What we pray for

MaxresdefaultToday we shift from praying for dew to praying for rain, and as we made that shift, something occurred to me.

We say a special prayer for rain today on Shemini Atzeret, launching our season of asking God for rain in the daily amidah. (At Pesach, we say a special prayer for dew, launching our season of asking God instead for dew.) 

No matter where in the world we live, between Pesach and Shemini Atzeret Jews don't pray for rain. Why? Because rain is an impossibility in the Middle East during the summer, and our tradition teaches us that we don't pray for the impossible. We don't ask God for what's just plain not possible. That would make a mockery of our prayer. Since rain can't fall in Jerusalem at that season, we don't ask for it. We ask for dew, instead: a form of abundance that's actually available at that time of year.

And yet I can't help noticing that we pray for peace all year long, on Shabbat and weekdays and festivals alike. On weekdays, when we're comfortable making requests of God, we pray for wisdom, and forgiveness, and abundance, and justice. No matter what day it is, we pray for healing for our broken hearts and our fallible bodies. Every night we pray for God's presence to accompany us and to spread a sukkah of peace over us while we sleep. 

We don't pray for the impossible. Which must mean that all of those things -- peace and wisdom, forgiveness and abundance, justice and healing, God's presence with us and within us -- are possible, always. 

On this day of holy pausing, may we be blessed with the felt sense that the things for which we most fervently pray are always already within our grasp.

Chag sameach


Hoshana for Right Relationship

הושע הא / Hosha na, please save!
For the sake of Acting in good faith
For the sake of Boundaries and their maintenance
For the sake of Choosing to see clearly
For the sake of Directly naming what is broken
For the sake of Ending unconscious patterns
For the sake of Finding strength to speak
For the sake of Growth and transformation
For the sake of Holding firm to principle
For the sake of Integrity in all things
For the sake of Justice in every moment
For the sake of Keeping ourselves honest
For the sake of Love and awe in equal measure
For the sake of Making real teshuvah
For the sake of Noticing when we're culpable
For the sake of Opening ourselves to becoming
For the sake of Power wielded justly
For the sake of Questioning and discernment
For the sake of Repairing what we've damaged
For the sake of Standing in our truth
For the sake of Taking responsibility
For the sake of Understanding our own choices
For the sake of Victims of abuse, believed and honored
For the sake of Walking away from toxicity
For the sake of eXamining our behavior
For the sake of Yin and yang in balance
For the sake of Zeal to do what's right, not just what's easy:
הושע הא / Hosha na, please save!

 


Today -- the seventh day of Sukkot -- is also a minor festival in its own right, called Hoshana Rabbah. On this day it's customary to recite alphabetical acrostic prayers called hoshanot

This is the hoshana that I most needed to pray this year. May its words ascend on high; may its implications sink deep into our hearts and shape our actions as we move into the new year.

For those who are interested, here is another contemporary Hoshana for Healing and Consolation by Rabbi Dr. Dalia Marx, published at the Open Siddur project in Hebrew and in English translation.

Chag sameach / a joyous festival to all.


Prayer after the shooting

Prayer-after

I loved and grieved from the day you claimed your free will,
Knowing that you too would open into infinite love and grief,

Knowing how your hearts would bloom with gratitude and hope
With every child’s every first, and lament every child’s every last,

As I do and always will with My children’s every first and every last
In the raw and wild cosmic dance we began together in the garden.

What else could I do? You must become what you must become,
Like Me infinitely becoming, infinitely capable of love and grief,

So I clothed your shimmering lights in skins and hid in plain sight
For you to seek and find Me amidst life’s sweetness and sorrow.

How fast your lights flickered underneath: your second son’s blood
Cried out to Me from the ground, too soon returning earth to earth.

The guilty wandered the land howling, pining for peace and safety
Denied by the very violence that condemned the guilty to wander,

Setting in motion also the vicious whirlwind spinning through
Columbine, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas. Where next?

I did not mean for you to live like this or die like this – in fear and terror,
In trauma’s torrents, in shrapnel showers turning streets into killing fields.

You still can choose life: the free will your ancestors claimed for you
Remains yours even now, and still I gasp with loving pride and worry

With your every first and every last, grieving the countless innocents
Returning to Me in My own image too soon, bloodied and bagged.

But still you choose death. Aimlessly you wander the land howling,
Pining for peace and safety that senseless violence steals from you.

Choose to be My love, My strength, My intuition, My prophets, My beauty,
My healing hands – My living essence in this bloody and weary world.

Only then will this cruelest of your roulette wheels stop spinning red.
Oh, how I long with you for that day when you truly will choose life.

 

Claimed your own free will – Eve’s “defiance” in Eden claimed human agency for all her successors (Genesis 3:6-7).

Knowing … bloom – An allusion to the Tree of Knowledge and humanity’s “opening” into the knowledge of love and loss.

You must become – God describes God’s self to Moses as אהיה אשר אהיה / Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming” (Exodus 3:14). We who are made in the divine image are also called to perennially become.

Clothed your shimmering light in skins - Because the Hebrew words for “skin” (עור) and “light” (אור) both are pronounced or, Zohar teaches that Eden’s first humans were beings of light, before God made us garments of skins. Even so, our skins cover our light, which we still can see if we look carefully.

Your second son’s blood… returning earth to earth. Humanity’s first murder – Cain killing Abel (Genesis 4) – spilled Abel’s blood (דם / dam) to the earth (אדמה / adamah).

Wander - Cain, after murdering his brother, was condemned to wander the land without peace (Genesis 4:14).

Setting in motion also - From Cain comes not only the first murder but also the rhetorical question – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:8) – that continues to reverberate through the generations, and also the first “Why?” (Genesis 4:6), which teaches all future generations the possibility of teshuvah / return and repair (Radak Gen. 4:6).

Whirlwind – An allusion to the סערה (storm) from which God answered Job (Job 38:1). The storm’s circular shape resembles both a roulette wheel and a gun’s rotating cylinder that conveys bullets.

Choose life - “Choose life, if you and your progeny would live’ (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Aimlessly - The indiscriminate shooter, the nation’s inertia.

