of waking up and wondering if your baby is still alive. It's something that few people talk about -- miscarriage is, of course, an intensely personal and private trauma -- and I'm glad to have had the opportunity to bring something normally kept silent out into the open.

The second poem that Mike set to music -- one of the later poems in the Little Bean series -- is about getting the nursery ready for Drew's arrival and hoping that I, too, was as ready as I could be. It begins, "Less than a month now / until we meet face to face, / skin to skin..." I've seen the sheet music for his compositions, and I'm really looking forward to hearing them performed!

The concert will also feature settings of Ave Maria by Fauré and Poulenc, Duruflé's Tota Pulchra Es, Irving Fine's Caroline Million (which Allegra describes as "raucous and malicious!"), and several other pieces as well -- quite a remarkable range of music about motherhood.

The concert is at 7pm, which is Drew's bedtime. After much reflection, I've come to the conclusion that bringing him to the concert would not be kind to anyone (not the audience, not the singers, and especially not him.) I'm planning to buzz the dress rehearsal on Saturday in order to introduce him to the singers who've been rehearsing music about him for months, and on the night of Mother's Day will put him to bed at my sister's house and then tiptoe out to hear the concert by myself.

If you're in the Boston area and this kind of thing appeals to you, please come! (And hey, if you'd like to see Drew, though I can't offer you the chance to ooh and ahh over him in person, you can always enjoy his flickr stream, which is updated every few days...) Here's the scoop about the show:

Music About Mothers: From the Divine to the Deranged

Performed by Cantilena

Allegra Martin, Director

Sunday, May 9, 2010 at 7 PM

First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church
630 Massachusetts Avenue (corner of Mass Ave and Route 60)
Arlington Center, MA
(This venue is handicapped accessible)

Hope to see you there!


A basket of Purim links

Happy Purim!

Not surprisingly, given the existence of our three-month-old son, I haven't had the chance this year to write anything new about the festival. So instead, I figured I'd point to this blog's Purim category, which includes all of the Purim-related posts I've made in years past.

And as a kind of virtual mishloach manot (basket of tasty goodies traditionally given to friends at Purim-time), I offer these links to three of my favorites among those posts:

  • 2009: The end of Esther. Let's be clear: in my understanding the Book of Esther is not a historical text. The story it chronicles never "happened." (Biblicist Marc Zvi Brettler calls it "more like comedy, burlesque, or farce.")

    But even if we relate to the megillah of Esther as pure story, as a rich and finely-crafted parable about masks and inversion and the challenges of living in an era when God's face may seem as hidden from us as God's name is absent from this traditional text, how can, or should, we deal with the violence at the end of the story?

  • 2008: מאי המנתשן / Why hamantaschen? As a kid I learned that Haman (boo!) wore a tricornered hat. These tricornered cookies are called "hamantaschen" which means "Haman's Hat" (actually Haman's Pocket, but close enough) and we eat them as a sign of our triumph over Haman. In adulthood it's become clear to me that this is an anachronism (among other things, tricornered hat? in ancient Shushan? really?) but it's still an entertaining drash, mostly because it allows me to picture Haman as a kind of arrogant little Napoleon.

  • 2006: Purim homily. On Purim we don masks and costumes, pretending to be someone else -- a king, a queen, a villain, a jester -- for the night. These masks and veils can remind us that the ordinary identities we wear -- mother, daughter, banker, doctor -- are also constructed. We wear them because they protect us, or they feel good, or they feel safe...but deep down, we are both more than and less than our public identities would indicate. Deep down, there is a part of each of us which never changes, no matter what mask we wear. That part of us is continually at-one with God.

Those are three of my favorites, but there are plenty of other posts which take different tacks. I hope you find something in these Purim posts which resonates with you, and I hope your Purim is joyous and sweet!


Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach, version 7!

The first seder is five weeks from tonight: if you haven't started thinking about your seder this year, now might be a good time to start. To help get you psyched about my favorite festival, as promised, this year I'm releasing version 7.0 of the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach...and here it is!

The Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach: Version 7.0 [pdf, 5.2MB]

It's been two years since the last revision came out, and since then I've been collecting edits, changes, and additions. Changes in this edition include:

  • new! a meditation on the 3-legged stool of the Jewish year (accompanied by a beautiful new illustration by Alison Kent)

  • new! a practice of asking 3 questions at the start of the seder, and a meditation which offers 3 answers

  • new! a chant for hand-washing, written by Rabbi Shefa Gold

  • new! an alternative reading about the Four Children, written by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

  • revised! an expanded Hallel section, featuring more psalms in both Hebrew and English

  • new! an alternative shfoch chamatecha / "pour out Your wrath" reading (this prayer is part of the classical haggadah, but has never before been a part of this one)

  • new! a meditation before opening the door for Elijah, again by Reb Zalman

  • revised! an expanded songs section at the back, featuring Ken supiese y entidiense ("Who Knows One" in Ladino), Adir Hu (traditional) and Orah Hi (Rabbi Jill Hammer's feminist adaptation of Adir Hu)

  • revised! some typos fixed, in Hebrew and in English; also attribution for the Ballad of the Four Sons

  • new! a beautiful new cover, courtesy of graphic designer Daniel Beck.

