The gift of another Listening Tour Shabbat

22492482020_0a22a8a39b_zIf you've been reading this blog lately you know that my ALEPH co-chair Rabbi David Evan Markus and I are traveling around North America on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour. We're visiting congregations and communities, visiting rabbinic schools (both trans-denominational, e.g. Hebrew College -- and denominational, e.g. the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College), holding big open mic sessions and small curated conversations, and learning as much as we can about the landscape of Jewish Renewal and about people's hopes and dreams for the future of Judaism writ large.

Celebrating Shabbat on these trips is turning out to be really special for me. One reason for that is that everywhere we go, I am reconnecting with friends who I don't see often enough. My ALEPH hevre (colleagues and friends) live all over the globe, and while it's wonderful to study and daven with them via zoom or Skype, it's far sweeter to be together in person. Another reason is that that everywhere we go, I get to relax into the capable hands of someone else's service leadership and let the liturgy and the melodies carry me. (That's a real treat for a working pulpit rabbi. Usually it's my job to help create that experience for others.)

22627246571_14423cc8d9_zEverywhere we go, I get the opportunity to see some of my Jewish Renewal friends and teachers in the places where they live and serve, which offers me subtly different glimpses of them than I typically see on retreat. I love getting to see my hevre in their home contexts!

And everywhere we go, I know I'm with other people who invest in Shabbat in the same ways that I do. That's spiritually nourishing for me in ways which are difficult to verbalize. All weekend long, I get to daven surrounded by some dear voices, and faces, and neshamas (souls.) In Philadelphia, that was extra-sweet for me because I was davening in the shuls of some of the very people who most taught me how to enter the flow of the liturgy and really pray.

On Friday night at Mishkan Shalom, Rabbi Shawn Zevit led a beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat. At the start of that service, the experience of singing Yedid Nefesh -- that gorgeous poem of love and yearning -- cracked my heart right open and let the balm of Shabbat flow in. I had the opportunity to share a few poems during Friday night's service -- including "Texts to the Holy," (a poem I posted here in slightly earlier form as "Missing You") which I had never read aloud to others before. Friday night's davenen opened me up in beautiful ways.

On Saturday morning at P'nai Or davenen was led by Rabbi Marcia Prager and Hazzan Jack Kessler. We began with an opening niggun which I know like the back of my own hand but hadn't heard in a long time. The simple experience of singing harmony for those familiar notes was sweet. By the time we got to the lines in Nishmat Kol Chai which assert that everything within me sings praise, those words were entirely true. Shabbat morning's davenen filled my cup to the brim. And then, after a potluck lunch, we held an open mic session for more than 50 people who shared with us their hopes and dreams for the future of Jewish Renewal -- holy wow.

22492480910_3eb7303f97_zPart of what's fun for me is that each of the services we've attended thus far on the Listening Tour has been entirely different from the others. Each has featured a different siddur (prayerbook). Each has been led by people who were ordained in different places. (Of this weekend's davenen leaders, two hold dual ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and from Reb Zalman z"l whose work inspired and grew into the ALEPH Ordinations Program; one was ordained by the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary.) Each has featured different melodies, choices of instrumentation, and styles of prayer. And each has been an authentic expression of Jewish Renewal, because there's no single way to "do" Renewal.

People keep asking how we're managing to do this listening tour on top of jobs and other commitments. This year of traveling and active listening poses a lot of challenges -- from the emotional and intellectual effort to be receptive listeners, to ordinary logistics, to grasping the awesome scope of all people hold Renewal to be (and want Renewal to be).  But the work is its own reward: I can't imagine a better way to spend these weekends.

Not only because it's amazing to get to hear from so many people about the Jewish future they yearn for (though it is) -- not only because we get to have these incredible conversations about ALEPH and Jewish Renewal and the future of heart-centered innovative Judaism (though we do, and how cool is that?) -- but also because we get to experience Jewish Renewal Shabbatot in all of these different places. Each Shabbat on this tour has its own ta'am, its own flavor. Each one comes with different melodies, and harmonies, and insights, and sweetness. And each one is a gift.

 


Ten years with the angels

1.

The year is 2005. I am at the old Elat Chayyim -- in its original campus, the Catskills hotel in Accord, NY. It is "smicha students' week"  and I am not yet a student. I'm spending the week with the ALEPH Ordinations Programs community: learning with them, dining with them, davening with them.

This is part of our mutual discernment process: is this the right program for me? (I know in my bones that it is.) Am I the right fit for them? (I pray with my whole heart that I am.) I am staying in a room with two students and another applicant. I don't yet know that I will begin the program in the fall.