My love, My strength… – Seven emanations of the divine, corresponding to the seven lower sefirot of Kabbalistic tradition: chesed (love), gevurah (strength / boundaries), tiferet (balance), netzach (endurance / momentum), hod (beauty / gratitude), yesod (foundation / generativity), malchut (indwelling).

Roulette wheels stop spinning red – For the gaming tables of Las Vegas and the ultimate gamble: walking the streets safe and unafraid.

14 stanzas – 14 for יד, the yad (hand) of God: we now are the hand that must act.

332 words - 332 for לבש, lavash (clothed) in divine skins that cover our light.

 

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Evan Markus

(cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi and to R' David's website; feel free to reprint, with attribution.)


Benediction on making the culinary combination

For food dipped
    in honey, say
        "your love leaves

my fingers fragrant."
    Don't rush to wash.
        Let sweetness linger.

For savory dishes
    with stone fruits
        say "may the year

balance my sweet
    with your salt."
        Let your mouth water.

For nubbled citrus
    steeped in vodka,
        recite the verse

"as a deer thirsts."
    Close your eyes.
        Savor every drop.

 


 

I ran across a machzor (high holiday prayerbook) from 1931 recently. The first thing in the table of contents is "Benediction on making the culinary combination." The thing itself is pretty prosaic -- it's just a prayer for the practice of eruv tavshilin. (Click on the link to learn more about that.) But it sparked my poetic imagination. 

[A]s a deer thirsts. See Psalm 42, verse 2

[N]ubbled citrus / steeped in vodka. See Etrogcello.

 

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate!


Eat, be satisfied, and bless - a d'var Torah for Eikev

Shabbath-vachalta-vsavata_07-50x402-e1433537246991I was working a few days ago with a friend's daughter who's becoming bat mitzvah in a few weeks. I found myself remembering a moment shortly after my own celebration of bat mitzvah.

Faced with the prospect of writing a mountain of thank-you notes. I took up my pretty new stationery and I wrote, "Dear so-and-so, thank you for the gift, love Rachel" over and over and over. 

When my mother found out that I hadn't been personalizing the notes, she made me throw them all out and start again. She insisted that I say what each gift was and why I appreciated it.

And that's how I learned that one must be specific in a thank-you note. "Thank you for the thing, whatever it was" will not cut it. (Not for my mother, anyway.) Enter this week's Torah portion, Eikev:

וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ֙ אֶת־יָה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ

And you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless YHVH your God for this good land that God has given you.

From this springs the custom of birkat hamazon, the "grace after meals," also called bentsching. Our tradition teaches us to offer that prayer after any meal at which bread is consumed in a quantity as large as an olive. Even for a bite-sized gift, we're meant to say thank You.

The traditional birkat hamazon contains four blessings: for the food, for the land, for the holy city of Jerusalem, and for God's goodness. Those blessings are adorned with an introductory psalm and a series of blessings that call God The Merciful One, plus additions for Shabbat and festivals. This is how our tradition works: a short text is embroidered with additions, and the additions become canon too.

And while it's easy to roll our eyes at that process of accretion -- this is how we wind up with long prayers: because we get attached to the new additions, but we can't bear to get rid of the original material! -- the process often yields liturgy that I truly love singing. And I do love bentsching (singing the birkat hamazon) when I'm lucky enough to gather a table of people who want to sing it with me.

Besides, one could argue that the impulse comes out of the same place as my mother's decision to make me rewrite all of my thank-you notes. It's not enough to just say "Hey, thanks for the thing." If we're doing it right, we ought to articulate gratitude for the food, and for the land in which the food arises, and for our holy places, and for the goodness of God that leads to the gift of sustenance in the first place. 

Then again, it's often our custom here to sing abbreviated liturgy. This is true in its most concentrated form when we have contemplative services. But most of the time we opt for fewer words and greater connection with those words, rather than singing the full text of what the most liturgical versions of Judaism might prescribe. Most often when we bless after a meal here, we sing brich rachamana:

בּרִיךְ רָחָמַנָה מָלְכַא דְעָלמַע מָרֵי דְהָאי פִתָא.

You are the source of life for all that is and Your blessing flows through me.

(Aramic translation: Blessed is the Merciful One, Sovereign of all worlds, source of this food.)

You have probably heard me say that that blessing originates in Talmud. You may also have heard me say that it's the shortest possible grace after meals that one can offer -- for instance, if one were being chased by robbers and needed to make the prayer quick. This is a popular teaching, though I can't actually source it! But it shows awareness, in the tradition, that sometimes we can't manage full-text.

For me, then, the question becomes: how do we sing the one-liner in such a way that we invest it with the kavvanah (the meaning and the intention) that the long version is designed to help us cultivate? How do we sing the short version without falling into the trap that I fell into as an overeager thirteen-year-old writing "thanks for the thing"?

One answer is to go deep into the words. This short Aramaic sentence tells us four things about God: God is blessed, and merciful, and is malkah, and is the source of our sustenance. I want to explore each of those, but I'm going to save the untranslated one for last.

1) God is blessed. What makes God blessed? We do, with our words of blessing. We declare God to be blessed, and by saying it, we make it so. (If this intrigues you, read Rabbi Marcia Prager's The Path of Blessing -- it's in our shul library.)

2) God is merciful. The Hebrew word "merciful" is related to the Hebrew word for "womb." God is the One in Whose Womb all of creation is sustained. When I really think about that metaphor, it blows my mind. The entire universe is drinking from God's umbilical cord!

3) God is the source. The source of all things; the source of every subatomic particle in the universe; the source of the earth in which our food comes to be, and the hands that raised or harvested or prepared what we eat, and the source of the things we eat that sustain us.

4) And God is malkah. That word can be translated as King, or Queen, or if you prefer gender-neutral, Sovereign. But to our mystics, the root מ/ל/כ connotes Shechinah: the immanent, indwelling, feminine Presence of God -- divinity with us, within us, among us.

God is blessed because we invest our hearts and souls in speaking that truth into being. God is mercy made manifest in our lives. God is the source from Whom all blessings flow. And God is that Presence that we feel in our hearts and in our minds, in our souls and in our bones. It's that Presence -- or, if you'll permit me some rabbinic-style wordplay, those Presents -- for which we articulate our thanks. 