As is my custom, I've replaced the old version on my website with this new version, so if you've linked to velveteenrabbi.com/VRHaggadah.pdf, your link will still work -- it'll just point to the new edition instead of the old one.

Praise for the previous edition:

  • For the second seder this year, I knew that I was going to have a diverse group of guests and was looking for a haggadah that would help make it traditional enough for everyone to experience a ritual that would be recognizable to Jews anywhere, but accessible enough for everyone to connect without difficulty. With your help, it was an amazing experience for all - 6 Jews (secular to Orthodox, Ashkenazi and Sefardi, American and Finnish), 3 Tibetan Buddhists, 1 French Catholic, and 1 German Presbyterian. -- Rabbi Rebecca Joseph

  • 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, Massachusetts

  • The seder went BRILLIANTLY! Folks loved your haggadah (although we did shorten it a bit since there were 50 people and it was a bit mayhem-like.) There were some smiling moments of, "hey, this isn't my grandma's haggadah!!" and then huge grins. -- danah, Massachusetts

  • My wife and I used your Velveteen Rabbi Haggadah for our Seder last night and had the most incredibly gratifying experience. Everyone loved it. We were all so grateful for the absence of sexism and the persistent call for peace - we had everyone eat an olive when we introduced that feature on the Seder plate. We are so grateful to you for putting this together. -- Clifford, California

Thanks to everyone who's contributed to the haggadah over the years -- and to all of you who use it. I hope this new edition makes your seder even more meaningful and sweet.

Please feel free to share the haggadah widely: link to this post, email the file around, spread the word! And if you do use the haggadah, let me know what you think; I love getting feedback of all kinds.


Gratitude

When I first went to Elat Chayyim in 2002, back at the old venue in the Catskills, and first experienced the discipline of heartfelt daily prayer as an adult, I was struck by the modah ani prayer for gratitude with which we began our morning worship. It was one of the first prayer practices I adopted. These days I try to say modah ani every morning first thing: if it's not the first thought in my mind when the alarm goes off, I try to make it at least my first intentional or conscious thought as the shower wakes me from sleep.

Cultivating a mindset of gratitude is one of the reasons why I value my prayer practice. So much of Jewish liturgy is aimed at saying "thank you" in one way or another: thank you for this body, thank you for the soul which enlivens it, thank you for the fact that I am alive today. Thank you for the food we're about to eat; thank you for the food we've just eaten. Thank you for giving us the discernment and consciousness we need in order to mark and sanctify time. Thank you for the rhythm of weekdays; thank you for Shabbat which interrupts that rhythm. Thank you for the wisdom teachings which call us beyond ourselves.

There are times when it's hard for me to feel grateful. When I'm sick or hurting or in pain, or when something has gone wrong which clouds my ability to access thankfulness. But the practice of saying thank you doesn't stop on those days. In those moments, says my teacher Rabbi Jeff Roth, the best we can do may be to pray for the ability to feel gratitude at some future moment, and to say our words of gratitude in hopes that speaking the words will cause the emotion to arise in us. We don't only get to say "thank you" when we feel like it. My mother, who did her best to teach me proper southern manners, would surely approve.

In the United States today is a day for giving thanks. I have an enormous amount for which to be thankful today. Family and friends, our home and the hills, a glorious abundance of food, and an amazing web of interconnections with loved ones around the world: all of these sustain me, and us, this Thanksgiving. And I'm thankful for my online life, the friendships which have formed through these matrices of pixels and these asynchronous conversations. I'm thankful for all of you who read this blog, whether you comment often or rarely, whether we tend to agree or disagree.

Thanks for being there, y'all. The last six years of Velveteen Rabbi have been a grand adventure, and I look forward to seeing what kinds of conversations we have in years to come. If you're celebrating Thanksgiving, I hope your day is full and sweet! And if you're not, I hope you have a fine Thursday, wherever you are.


This evening at sundown begins Eid ul-Adha -- I wish an eid mubarak, a blessed eid, to all of my Muslim readers & friends!