DLTI -- the Davenen Leadership Training Institute -- is meeting during this same week. I will realize, years later, that this must be their third session of four. Their facility with leading prayer, and the way their energies and harmonies interweave seamlessly, would not be possible during week one.

But at this moment I don't know that, and I'm mostly just awed by the way they lead prayer. This is the first time in my life that I hear weekday nusach, the melodic mode used for weekday davenen, and I fall in love with it instantly. It's also the first time I ever hear an invocation of the angels at bedtime.

One night, my room-mates who are in the program sing it to the two of us in the room who are applicants. The melody is by R' Shlomo Carlebach z"l. "In the name of God, the God of Israel -- on my right is Michael, on my left is Gavriel..." When did anyone last sing me a lullaby? It brings me to tears.

 

2.

The year is 2010. I am once again at smicha students' week -- this time at Pearlstone, a Jewish retreat center outside of Baltimore. I am spending two weeks there with the entire AOP community. It will be my last summer residency as a rabbinic student. It is also my first summer residency with a baby.

My mother spends a week there taking care of the baby so that I can go to class. She brings him to me when he needs to nurse, and otherwise she strolls him around the grounds, reads him board books, plays with him. One night she asks me the name of the beautiful Israeli folksong I sing him at bedtime.

It takes me a moment to realize that she means this piece of traditional liturgy, set to R' Shlomo's melody. I explain that this is an invocation of the angels -- Michael, Gavriel, Uriel, Raphael -- to watch over us while we sleep. Part of the liturgy of the bedtime shema. Every night, she listens to me sing.

 

3.

The year is 2015. I am perched on the edge of my son's bed. "Do you want me to say the prayers tonight, or do you want to say them?" I ask. Tonight he wants to do them himself. He blesses everyone. He sings the shema. And then he sings me the angel song, in Hebrew and in English.

Some of the Hebrew words are a bit garbled. And I have no idea what he thinks an angel is. But in this moment, I am awestruck. Ten years ago the idea of invoking the angels of wonder, strength, light, and comfort was new to me. Five years ago, it was new to my mom. But this is not new to my son.

For him, this is ordinary. A natural part of the bedtime routine, just like saying "God bless..." and singing the shema. And sometimes now, before his own bedtime, my son sings the angel song to me -- just as my friends did, bringing me to tears in that dorm room at the old Elat Chayyim, a lifetime ago.

 

 

Related:Bedtime angels, July 2015


Untie my tangles

 

I come to you tangled.
I come to you hurting
and afraid, my muscles
in knots, my heart sore.

You won't judge me
even if I cry myself ugly.
Even if my circuits are wired
strange. Even if I ache.

Run your gentle fingers
through me. Loosen
the snarls, the snares.
Remind me how to breathe.

Tell me I'm not too much.
Invite all of me
to walk with you. See me
and I become whole.

 


 

This is another poem of yearning which will probably become part of Texts to the Holy.

It riffs off of the prayer Ana B'Koach, which asks God to untie our tangled places. And the final stanza hints at a verse from this week's Torah portion, Lech-Lecha. In Genesis 17:1 we read that God says to Avram, הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי, וֶהְיֵה תָמִים - "Walk before Me, and be תָמִים / tamim." Though that English doesn't really capture the reflexiveness ofהִתְהַלֵּךְ / hit'halech, which might mean something more like "walk with yourself" or "bring your whole self to walk." And what is tamim? Some translations say "pure;" some say "whole-hearted." In this context, I like to translate it simply as "whole."


Mincha with Mary

12119191_875461919196358_4945788954738252986_nIf you had been among the leaf-peepers in a particular small town in southern Berkshire county on Saturday afternoon, you might have seen two rabbis wearing peacoats and kippot, sitting on a stone bench beside a shrine to Mary.

You might have caught snatches of Shabbat afternoon nusach (the melodic mode for that particular time of day on that particular day of the week) on the wind, along with the falling yellow leaves and the (unseasonal! too early!) snow flurries.

You might have seen those two people stand, and take three steps toward the east (not toward the statue), and bend and bow. You might have seen them rocking gently in prayer. You might have seen them laugh upon reaching the blessing which references winter weather.

And you might have seen them return to the bench, shoulder to shoulder, visibly amused at the sweet absurdity of davening Shabbat mincha prayers together alongside (not praying to, but praying beside) a statue of a nice Jewish girl, a spiritual ancestor from a couple of millennia ago.

And then you might have seen them say farewell to Mary and depart down the sidewalk, admiring the late afternoon light gilding the far-away tops of the hills, off to whatever adventure awaited them next.


I Seek Your Face... in Everybody Else, Amen - a sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5776

One of my most consistent childhood memories is saying my prayers before I went to sleep. I can still remember the pattern of the wallpaper on the ceiling of my childhood bedroom, and the gentle dip of the bed from where my mom would sit next to me.