To be really grateful is to be grateful for the specific, not the general. (That was my mother's thank-you note lesson all those years ago.) The Aramaic says 'd'hai pita,' "for this bread," not just for bread. I'm grateful for this bread that I took into my body. That makes it personal, because gratitude is personal by definition.  If we don't take our gratitude personally, then it's not gratitude; it's just rote words.

Our task is to eat, because ours is not an ascetic tradition. To be satisfied, because that is a healthy response to consumption. (Alexander Massey suggests that we cultivate satisfaction as a good in itself, and pray from there.) And then our task is to bless, and to really feel the awareness and the gratitude and the presence, to take them personally and make them real -- no matter what words we use.

 

Image source: a challah cover bearing the words "you shall eat, and be satisfied, and bless," available at one of my favorite Judaica stores, The Aesthetic Sense. Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.


So much (Ahavah Rabbah)

Dear One, you love me so much
you give me your Torah
for argument and play
waltzing and conversation
from one life to the next.

Your Torah nourishes me,
familiar as the womb.
Wrap me tight in your Torah
like a newborn. Laugh in delight
when I learn to break free.

Your Torah lights up my eyes,
fuses my heart with my choices.
Give me just one letter
to suck like candy, like manna
changing flavor on my tongue.

Tell me a true story again
about who I used to be
or who I might yet be
-- like you, always becoming
who you are becoming.

Beloved, draw me close.
I've been scattered:
melt me until we mingle.
I want to come home in you.
Choose me again. Don't stop.

 


This poem arises out of the Ahavah Rabbah prayer that is part of the traditional morning liturgy. Those who are familiar with that prayer (especially in its original Hebrew) will see many riffs on and references to its language here.

Like the poem Good (Yotzer Or), which I posted recently, this is intended to be daven-able alongside or instead of the classical prayer. 

(There are also some poems in the forthcoming Texts to the Holy that I've used at services as a stand-in for Ahavat Olam, the evening version of this prayer -- most notably the title poem of that collection. But none of those poems is specifically rooted in the language of this prayer the way that this one is.)

 


Good (Yotzer Or)

Beloved, You are good
and you wield goodness
in shaping creation

and every single day
in Your goodness
and with Your goodness

You make us new
with all created things.
You make me new.

I cling to yesterday
(who would I be
without the sorrows

that have worn grooves
into my back?) but
that's my own smallness.

You've made me new
formed me for this new day
a sapling unbowed.

The knot in my stomach
the knot in my throat --
You untie them.

Can I sit with You
for even a few minutes
before I tangle myself again?

 


In the yotzer or prayer, the blessing for God Who creates light that is part of our daily liturgy, we find the line "המחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית/ ha'm'chadesh b'tuvo b'chol yom ma'aseh bereshit," which describes God as the One Who daily renews, with God's goodness, the work of creation. This poem arose out of that line, and could be read or davened as part of shacharit (morning prayer), perhaps with the first and last lines of the Hebrew prayer as bookends. If you use this poem in this way, let me know if it works for you!


New essay on Modah Ani

ModehAni_coverA while back I was solicited to contribute an essay to a volume on modeh / modah ani, the morning prayer of gratitude, edited by David Birnbaum and Martin S. Cohen, to be published by Mesorah Matrix. Longtime readers of this blog know that modah ani is one of my very favorite prayers; I said yes immediately! 

The volume is part of a ten-volume series from Mesorah Matrix, of which six books have thus far been published. I just received my contributor's copies, and wow, am I delighted.

I'm in some phenomenal company. Here are glimpses of some of the essays about which I'm most excited: 

David Ellenson wrote about Modeh Ani and the gifts of gratitude and awareness. Elliot Dorff wrote about how the prayer helps us awaken to the new day. Rebecca Sirbu wrote about how the prayer can have a personal impact on one's life. Aubrey Glazer wrote about the prayer in the context of Shoenberg and the Kotzker Rebbe. 

Dalia Marx offered a contemporary Israeli perspective on the prayer, juxtaposing it with Israeli pop songs. José Rolando Matalon wrote about it in the context of Odeh la-El, a sixteenth-century piyyut. Shulamit Thiede wrote about the prayer and gratitude for the presence of death. Orna Triguboff wrote about the nighttime journey of the soul. 

And I wrote about the prayer as a four-worlds tool for personal spiritual transformation. 

You can page through the book online at the Mesorah Matrix website if you are so inclined.

The volume is available on Amazon for $36 -- not cheap, but I think it's absolutely worth it: Modeh Ani: The Transcendent Power of Gratitude. Deep thanks to the editors for including my work!


Layers of Hallel, layers of time

33588459020_8bf5713c2d_zOn the first morning of Pesach I took my pocket siddur onto my mirpesset (balcony) and davened the psalms of Hallel. I sang them quietly enough not to disturb my neighbors, but loud enough to hear myself singing.

I hadn't really spent time on the mirpesset since Sukkot ended. The weather got cold, I folded up the chairs and table, and I didn't go onto the balcony for months.

This was my first time back out there, and just like at Sukkot, I was singing Hallel. But unlike at Sukkot, this time I was sustained by memories of last time. When I sang these psalms at Sukkot I put down a first layer of spiritual experience in this place, and when I returned to them at Pesach, that first layer gleamed beneath the layer of the now and the new.

Sitting on my mirpesset now, I remember how it felt to have my little sukkah over me, spangled with autumn garlands. The location -- both physical (the mirpesset) and spiritual (the festival, the singing of Hallel) layers the now over the then, links what is and what was. 

The festivals serve in this way regardless of physical location. Their melodic motifs in particular work this way for me, hyperlinking Pesach with Shavuot with Sukkot, one year with the last and with the next. But because my move last year was such a big deal for me (after seventeen years in that house, and eighteen years in that marriage), the shift from my old life to my new one was seismic in ways I'm only now beginning to recognize.

That, in turn, means there is extra comfort in beginning to put down roots here -- both in this physical place, and in this new chapter in which I am a single person rather than a partnered person, a divorcée rather than a wife. Singing hallel on my mirpesset from festival to festival helps to ground me in this new normal. And it's a piece of the life I had hoped to build for myself, and for that I am grateful.