A prayer for rain

GESHEM (RAIN)


Millennia ago, the earth was washed in water
connections sparked unimaginable across the water

the life we know begins cradled in water
each human being emerges in a flood of water

from ancient times we've prayed to God for water
not too much, not too little, just enough water

this year the landscape I first knew lacked water
grasslands parched, thirsting for drops of water

this year the hills where I live ran with water
seeping through roofs, swelling doors shut with water

to mark holy times we immerse ourselves in water
washing our old hurts away in water

in the city of gold rooftop tanks collect water
those who have and those who lack fight over water

in the beginning, presence hovered over water
mysterious and unknowable like deep water

the bodies we inhabit are made of water
our veins and tissues stay functional through water

we couldn't stand and offer praise without water
source of all, be kind to us: send water.


On the festival of Shemini Atzeret, in many communities, during the musaf repetition of the amidah (the extra iteration of the standing prayer), a prayer is offered which describes our holy relationship with God through the repeated motif of water. It's called tefilat geshem, "the rain prayer." That link will take you to a brief article about the prayer which also features the words of the prayer in Hebrew and, as a drop-down menu, in English.

From here on out, as we pray the amidah (the standing prayer which is central to our liturgy) daily, we'll replace the one-line request for dew with a one-line request for winds and rain. (At Pesach, we recite tefilat tal, the dew prayer, and thenceforth we daily ask for dew instead of for rain...until Shemini Atzeret.) The year oscillates between these two poles.

Many classical piyyutim (liturgical poems) take a form which looks to me, as a student of poetry, not unlike a ghazal. A ghazal is a Persian/Arabic/Urdu form which I first learned through reading the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali, may his memory be a blessing. (Here's one of his poems, titled simply Ghazal.) Ghazals are written in couplets, and each line ends with a "refrain" word. A classical ghazal features meter, as well as a kind of hidden rhyme, found in the word which precedes the refrain word.

The classical prayer for rain recited on Shemini Atzeret is beautiful poetry, and I don't mean to supplant it -- rather to add to the body of liturgical poetry of which it is a part. In that spirit, I offer this "ghazal" (I'm putting that in quotes because I haven't fully lived up to the constraints of the classical Persian form), a contemporary variation on the prayer for rain spoken today, on Shemini Atzeret. May we all be washed with blessings like falling water.

[geshem.mp3]


Adonai, open my lips...

I recently encountered a beautiful teaching by the Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger; I've blogged his teachings many times before.) This is one of his teachings for Hoshanna Rabbah (the seventh day of Sukkot) and can be found in The Language of Truth. It's about prayer.

On Hoshanna Rabbah we beat willow branches against the ground. The willow, he says, represents speech, which connects it with prayer (prayer being, after all, a form of speech.) The willow is also associated with David, the psalmist, who said "I am my prayer before You."

Prayer is all we have for reaching God. In some sense that may seem either inadequate or chutzpahdik. On the other hand, prayer is all we need for reaching God. The leaves of the willow are shaped like lips, and our lips are the gates through which our prayers pass.

At the end of Yom Kippur we make much of how "the gates are closing." We seem to need the catharsis and the drama of dipping deep into the experience of that day as though, when that day ends, our chance to reach God were over. Though the tradition also says that the gates of repentance remain open through Hoshanna Rabbah (some say, through Shemini Atzeret, the 8th day of Sukkot)... and really, says the Sefat Emet, the gates to God are always open as long as we use our lips to pray.

Our mouths are the gates. When they are closed -- when we perceive that God is far from us -- that's because we've closed the gates ourselves. That's the heartbreaking news: our experience of God as being distant from us is our own doing! But the good news is, opening the gates is always within our power. All we have to do is open our lips.


Joy

What does it mean to be commanded to be joyful?

The festival of Sukkot is called zman simchateinu, the season of our rejoicing. It's a mitzvah -- a connective-commandment, a religious obligation -- to rejoice in our sukkot. This mitzvah is d'oraita (comes from the Torah itself, rather than from later rabbinic tradition): Deuteronomy 16:15 says, "you shall be altogether joyful." But what can this mean? Surely it isn't possible to legislate an inner state of being. For me, the critical distinction is between the English words "joy" and "happiness."

Happiness comes and goes. We may have a sense for what conditions are likeliest to bring it about, but I'm not sure we can entirely trust that sense. (Haven't you known people who pursued things they thought would make them happy, but discovered that what they were seeking wasn't actually enough?) And besides, the conditions aren't usually within our control. I may perceive that I'm happiest when I'm surrounded by people I love, eating great food, experiencing wonderful live music, traveling to exciting new places, immersing in an amazing experience of prayer -- but even though I'm fortunate to have a lot of those moments in my life, life isn't like that all the time. I can't count on that experience to sustain me. (For a different -- but not unrelated -- perspective on happiness, you might enjoy Daniel Gilbert on why it’s so hard to know what makes us happy, over at Ethan's blog.)

It seems to me that joy is something different. Joy can be cultivated. And joy can coexist with sorrow.