מן המצר כראתי יה, ענני במרחב יה –– from the narrow place I called to You; You answered me with expansiveness.

 Amen, amen, selah.


New at Ritualwell: When Jews and Muslims Pray Together

Logo

 

"I'm deeply distressed at the desecration of Jewish cemeteries," said my colleague Sharif at the weekly chaplains' staff meeting at our small liberal arts college.

"I'm deeply distressed by the mosques set afire," I said to him in return.

We both find hope in stories of interfaith solidarity across what can be a contentious divide between the children of Ismail and the children of Yitzchak. We've read about Muslims raising money to repair Jewish tombstones, and Jews raising money to refurbish torched mosques, and we take heart from those things.

But what could we do on our little campus to foster that spirit of interfaith solidarity and to bring comfort to two minority religious communities whose members are likely sad and anxious about bomb threats at JCCs and reports of rising Islamophobia?

The answer turned out to be powerful and simple: pray in each others' religious spaces, with and for each other...

Read the whole piece at Ritualwell: When Jews and Muslims Pray Together.

Thanks to the editors at Ritualwell for publishing the piece, and deep thanks to the interfaith comunity at Williams for so beautifully and bravely standing together.


Davening: together, even when we're apart

2900184206_c61c8e8622_zMany years ago when I was in rabbinic school I used to daven one morning a week with a telephone minyan of rabbinic school friends. We were all in the eastern time zone, in states scattered across the country. We used a conference call phone line. We took turns leading davenen. It was a gift to me to hear the voices of beloved hevre, not to feel alone in my spiritual practice. Of course, the technology posed some challenges. If we wanted to sing along, we had to mute our own phones, otherwise our voices would cancel each other out. And eventually that telephone minyan came apart at the seams. Still, it was sweet, for a time.

In more recent years I've participated a few times in davenen via zoom, the videoconferencing app we use in ALEPH for Board meetings and other conversations. I have powerful memories of the Monday morning after Reb Zalman died, when the rest of the ALEPH Board was together in Oregon and I was far away in Massachusetts. I joined them via zoom that morning, and davened and sang and wept with them. I remember feeling like we were truly together. Of course, it helped that I knew everyone in the room; we were already a community. I remember being grateful that there was a way for me to be with them from afar.

The technological tools available to us for this kind of virtual community keep evolving. One recent morning shortly after I arrived at work at the synagogue I opened up Facebook to share a piece of synagogue news on my shul's Facebook page, and saw that Shir Yaakov was davening the morning service on Facebook Live. As is usual for me these days, my early morning had not offered me time for davenen. Early mornings in my house, these days, are all about getting myself and my kid fed and dressed, packing our lunches, making sure we both have what we need for the day ahead, and getting him on the schoolbus on time.

But here was one of my hevre davening in a way that I could join. It felt like a reminder from the universe of how I really ought to begin my work day! So I put on tallit and tefillin and sang with Shir. In the chat window alongside the video there was a steady stream of comments from others who were davening too. He asked us to name the places we were in, and the places for which we were praying. I saw the names of friends across the continent, and the names of people I don't know. From time to time a wave of little hearts would flow across the screen as people clicked on Facebook's "heart" button to share their love.

After the minyan ended I found myself thinking about how davenen connects us across places and times. Part of what's meaningful for me in davenen is knowing that others are singing these words too -- or perhaps other words that evoke these same themes -- around the world. As the hour for morning prayer moves across the globe, daveners enter in to morning prayer, together and alone. And there's also a way in which davenen connects us not only across time zones but across time -- some of these words have been recited in prayer for centuries, and will be recited for centuries to come. 

In in the world of assiyah (geographically), those of us who joined this Facebook Live minyan were all over the place. But -- at least for a while -- in the worlds of yetzirah (emotion), briyah (thought), and atzilut (spirit), we were all together. Sometimes when I gather with community in person, we're in the same place physically but our hearts and spirits aren't necessarily aligned. Someone's distracted, someone's focusing on this morning's news, someone's grieving, someone's angry with someone else in the room -- there are all kinds of reasons why we can be disconnected. But at its best, prayer connects us both in and out -- with ourselves and with each other -- and also up

("Up" is a metaphor, of course. As I taught my students last night in our intro Judaism class, Judaism's God-concepts include both transcendence and immanence, the Infinite and the relatable. God is in the vastness of spacetime, and as intimate to us as the beating of our own hearts. My favorite metaphor for God these days is Beloved. The God to Whom I need to relate right now is the One Who sees me and loves me in all that I am. Prayer doesn't always connect me with that One... but as with any other practice, the only way to reach the times when it "works" is to keep doing it even at the times when I feel like it "doesn't work.")

At its best, prayer connects us with our deepest selves, and with our Source, and with each other. No matter where in the world we are. Even when we feel most alone, when we "log in" to the cosmic mainframe (that's language Reb Zalman z"l used to use), we're connecting with the Network that links us all. Prayer can remind us to open our hearts. It can attune us to the subtle movements of soul. And though sometimes when I pray with others I feel that I am still alone, sometimes when I am praying alone I can remember that what appears to divide us is illusory, and what connects us -- always -- is infinite and deep.

 

Related:

Visitation, a tele-davenen poem, 2008


An Extra Soul - a d'varling for Kabbalat Shabbat at WCJA

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I've been thinking this week about the Torah of new beginnings. It's a new semester, a new beginning for all of you and all of your professors. And tonight marks a new beginning for me, too, the beginning of a new chapter for me at Williams. The poet Jason Shinder teaches, "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work." Whatever's on your mind can be the text you need to delve into, the lived Torah of your own human experience. What's been on my mind is new beginnings.

And hey, speaking of beginnings, every Friday night we sing a reminder of the creation story:

וְשָׁמְרוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת,  לַעֲשׂוֹֹת אֶת הַַשַּׁבָּת לְדֹרֹתָם בְּרִית עוֹֹלָם:  בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹֹת הִיא לְעוֹֹלָם,  כִּי שֵֽׁשֶׁת יָמִים עָשָׂה יְיָ  אֶת הַשָּׁמַֽיִם וְאֶת הָאָֽרֶץ וּבַיּוֹֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שָׁבַת וַיִנָּפַשׁ.