Continue reading "Joy" »


Turn, turn, turn

Friday evening I got a message that the rabbi was unwell; could I lead services on Saturday morning? Of course, I said. He emailed me the creative Hallel handout he'd assembled, told me which Torah scroll in the ark is set to the reading for the first day of Sukkot, thanked me, and went to bed. That changed the shape of Friday evening a bit. I sat down with my Mishkan Tfilah Weekdays & Festivals edition to look over the festival morning service, and then took out my tikkun to learn the Torah reading, and printed out the guitar tablature for the "song of the week" that had been chosen -- Pete Seeger's "Turn, Turn, Turn," because the megillah associated with Sukkot is Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) from which most of those lyrics are drawn. The service was a lot of fun; we had a minyan, I played guitar for a couple of the songs in Hallel, and afterwards we studied excerpts from Kohelet and talked about why this megillah might have been chosen to be paired with this festival, themes of striving and impermanence, work and harvest.

Shabbat afternoon was fogged-in and rainy -- no weather for sitting outside in the sukkah, alas. Instead, a good friend and I turned what we estimated to be the proverbial bushel and peck of apples (of many local varieties: Red Lady, Macoun, Honeycrisp, others of unidentifiable provenance) into enough applesauce to grace our Chanukah  latkes, feed my son next spring when he's starting on baby food, and still give both of our households enough applesauce to enjoy and to give away this winter. It was a profoundly satisfying way to spend the day. I enjoy the rhythm of the work. My fingers gravitate toward the Shaker apple corer/slicer and the food mill, both of which turn, turn, turn. I savor the scent of apples cooking with just a splash of water and several long dashes of cinnamon. And I love watching the jars pile up beside the canner, and hearing the popping sounds of their lids sealing this harvest goodness for the seasons to come.

Today dawned with fog but no rain, and soon the sun burned the fog away, though in the valley below us it rested like low-flying clouds all morning. Ethan's taking advantage of the sun to do some much-needed roofing repair work (it's kind of funny that during this season when we inhabit sukkot and remember the impermanence of our dwelling-places, he's quite literally facing the impermanence of ours!) but I'm not much help with that, so I went out to the sukkah instead. To my great pleasure, the rains of earlier in the weekend dampened everything but didn't knock the schach off of the roof! So I went inside and shook my lulav in all six directions, beckoning blessings. I sang some psalms quietly to myself. And then I sat down and called my folks, bringing them into the sukkah through their voices in my ear. I wonder what our son will make of our little round sukkah, of being outdoors and indoors all at once, next time the wheel of the year rolls around.


Permeable: a poem for Sukkot

PERMEABLE


Today I'll finish our sukkah
stacking old wildflowers
to hint at roof, twining tinsel
around the slats

all year we imagine
our houses are our houses
stable and comfortable
waterproof and familiar

but these seven days
remind us that permanence
is overrated, that our true home
is under the stars

change is always underway
nine short weeks remain
until you'll leave the home
you probably think is forever

and enter our world
airy and unpredictable
where we won't know what you need
even sometimes when you tell us

your first big leap of faith, kid:
into nothing you've ever known
into the fragile sukkah
we've decorated just for you


Tonight at sundown begins the festival of Sukkot, when we spend a week "dwelling" (or at least hanging out and dining) in little outdoor houses. A sukkah must be permeable to the elements; one should be able to see the full moon through the loose branches of its roof. It's a celebration of the harvest (in this hemisphere) and a chance to remind ourselves that even the solid structures we build aren't as permanent as the fact of change.

Nothing hammers home that truth for me as vividly as my swelling belly, the squirms and kicks I've grown accustomed to feeling inside me, the hand-me-down baby gear accumulating in the nursery. So this week's poem -- not a Torah poem; just a poem-poem -- draws both on the Jewish holiday/seasonal cycle, and on the cycle of this embodied year and the changes in my life which are physically underway.

To those who celebrate, I wish a chag sameach -- may your Sukkot be joyful!

(To ReadWritePoem folks: alas, once again I didn't write to this week's prompt, but if you'd like to read the other responses, you can find them here: Get Your Poem On #94.)

[permeable.mp3]


Find previous Sukkot posts here.

The pause before change

I tend to think of the equinoxes and solstices as happening on the 21st of the months in which they occur. There's a simple reason for this: my birthday is March 21, and when I was growing up I was told that my birthday was the first day of spring. (Of course this is only true in the northern hemisphere. To anyone reading this in the global South, my apologies for the boreocentrism.) I loved the idea that spring began on my birthday, and it fascinated me to think on the equinoxes, everywhere in the world gets 12 hours of daylight. (There's a lovely image of this at Wikipedia if you'd like a visual aid.)