"The children of Israel shall keep Shabbat as an eternal covenant throughout the generations. Between Me and the children of Israel it is an eternal sign, (says God). For in six days, God made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day, God rested and was ensouled."

A lot of translations will say "God rested and was refreshed." But I think "was ensouled" is a better translation. When God rested on the seventh day, something happened to the divine Soul. God got more of a soul. God's soul unfolded more fully. Something about Shabbat increased God's soulfulness.

First there was a new beginning -- the ultimate new beginning, the creation! And then God rested and was ensouled. As exciting as new beginnings are, it's not good for us to keep moving forward at their high energy level and frantic pace. Torah's creation story comes to remind us that it's important to take a break.

One of my favorite teachings says that we too receive an extra helping of soul on Shabbat. On Friday night as we light the Shabbat candles, remembering in their twin flames the light of creation and the light of the burning bush, we too are "ensouled." We get a נשמח יתרה, an extra soul. (And tomorrow night when we make havdalah, we'll inhale spices as spiritual smelling salts, so we don't faint when our extra soul departs for the week.) 

The beginning of the semester holds all kinds of promise, and all kinds of challenges. It's easy to get caught up in thinking about your classes, your papers or lab projects, all the deadlines marching off into the distance between now and the end of the year. But tonight offers us something different: an opportunity to let go of the work of creating -- even the work of planning to create.

Tonight we get to pause in our work of new beginnings, and be re-ensouled.

An invitation to try something. Put your feet on the floor. Take a deep breath, and imagine the breath filling you all the way up, and all the way down -- from the crown of your head to the tips of your toes. Let that breath go, and with it, let go of all of the week's stresses and frustrations. Set aside everything that worries you about the semester now beginning. Take another breath, and let it fill you all the way up again.

That's one way of glimpsing the extra helping of soul Shabbat offers us. Extra breath. Extra breathing room. Room for your heart to expand.

Another way the mystics see that extra soul is that it heightens our ability to yearn and to feel joy. The Hasidic master Reb Nachman of Breslov goes a step further and says the extra soul comes into being through our yearnings. Because we yearn, we get an extra soul during Shabbat. Yearning reveals who we most deeply are. What do you yearn for as this Shabbat begins? Get in touch with your yearnings, and your extra soul will unfurl.

May your Shabbat be soulful and sweet -- and enliven you for all the new beginnings, and all the future yearnings, to come.

 

This is the d'varling that I offered at the Williams College Jewish Association during Kabbalat Shabbat services. (I also offered a longer d'var Torah during dinner.)


A sweet Shabbes (and then some) in Michigan

What a gift it is to get to spend a Shabbes (and then some) the way I just did!

On Friday night, Rabbi David and I went to Shir Tikvah in Troy, MI, to serve as the official ALEPH representatives at the installation of our dear friend and colleague (and fellow ALEPH Board member) Rabbi Aura Ahuvia as the new rabbi there.

We spent most of the evening on the bimah with Hazzan Steve Klaper and Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg, the four of us surrounding Rabbi Aura and singing with her in impromptu harmonies. We sang three different "Lecha Dodi" melodies, one of which I'd never heard before. We sang "Yihiyu L'ratzon" and "Oseh Shalom" to the tune of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." I think the highlight of my night was Shir Yaakov's "Higale Na" -- one of my favorite melodies to harmonize to, with some of my favorite people to harmonize with. I know I've said this before, but singing beloved liturgy in harmony with beloved friends who love the liturgy as much as I do is basically my idea of heaven. It was also a particular highlight to hear words from Reverend Bill Kondrath as part of Rabbi Aura's installation -- he was one of my teachers at Clergy Camp last summer.

On Shabbes morning we gathered with the Pardes Hannah community, which is led by Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg (known in the ALEPH world simply as Reb Elliot.) Reb Elliot teaches Hasidut in the ALEPH Ordination Program. I've davened with Reb Elliot before, when I was in rabbinical school, but there's a difference between being with someone in the unique holy container of an ALEPH Ordination Program intensive, and being with them in their own home context, their own home community. I loved getting to see what kind of services he leads when he's at home with his own congregants. I shared poetry interwoven with the morning service, and Rabbi David shared a beautiful d'var Torah on the weekly Torah portion, healing from hurt, and vision.

Part of the fun of the Listening Tour we engaged in over our first fifteen months as co-chairs of ALEPH was getting to daven in so many different ALEPH places around the continent. No two Jewish Renewal services are the same. While both Shir Tikvah and Pardes Hannah use their own homegrown siddurim (prayerbooks), the two siddurim are different. The Shir Tikvah siddur is beautifully designed and thoughtfully put-together. Reb Elliot's siddur is packed full of great poetry (Louise Glück, Mary Oliver) and texts from the Jewish mystical tradition. As a liturgy geek, I love seeing what texts people use when they daven. And as a Renewalnik, I love seeing how skilled leaders of prayer take whatever texts are in their book and bring them alive in a way that brings the daveners more to life ourselves too -- to me that's one of the practices at Jewish Renewal's core. 

After lunch, Rabbi David and I spoke with the room a bit about ALEPH and Jewish Renewal, which led into a rich and thoughtful conversation about Jewish Renewal's past, present, and future. That led seamlessly into some mid-afternoon text study. Reb Elliot had prepared texts from two Hasidic masters, Netivot Shalom and Kedushat Levi, on the week's Torah portion. There was a moment when we were all sitting around the living room with text handouts, and someone made a fabulous point that incisively made the text and its relevance more clear, and I couldn't help beaming, and Rabbi David turned to me and murmured "welcome home." It did feel like a kind of homecoming: to be seated in the house of my teacher and friend, learning with dear friends again, immersing ourselves in words of Torah at the afternoon peak of a prayerful Shabbat. 