I've since learned that technically the equinoxes and solstices don't always fall on the 21st of their requisite months. (This year, for instance, the September Equinox falls today, on September 22.) Also that it's not exactly true that everywhere in the world gets exactly 12h of light on the equinoxes. That equinox page tells me that "during the time of the September and March equinoxes many regions around the equator have a daylight length of about 12 hours and six-and-a-half minutes. Moreover, the day is slightly longer in places that are further away from the equator and the sun takes longer to rise and set in these locations."

But even if it isn't scientifically exact to think that the equinoxes are cosmic balance-points, when the earth is perfectly poised between one season and the next, on a spiritual level this idea still really works for me -- especially coming, as this one does, during the Days of Awe. I like to think that today our planet pauses, perfectly aligned, before beginning to tilt again.

The equinoxes (and solstices) are times of year when I'm especially conscious of changing light. Today the earth's tilt is vertical, neither toward the sun nor away from it; tomorrow we begin to shift. In my hemisphere, this is the official first day of autumn. Though in south Texas where I grew up that didn't really mean much, in New England where I've lived for the past seventeen years the outside world is already visibly changing. High places in my region had their first frost a couple of nights ago. (We didn't, here at our house, but it was a near thing; it's coming soon.) The angle of light at my desk has changed. While most trees here are still green, here and there a branch or a whole tree is alight with red or gold, the first flames of fall.

This shift puts me in mind of other shifts which are on their way. By the time we reach the first day of winter -- even if he is late in coming, as many first babies are -- my son will have emerged from my body and entered the world. This is the last season before his birth.

[T]he ancient book of Jubilees tells that on the night of the autumn equinox, Abraham looked up to the stars to try to see the future. At that moment, the Holy One spoke to him. As the nights grow longer, we spend time telling the stories of our ancestors and remembering our traditions. From this, we learn who we might become.

That's from Yom Kippur and the Autumn Equinox: A Comparison by Rabbi Jill Hammer, published at Tel Shemesh in a year when the two days were right up next to one another. It was from Reb Jill that I first learned the traditional Jewish blessing recited on the equinox (which can be found in Talmud:) ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם עושה בראשית / Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam, oseh vereishit. (Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of all being, who makes creation.)

The precise moment of equinox today has been calculated to fall at 21:19 UTC, which will be 5:19pm here in my time zone. I haven't decided yet whether I'm going to go outdoors and make this blessing at that moment, or whether I will find a time which arises organically out of my day when I can go outdoors, breathe deeply of the autumnal air, and bless the Source Who fills and fulfills all things. Either way, today is a hinge-point between what has been and what is coming. What, in your life, is poised on the cusp of change?


Previous equinox posts: in 2008, the poem Equinox; in 2007, the microessay Equinox, which was published at qarrtsiluni.


Sunshine in a jar

Bowl of lemons.

This year for erev Rosh Hashanah dinner -- historically the big "festive meal" in my family of origin -- I want to do something simple but awesome. Homemade challah goes without saying; local apples and honey ditto. But what to make for a main course? Right now I'm contemplating a recipe for Moroccan chicken with preserved lemon and olives which I found in Saveur. The only thing is, I don't know where to get preserved lemons around here. Fortunately for me, Saveur has a recipe for those, too.

Some of you may remember that I experimented with sweet and spicy etrog pickle once last Sukkot was over. The recipe I used was a highly-spiced preserved lemon recipe; I just made it with etrogim instead. The trouble is, etrogim have almost no juice; their fragrance is incredible, but they're mostly pith, with only a little bit of pulp in the middle of each fruit. I tried to compensate for that with some storebought lemon juice, and I packed the etrogim in their cooking syrup, but I knew as I was making them that this wasn't quite how the recipe was supposed to go. I did bring a jar of etrog pickle to our Tu BiShvat seder at my shul this winter, and a few brave souls tasted this version of preserved etrog -- but I'm not sure anyone loved the results. (I think this year I'll return to jam.)

Saveur's preserved lemon recipe is ridiculously simple, though... and already I can see how these are going to turn out very differently than my preserved etrogim. The first thing I did was juice half a dozen lemons, yielding two cups of bright pale lemon juice. Then I sliced four lemons almost into quarters -- making each one into a kind of  tulip shape -- and rubbed their insides with coarse kosher salt, which will get washed off before we cook with them; it's just there to help the rinds soften and preserve.

I packed them into a sterile quart jar -- four lemons just barely fit inside -- and then poured the two cups of lemon juice over them to cover. (You can also just salt the lemons and pack them into a jar and let them generate their own juice, but that takes longer, and since the moon of Elul is already full, I opted for the speedier version of the recipe in order to be able to cook with them when the new moon of Tishri rises.)

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Approaching Elul...and Ramadan.