And then came Saturday night, a havdalah program called An Evening of Song and Spirit(s) in Detroit. The program was created by Rabbi Dan Horowitz of The Well, and co-presented by ALEPH and Hazon (and supported by the Covenant Foundation; thanks to all of the above.) The event was held in a place called Ponyride, a coworking space and event space located in an old warehouse. Rabbi Dan led us in dance niggunim. Cantor Michael Smolash of Temple Israel led some beautiful niggunim (wordless Hasidic melodies), as did Rabbi Alana Alpert (who chose to bring one of my favorite melodies from Nava Tehila, the Jewish Renewal community of Jerusalem -- the niggun they call Into the West.) Reb Elliot offered teachings from the Zohar at the intersection of the old week's Torah portion and the Torah portion for the week that was on the cusp of beginning. Rabbi David offered a contemplative / experiential deep dive into portals in holy time. And I shared poems from Open My Lips and from my as-yet unpublished next manuscript Texts to the Holy

Sunday was a day of deep ALEPH conversations with our hosts, Reb Elliot and his wife Linda Jo Doctor (who, like Rabbi Aura, serves with us on the ALEPH Board.) We started talking shop over coffee first thing in the morning and didn't stop  until evening when it was time for the two of us to regretfully take our leave and head for the airport to return home. (And yes, we managed a trip to Zingerman's in there -- which is every bit as fabulous a place as their catalogue had led me to believe.)

A weekend like this one may be physically tiring, but it's emotionally and spiritually restorative. I'm so grateful to our hosts in Troy and Detroit and Ann Arbor for welcoming us into their homes and communities and prayer spaces, and for the opportunity to have my heart and soul enlivened by the feeling of "coming home" into communities where I had never before been.


Prayers for voting

Vote_500x279I've shared these resources before, but they bear repeating, I think:

A Prayer For Voting by Rabbi David Seidenberg

A Prayer For Voting by Rabbi Sami Barth

First Step: Lech Lecha -- a Torah poem written eight years ago on Election Day, when Election Day fell (as it does this year) during the week of parashat Lech Lecha

And here's an essay I haven't shared on this blog before (though those of you who follow me on Facebook may already have seen it): Vote Your Privilege by Rabbi David Evan Markus. He writes, "This year I'll cast my vote on behalf of... a politics worthy of everyone – whatever they look like, whomever they love, whether or however they pray." Amen v'amen.

May the results of tomorrow's elections in the United States bring us closer to a world of hope, justice, and opportunity for all.


A Hallel for Sukkot

113.

We who serve offer praise.
We who serve by building flimsy houses
out of sticks and string.

We who serve by whisking together honey and coffee,
chesed and gevurah,
to make offerings we bring in cupped hands.

By seeking to sweeten what's bitter.
By speaking our truths, naming what is.
We who serve by hoping for better --

by taking up hammer and nails to build
the redeemed world we didn't inherit:
offer praise.

 

114.

When we pushed through the narrow place
when we left what had become constriction

we came into our own, we became our own.
Only then could we give ourselves to you.

When we left the household that didn't nurture 
when we left old stories that no longer sustained 

the ground shifted beneath our feet
the hills leapt like baby goats

the river we thought flowed always toward the sea
turned tidal and became sharp with salt.

Mountains, did you savor letting loose?
River, did you rejoice in changing your course?

We too have been transformed
by the presence of the one whose name is change.

 

115.

Friends, be profligate with blessings!
Spend them freely,
prime the pump for more.

Children, bless us with wonder
at the calliope song of geese overhead.
Elders, bless us with permission.

The skies belong to God
always perfect
and always changing.

The earth is ours to tend.
We can offer praises right here, right now.
What are we waiting for?

 

116.

Because you hear me, I am never alone.
I lift the cup of my changes:
your presence sweetens what was bitter.
This sukkah is temporary
but the promises I make to you endure.
Wherever I go, you are with me.
Every place becomes Jerusalem.

 

117.

Everyone, say thank you.
That we are alive at all
is cause to rejoice.

 

118.

There are more galaxies than I can imagine.
We are made from the same stuff as the stars.

What burns in me: a spark
from the fire that sustains all creation.

And when I say I love you, I mean
you expand my heart to encompass the universe.

Open the door of my heart:
I have feathered my nest with gratitude.

This is the door to who we really are.
Will you walk through?

Today is the only day there is.
Be glad with me.

 


Here is a pdf file of the psalms of Hallel: in Hebrew, translated into English, and accompanied by commentary. This poem series is rooted in the psalms of Hallel, which we recite daily during Sukkot (and at other times, too -- though these poems draw imagery from Sukkot, rather than from the other seasons when Hallel is recited.) For those who are interested in the poems' references and citations, some notes follow. 

By the by, if you like this kind of thing, you might also like my Six psalms for Hallel written during Pesach several years ago, now published in Open My Lips (Ben Yehuda Press, 2016.)


 

Notes: 

We who serve offer praise. See psalm 113, "Sing praises, you servants of Adonai!" [B]uilding flimsy houses..See A sukkah of sticks and string. [W]hisking together honey and coffee. Many recipes for honeycake, a seasonal treat, involve both honey and coffee. [C]hesed and gevurah. Chesed (lovingkindness) and gevurah (boundaried-strength) are two of the seven divine qualities to which the seven days of Sukkot can be mapped. 

When we pushed through the narrow place. See psalm 114, "When Israel went forth from Mitzrayim..." Mitzrayim, "Egypt," can be translated as "the narrow place." Only then could we give ourselves to you. See Psalm 114, "Judah became God's..." [T] he ground shifted beneath our feet. "The Jordan retreated. Mountains leapt like rams..."  [T]he river we thought flowed always toward the sea. Some rivers are tidal. (The Hudson is one of them.) The one whose name is change. God describes God's-self to Moshe as "I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming."

Friends, be profligate with blessings! See psalm 115, though I chose to invert the giving of blessing: in this poem we are the ones who are offering blessing to God, instead of the other way around. The reference to youths and elders also hearkens back to this psalm.  The skies belong to God. "The heavens are the heavens of Adonai..." We can offer praises right here, right now. "The dead cannot offer praises..."

Because you hear me, I am never alone. See psalm 116: "I love knowing that Adonai listens to my cry..." I lift the cup of my changes. "I raise the cup of my deliverance..." That verse is part of the traditional liturgy for havdalahThe promises I make to you... "I will honor my vows to Adonai..." Every place becomes Jerusalem. "...in the midst of Jerusalem."

Everyone, say thank you. See psalm 117: "Praise Adonai, all nations..."

There are more galaxies than I can imagine. Psalm 118 begins with the assertion that God's love endures forever. L'olam means both space and time, suggesting the infinity of the heavens. Open the door of my heart. "Open for me the door of righteousness." This is the door to who we really are. "This is the door of Adonai..." Today is the only day there is. "This is the day that Adonai has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it."

 


Letters to God from a little boy

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At the end of the summer, not this past summer but the one before, I led davenen at my synagogue with Rabbi David Evan Markus. It was such a spectacular Shabbat morning that we decided to set up chairs outside, beside the little wall that extends beyond our building. When we turned east for the bar'chu, the people who were sitting right next to the wall turned and faced the wall in prayer and suddenly several of us made the exact same mental leap: the wall became our mini-kotel. (I wrote about it at the time.) When the Days of Awe rolled around, I tried an experiment: on Yom Kippur I invited congregants to write kvitlach, notes to God expressing whatever they most needed to say, and to tuck them into the holes in that wall as pilgrims tuck notes into the cracks between the stones at the Kotel in Jerusalem.

So many people came up to me afterwards and thanked me for that practice that I resolved to do it again. This year once again, at the close of Yom Kippur morning services, I invited those who are comfortable writing on chag to write notes to God saying whatever they most needed to say and put them in the wall, and I invited those who do not write on holidays to walk out to the wall and place their hands on the wall and take a few moments for silent prayer. And people did so, and I was glad. When the day came to its close, I went outside to collect the notes in order to burn them as I had promised that I would do... and my son, who is going on seven, followed me outside to see what I was doing. I explained to him what the grown-ups had done, and to my surprise, he got upset. "How come I didn't get to write one?"

Then he brightened. "Hey, can I write one now?" I said yes, of course. He took a pad of paper and a pencil and carefully wrote, in his round first-grade handwriting, three separate notes to God. One of them said "Thank You God for the words that we speak." (I told him I think that's a beautiful prayer.) Another was an apology. And the third he kept to himself, and I don't know what it said. Together we rolled them up, and went outside into the moonlight, and tucked them into the holes in the wall. "I don't want you to burn them yet," he said. "I want them to stay there for a few days, because I just put them there, and maybe God hasn't received them yet." I said okay, and we left them there -- scraps of wadded-up paper, holy messages gleaming as white as his Yom Kippur shirt against the velvety darkness of the night.


Ain't nothing like the real thing

Real-thingThis is a short passage from Jewish With Feelingco-written by Joel Segel and Reb Zalman z"l  -- I reviewed the book here back in 2005. We talked about this passage a couple of weeks ago on the final day of Joel's Big Sky Judaism: The Everyday Thought of Reb Zalman class at the ALEPH Kallah.

I love Reb Zalman's metaphor of apples and prayer. When I moved to rural New England, I discovered that a honeycrisp apple picked right off the tree is mind-blowingly glorious! And it bears almost no resemblance to a golden delicious apple that's spent who-knows-how-long in storage. (If you don't live in a place where great apples are grown, extrapolate to something local and seasonal where you are.)

We all know that a factory-farm-grown piece of fruit that's spent ages in a refrigerator box doesn't hold a candle to something fresh and organic and picked right off the tree in season, in context, in the place where its roots have drawn sustenance. And Reb Zalman z"l recognized that the same can be said of the difference between rote unthinking prayer, and "the real thing." 

The first thing that changed my life when I encountered living Jewish Renewal at the old Elat Chayyim on my very first retreat was Jewish Renewal prayer. (I wrote about that a little bit in a blog post in 2012 -- Ten years in Jewish Renewal.) That's where I first experienced contemplative chant-based prayer, where one takes pearls from the liturgy and sings them over and over, going deeper and deeper into the words and their meaning. That's where I first experienced ecstatic prayer, where one can get so swept up in the davenen and the melodies and harmonies that one enters another state of consciousness altogether. That's where I first discovered that I could talk not only about God but also to God. It's not hyperbole to say that my life has never been the same. 

Reb Zalman used to talk about "freeze-dried" prayer. Our siddurim (prayerbooks) are like the dehydrated or freeze-dried food we send into space with our astronauts, but in order to be nourished, we need to add the "hot water" of heart and soul. We need to enter into the words on the page, to be willing to open our hearts, to take the emotional risk of speaking not about the Divine but to the Divine. And the difference between "wrapped and refrigerated" prayer and deep devotional davenen is as dramatic as the difference between a pasty pale wintertime grocery store tomato and a ripe, flavorful, spectacularly delicious heirloom tomato plucked from the vine and eaten before it's even cooled off from the August sunshine in which it was sustained. 

When I write about prayer, I tend to write most often about joyful prayer -- like the Kabbalat Shabbat service with Nava Tehila at the ALEPH Kallah two weeks ago. But sometimes deep davenen comes from a place of grief and fury, and that too can be sustaining to heart and spirit. What heart and spirit need is full expression. Meaningful prayer isn't just about being clappy-happy -- it's about being real, and bringing your real self, your whole self, to your davenen. It's about opening yourself up. It's about seeking the real thing, and seeking to be the real thing, instead of settling for the out-of-season peach that barely has any flavor.

Here's one more pearl from Reb Zalman:

Experiences of God are not that hard to come by: all that's required is a little yearning, a little searching, a welcoming of God within. Va-asu li mikdash v'shochanti b'tocham, says the book of Exodus (25:8): Only set aside a place, and I will come. 

May it be so. Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate!


Capstone of my Kallah: Kabbalat Shabbat with Nava Tehila

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The absolute highlight of my week: Kabbalat Shabbat with Nava Tehila.

My week at Kallah had a lot of highlights. Teaching was one of them -- getting to spend a week teaching some of my favorite classical midrashim (interpretive stories) and creating a safe container within which students could write and share their own midrash. Co-leading shacharit on Thursday morning was another -- Rabbi David and Rabbi Evan and I co-led a service around the firepit, beginning with the cowboy modah ani, which always feels extra-appropriate in Colorado!