The full moon of the month of Av is waning. A few days ago Tu b'Av passed almost unnoticed, though it's the reason why we're studying some gorgeous texts about joy and dance in my class on Hasidic Texts & The Sacred Year tonight. (Tu b'Av is the 15th of the month of Av, e.g. the full moon of this lunar month, and was once a joyful festival. As MyJewishLearning notes, in post-Biblical times it was a day of joy, and before the fall of the second Temple in 70 CE it was a holiday of matchmaking -- women wore white, and there was dancing and perhaps romancing in the fields.)

So now the moon is shrinking. When it vanishes and then reappears, a new lunar month will be upon us -- an important one for both Jews and Muslims. Like last year, this year the Muslim holy month of Ramadan overlaps with the Jewish month of Elul. The Muslim calendar moves around the solar calendar each year; the Jewish calendar operates on a Metonic system which ensures that our fall festivals remain in the fall and our spring festivals in the spring (in the northern hemisphere, anyway -- sorry, southern hemisphere folks) so it's relatively rare for the Jewish calendar and Muslim calendar to coincide in this way.

The name "Elul" can be read as an acronym for a phrase from Song of Songs, ani l'dodi v'dodi li, which means "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine." That phrase can be read as an assertion about human beloveds, and also about our relationship with God -- I am my Beloved's, and my Beloved is mine. Elul is a month to reconnect with God. It's considered the appropriate time to begin doing the inner work of discerning where our relationships (with ourselves, with others, with the divine) need a bit of repair before the Days of Awe roll around at the start of Tishri. For Jews, Elul is a month with intense spiritual focus.

For our Muslim cousins and friends, of course, so is Ramadan. (If you're not familiar with Ramadan, or if you're looking for access to what the experience of observing the month might be like, I highly recommend Hungry for Ramadan, a blog at Beliefnet where my friend Shahed Amanullah of AltMuslim blogged about each day of Ramadan in 2007. He writes beautifully about what the month is like for him.)

The practice of fasting during Ramadan has no direct parallel in Judaism (we have fast days too -- both "full fasts" like Yom Kippur and Tisha b'Av, and "minor fasts" which extend only from sunrise to sunset -- but they come one at a time, not for a solid month.) Still, I love knowing that both of our religious communities will be engaged in prayer, study of sacred texts, and the practice of trying to keep God at the forefront of our consciousness during the next cycle of the moon.

During the three days immediately leading up to Elul and Ramadan, I'll be on a retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Religious Leaders run by the Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives at the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College. The Jews in the group are all rabbinic students; the Muslims are scholars and community leaders. We'll be doing a lot of learning together (studying texts from both the Tanakh and the Qur'an) and, I hope, creating community connections both within each delegation and between the two groups who are gathered. What a great way to spend the final days of the month of Av: engaging in a ramp-up to Elul and Ramadan, this year a doubly holy month.


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Three scenes from Tisha b'Av

1.

Five people are sitting on the sanctuary floor; three are still in their chairs. The lights are dimmed: it's bright enough to see our prayerbooks and our little booklets containing Lamentations and several poems, but the room is noticeably dark. Outside, torrential rains pour down.

We take turns reading Lamentations aloud. At the beginning of each chapter, one person chants the first half-dozen verses according to the haunting tune only used on this one day of the year; then we go around the room, reading the poem in English.

Jackboots have marched in the Temple where barbarous hands have besmirched the sacred objects and fouled the holy places where fear and respect should have kept them away.

It's "jackboots" that gets to me. Intellectually I know that this chapter, like most of the poem, is an alphabetic acrostic and the translator needs to ensure that each verse begins with a new letter. Between the I verse and the K verse comes the J verse. But emotionally, that doesn't matter. The image of jackbooted thugs walking cavalierly into sacred places, kicking things over, trashing what is loved, will not leave me.

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More resources for Tisha b'Av

Rabbi Jill Hammer, of Tel Shemesh, has written A Midrash on the Month of Av, newly-published at Zeek, which speaks of the womb as the holy temple:

The temple is in exile, and this may be why midwives are scarce, birth takes place in the realm of the sick, and healers know better how to cut open the womb than to deliver a baby from it.   Many labor without delivering: the gate opens too slowly.  The heart rate plunges, the emergency unfolds, the exit from the womb comes with a breach in the wall.  One-third of all births are Caesarean births.  We have lost the keys to the temple.  

We have lost the sounds of the temple, the murmuring of the rituals and the voices of prayer.  Women become pregnant and they tell no one, for fear they will have to tell that there was a miscarriage.  They feel joy and do not speak.  They are sick, they vomit, they do not explain.  They go to work, they care for others. There are no stories of birth on television, only stories of doctors who bravely catch babies as they emerge from somewhere.  The temple is silent.  Who will open up this silence? 

Her essay speaks to me in powerful ways, for reasons which are probably obvious. Beyond that, I admire her radical revisioning of what it might mean -- especially for women -- to be in mourning for the temple we have lost.

And Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, teacher of my teachers, offers Prayers for the Ninth of Av. He notes that during the afternoon mincha service, when tradition holds that the transformation begins to be possible, we add a special prayer for Jerusalem to the amidah (central standing prayer.) He offers a new prayer in place of the traditional one. In English, his prayer begins:

Comfort, Yah our God,
all who mourn your sacred house,
who grieve the holy wholeness it contained.
Comfort especially those who live most closely
in the shadow of its memory,
amidst the shattered sacredness of Your Holy
City, the city of many names and owners;
Yerushalayim,
Capital of the state of Israel,
the beginnings of our redemption,
Al Quds, the apple of the eye of Palestine...

I appreciate that his prayer acknowledges Jerusalem's dual identity. If peace is ever to come to the Middle East, we will all need to acknowledge that "our" holy city is also "their" holy city, and that we and they need to find a way to honor her through living side by side. Anyway, whether or not you'll be praying a formal mincha amidah tomorrow, I recommend Reb Zalman's prayer, which you can read in Hebrew and in English at his blog post.

And finally -- if you're not in a place where you can listen to the chanting of Eicha/Lamentations on Tisha b'Av, you can hear the whole poem sung in Hebrew according to the haunting melody used only on Tisha b'Av here at VirtualCantor.com or here at Len Fellman's website. Len has also set Simon Zucker's "Lamentation on the Holocaust" to Eicha trope -- a beautiful example of setting an English-language text to fit the carrier-wave of classical cantillation.


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Preparing for Tisha b'Av

Tisha b'Av begins tomorrow night at sundown. Jewish tradition holds that five major catastrophes have fallen on this date, including the destruction of both the First and Second Temples.

The authors of the mishna (the name means "repetition" or "second" -- it is the kernel at the heart of Talmud, and was redacted around 200 C.E.) lived after the Second Temple was destroyed, and they were preoccupied with the cause of the calamity. They tell us that the First Temple fell to the Babylonians in 586 BCE because of the community's high rate of idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed. The second Temple fell to the Romans in 70 CE, they wrote, because of sinat chinam -- causeless hatred.

In later Talmudic sources, the rabbis offered a variety of other explanations for the Temple's fall: the community failed to keep Shabbat, no longer recited the shema with appropriate intention, treated scholars with contempt, and so on. Each of these arguments tells us something about who the sages of that era were and what mattered to them -- and it's telling that it doesn't seem to have occurred to them that the Temples fell because the Babylonian and Roman armies were simply too strong to fend off. They were looking for theological reasons for the destruction, because if it were our community's sin which brought about the destruction, then surely our teshuvah (repentance/return to God) would cause us to be raised up again. (My thanks are due to Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, who articulated these teachings in a recent e-bulletin from the Conservative Yeshiva where I studied last summer.)

My own theology differs from that of the sages of the Mishnaic era. I see the fall of the temples as the incredibly painful birth pangs of a new era. Without the temple at our tradition's heart, we evolved rabbinic Judaism: a creative -- and portable -- transformation of our paradigm for communal living, prayer, and connection with God. From the vantage point of modernity, I can see the blessing which we were able to wrest from the rubble. I wouldn't go back to what we had before. But I find value in gathering with my community once a year to mourn our old losses, and to mourn the brokenness of the world in which we still live. To dive into the reality of human suffering, and to grapple again with the question of how to give our suffering meaning.

Take note of the place where this holiday falls in our festival cycle. This is the low point of our year. From here we begin the slow climb up to the month of Elul (an opportunity to spend four weeks in spiritual preparation for the Days of Awe) and then come the big holidays of (northern hemisphere) autumn, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Sukkot. In some ways, 9 Av is the very beginning of the road to those celebrations. We're eager for the rejoicing of the festivals we know are coming, but we can't get there without being here first. This is our day for mourning galut, exile -- not only (or maybe not at all) exile from the site of the Temple, but the existential exile of living in an imperfect and disconnected world. That's spiritual work we need to do each year before we can be ready to move into the high holiday season.

Tomorrow night at my shul we'll read from Eikha (Lamentations) and we'll read contemporary kinnot, poems of lament. Along those lines, if you're looking for appropriate reading for 9 Av, don't miss Aryeh Cohen's gorgeous and heartbreaking new contemporary Kinah; you might also find value in Rabbi Daniel Brenner's Third Temple meditation, and in Rabbi Daniel Seidenberg's Laments: A Fresh Translation of Eikhah, available as a PDF and as a DavkaWriter file. Whatever form your observance may take, I hope you find meaning in it.


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As Shabbat wanes

"Mizmor L'David," psalm 23, sung to a waltz tune which is a variant on the one we sang. This recording is the exact tune we used, but the strings and synthesizer give it a feel that's very unlike our evening.

The final hour of Shabbat is gloriously bittersweet. Seudah shlishit -- the ritualized "third meal" of the day, though sometimes the meal consists only of silence and song -- is at once a moment of consummation (tradition teaches that during these last hours of Shabbat, the presence of God dwells most palpably among us in the world) and the beginning of our parting from the Shabbat queen and the neshama yeteirah, the extra soul, which is ours for the duration of Shabbat and is then gone. The moment when Shabbat is most present is also always the moment when Shabbat has begun to depart.

We sit in the dining room where we've just completed dinner. The artificial lights are turned off so that we can experience the organic darkening of the day. We sing songs of longing for God, interspersed with short periods of silence in which each song continues to resonate. We begin with "Shalom Aleichem," a song which welcomes divine messengers or angels, which most of us think of as a Friday evening song but which is also sung on Saturday late afternoons. There's a special extra verse for this time of seudah shlishit. And then we sit in silence, and breathe, and pause before we sing again.

We sing two different versions of "Yah Ribon" by Rabbi Israel Najara (circa 1600.) We sing "Tzama l'Chol Nafshi," a couplet from psalm 63 (lines 2-3, though we sing them in the opposite order: "O God, I have looked for you in the sanctuary, to see your power and your glory / My soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you!") We sing "Yedid Nefesh," by Rabbi Elazar Azikri (the words are 16th-century; Reb Zalman's singable English translation can be found at the bottom of this post, though we sing the poem in the original) using a melody which comes from the Bratzlav Hasidic tradition. (Bratzlaver Niggun 1 [mp3])

We sing the 23rd psalm to a beautiful and plaintive slow waltz melody, asserting in this moment when Shabbat is beginning to leave us that our faith in God endures, and I remember the seudah shlishit at Ohalah in January. The poem "Twilight" from my chapbook Through arose out of the experience of singing the 23rd psalm in a darkening room as Shabbat waned on the day of my miscarriage. I sing it now with my hand resting on my growing belly.

As the hour grows too late to be able to see our song sheets clearly, we shift into singing niggunim, songs of yearning without words. Though I love the songs with words, it's the wordless ones which finally crack my heart open, and there are tears in my eyes. The voices and faces sitting around this room are so beloved to me, and I know I will not see them for many months -- probably a year. My longing for Shabbat not to have to leave us is intertwined with and magnified by my longing not to have to part from my chevre, my circle of teachers and friends. My heart overflows with gratitude for this moment and with sorrow that the moment has to end.

When we are done, although we have not eaten an actual meal, we sing a brief one-line blessing over the spiritual meal of song and silence. Our blessing consists of two words from psalm 23: cosi revaya, my cup overflows. As we sing, we look around the room, and on everyone's face is an awareness of just how true the words are. When we're done, we walk in silence slowly across campus to the place where we will daven the evening service and then make havdalah, the ceremony separating Shabbat from week. When we get there, it's not quite time yet, so for fifteen minutes or so we sing a Hasidic chant about how there is nothing else but God. Hazzan Jack skillfully uses that tune as our impromptu nusach for the evening service, so we sing our whole evening service with echoes of "ein od milvado" ringing in our ears and hearts.

At havdalah, Reb Marcia tells us (in the name of Reb Elliot) that some Hasidim add an extra word to the final havdalah blessing, the blessing which praises God Who separates between holy and profane, Shabbat and workweek, etc. They -- and now we -- bless God Who מבדיל ומגשר, separates and bridges, between all of these binaries. The addition of that one word changes my whole havdalah experience, and also my anticipated experience of departure from beloved teachers and friends. Tomorrow will bring our separation, but even as we part, we're always on our way back together again.


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Taking note of 17 Tammuz

Today is 17 Tammuz, a minor fast day in which we remember the long ago day when the walls around Jerusalem were breached, the first step toward the destruction of 9 Av. It's also considered to be the anniversary of the day when Moshe shattered the first set of tablets upon seeing the Golden Calf -- a different kind of breakage.

I wrote a post about this day two years ago, Reflections on 17 Tammuz. I don't have anything new to add, so I'll just point you there again.

I'm not fasting today, for obvious reasons, but if you are, I hope that your fast is meaningful. May we find a way today to be open to whatever may flow through the places in us which are broken, remembering that our brokenness can be a place where holiness is found.

On a semi-related note, I wanted to point to a new initiative which recently came across my desk: Fast for Gaza. "In Jewish tradition a communal fast is held in times of crisis both as an expression of mourning and a call to repentance. In this spirit, Ta'anit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza is a collective act of conscience initiated by an ad hoc group of rabbis, Jews, people of faith, and all concerned with the ongoing crisis in Gaza." I'm inspired to see so many of my colleagues and teachers already on the list.


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