But the capstone of my week, the absolutely most special part for me, was Friday night davenen. Friday night is supposed to be both soulful and celebratory as we welcome the Shabbat bride, the Shekhinah, the Queen, into our midst. I'd been looking forward to this Kabbalat Shabbat for months, hoping that it would give me some good "juice" to take home with me. And oh, holy wow: Kabbalat Shabbat at this year's ALEPH Kallah was everything I needed it to be and then some.

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My son with an angel, on the pre-Shabbat walk.

The evening began with everyone in splendid whites, as is our custom here (following the custom of the kabbalists of Tzfat.) There was live music (Shabbat love songs) outside my dorm, and people in angel wings blessing us and pointing the way across campus to where we would daven. The kids got special white sparkly Shabbat facepaint. There is nothing like walking across a neighborhood (even an ad hoc one) calling "good Shabbes" to others who are beaming and celebrating too.

On Shabbat morning there were six different davenen options (I went to the kids' / family service, expertly led by Ellen Allard and the Kirtan Rabbi.) But on Friday night, we who were planning the Kallah chose to have only one service, and it featured the leaders of Nava Tehila, the Jewish Renewal community of Jerusalem. Friday night was the one time during the week when we wanted everyone to be together, for Kabbalat Shabbat and for the festive banquet-style meal that followed our prayer.

Reb Ruth, Yoel, and Dafna led davenen, as is their custom now, in the round. In the middle was an empty space (like the Holy of Holies in the Temple of old), circled by a ring of davenen leaders and musicians, circled by concentric rings of us. Because we were facing each other (rather than facing a bimah or stage), because in the middle was open space (sometimes filled with dancing daveners), I felt as though the music and the prayer were naturally arising among and between us. 

The last time Nava Tehila led davenen at Kallah was 2009, and I was there, and it was amazing. This time was even more so.

Unnamed

The leaders of Nava Tehila:
Dafna Rosenberg, Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan, Yoel Sykes. 

With words, with customs, with kavanot (intentions), they brought the holy city of Yerushalayim into our midst and brought us into its glow. And their holy levi'im (the musicians accompanying them) included several of my nearest and dearest, which made it extra-special -- beloved faces, beloved voices, co-creating this extraordinary Shabbat for us and with us. As we davened and danced it felt like we were more than the sum of our parts. All of our voices, all of our hearts, raising sparks with joyous song.

I was surrounded by a community of some 500 ardent participants. I let it sweep me up: I danced in the aisle, I sang my heart out, I felt goosebumps in the silence after each psalm (as Reb Ruth once said, "If you've ever wondered what glory is...? It's this feeling in the room right now.") The six psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat became a pilgrimage, building awareness of transcendence, and then with "Lecha Dodi" we brought in immanence, unifying the Holy One of Blessing with the Shabbat Queen. 

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Shabbat tealights, before lighting. 

I listen to Nava Tehila all the time -- especially their latest album, Libi Er / Waking Heart, the title track of which inspired the first poem in what is now Texts to the Holy. When I sing along with their music in the car, I remember every time I've been blessed to daven with them: in Jerusalem in 2008, at the Kallah in 2009, in Jerusalem in 2014... Now when I sing with their cds, or when I daven and lead davenen using their melodies, I'll remember this extraordinary night at the Kallah.

Here's Nava Tehila's Kabbalat Shabbat Playlist on YouTube. These are the melodies they used at our Kabbalat Shabbat, which they sent out in advance so that as many people as possible would know the melodies and be able to fully participate in davenning along. I expect to listen to this playlist a lot on Friday nights to come, when I am home alone and need to connect myself back to the spiritual sustenance I found in that glorious Friday night davenen at the 2016 Kallah.

 


On "micro-spirituality" at The Wisdom Daily

Logo-twd-headerMy latest essay for The Wisdom Daily is online. It's on what one might call "spirituality on the run" -- the challenge of maintaining spiritual practice or spiritual life at the frantic pace (and frequent multitasking) of ordinary life. Here's a taste:

The laundry, the bills, the phone calls to return — the logistics to organize, the committee meetings, the errands to run — these are things that appear to have no limit. Who has time for spiritual practice when life looks like this? Of course, it’s because life looks like this that we need spiritual practice most.

I love the deep dives I can take on vacation or retreat, when I have the profound luxury of being able to set “normal life” and its pressures aside. But these are rare, tiny islands in the sea of stressors and obligations. How can I maintain enough of a spiritual practice in the midst of life’s chaos to keep me stable, sane, on an even keel, even joyful?

One answer is to rejigger what I think “spiritual practice” means...

Read the whole thing: Using "Micro-Spirituality" to Center Our Daily Lives.


Davening with the deer

On our first morning in Colorado, Rabbi David and I are still on east coast time, so we're both awake by five-ish. Around six we tiptoe out of the house where we are staying, get into our rental car, and drive into the foothills. 

The friend (and fellow ALEPH Board member) with whom we are staying lives on a lovely residential street only moments away from the eastern flank of the Front Range of the Rockies. We drive to Flagstaff Mountain to perch at a beautiful overlook called Panorama Point.


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A few of our morning companions.

As soon as we arrive, the first thing we see are mule deer. First a pair of does, then a brace of bucks with soft furred nubbly antlers. We freeze and look at them, and they look at us, and for a moment all is still. After a minute or so we start breathing again, and when they don't turn tail and run we murmur joy to each other quietly, and they stay near us and munch on grass.

We daven at the very edge of the world, watching the sun rising higher. We are at the place where the plains meet the Flatirons. This is where east meets west. We're near where the continent divides. Before us is a vista of flat land as far as the eye can see: trees, roads, some residential streets. Immediately behind us the hills rise up, peppered with pine trees. 

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More members of our morning minyan.

During the shema, as we are singing the words which remind us to take notice of our tzitzit and be reminded of the mitzvot which connect us up, we are visited by a gleaming green and black hummingbird. The hummingbird hovers near us, rests on a branch briefly, and sips delicately from a nearby flowering bush. Its presence feels like a blessing.

During our silent amidah, which we daven standing at the very edge of the hillside -- I have taken off my sandals, in remembrance of Moshe and the burning bush, and I stand barefoot in the dusty Colorado soil -- a hot air balloon rises at the horizon. By the time we are finished davening, there is a minyan of hot air balloons soaring over the distant plains.

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The plains, before the hot air balloons.