I would sing the one-line shema, and then say my litany of "God bless." I began with "God bless Mom and Dad," then named my grandparents, then named my siblings and in time their spouses and children. At the very end, I would ask God to bless "all my aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, and everybody else, Amen."

I'm not sure what I thought it meant to ask God to bless someone. But clearly being blessed by God was a good thing, and I didn't want anyone to accidentally get left out.

There's a blessing called Oseh Shalom which appears throughout our liturgy. Here are the words as you may have learned them:

עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם בִּמְרוֹמָיו הוּא יַעֲשֶׂה שָּׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן:

"May the One Who makes peace in the high heavens make peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say: Amen."

In many communities around the Jewish world today, including this one, another phrase is now added. That phrase is וְעַל כָּל יוֹשבֵי תֵבֱל -- "and all who dwell on Earth." Adding that phrase to Oseh Shalom is a little bit like what I did in my childhood bedtime prayers: "and everybody else, amen."

Why am I so invested in praying for "everybody else, amen"?

Continue reading "I Seek Your Face... in Everybody Else, Amen - a sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5776" »


Selichot

The Days of Awe begin at the next new moon. Our journey into those awesome days intensifies tomorrow night, and we'll kick off the "high holiday season" at my shul, with the service called Selichot.  Selichot means "pardons," and is the name our tradition gives to a set of poems and prayers designed to help our hearts experience teshuvah, repentance or return (in the sense of returning-to-God or re/turning ourselves in the right direction again.) Some people say the selichot prayers every day during Elul. And a lot of congregations have a special service dedicated to Selichot, as we do.

It's customary to do this on a Shabbat evening near, but not too near, to Rosh Hashanah. Since the New Year begins next weekend on Sunday night, next Shabbat would be too close -- we wouldn't have time for the experience of the Selichot to resonate in us -- so we'll do it tomorrow night.

This may be my favorite service of the year. We begin with havdalah, which I love dearly. (And I have recently come to feel especially attached to the opening prayer, which proclaims evtach v'lo efchad, I will trust and will not be afraid.) Then we dip into some of my favorite prayers of the Days of Awe -- prayers whose words, and whose melodies, speak to me deeply. We'll sing some prayers which I hope will stimulate the part of our hearts which responds to music; we'll read some poems which I hope will stimulate the part of our hearts which responds to words. And midway through the service we'll pause for a short writing exercise.

People will be invited to write down on index cards, anonymously, places where they've (we've) missed the mark in the last year. Things for which they (we) seek forgiveness as the Days of Awe approach. I'll collect those cards, and will leave the cards and pencils and a basket for collecting them out in the synagogue lobby for about ten days so those who don't make it to Selichot services can still participate. And then I'll use the words on those cards to craft a personalized Al Chet prayer for Yom Kippur morning, co-written by our community, expressing the things for which our hearts most seek forgiveness and release.

If you're local to western Massachusetts, you're welcome to join us at 8pm at Congregation Beth Israel tomorrow night. And if you would like to dip into the prayers and songs of Selichot tomorrow night by yourself, the pdf file of our service is here for you.

SelichotCover

Selichot 5776 [pdf]


Three moments of Shabbat morning gratitude

20851929439_c91721ea92_z

1.

We have set up a circle of chairs behind the synagogue, surrounded by mountains and wetland and field. At the beginning of morning prayer the air is chill, but by the time we reach the bar'chu, the formal call to prayer, some of our folks have scooted their chairs into the patch of shade beside the small cement wall. When they turn east, they turn to face the wall -- and suddenly our little cement wall becomes the Kotel, the Western Wall, in Jerusalem. (It even has little finger-sized holes in it where one could place kvitlach, petitionary prayers!) I will never see that wall the same way again.

 

2.

During the Amidah, the standing prayer which is central to every Jewish service, there is a place (called the Kedusha) where the prayer calls us to imitate the choirs of angels singing "Holy, holy, holy." There is a custom of rising on our tiptoes with every repetition of the word kadosh, holy. As I am singing the Kedusha, a wee plane begins to take off from the tiny North Adams airport in the meadow behind the shul, rising into the sky precisely as we are lifting up onto our tiptoes. It is as though the plane is an angel, being buoyed by our prayers. It is as though we are angels, singing praise up into the sky.

 

3.

We sing Mi Chamocha -- the prayer which our ancestors sang after crossing the Sea of Reeds -- to the melody of "The Water Is Wide," and we intersperse the Hebrew with the words of that folk song. This is a tradition which Rabbi David brings from his synagogue on City Island, and it has become my favorite way to sing that prayer, especially when we're together and can sing it in harmony. The water is wide; I cannot get o'er. But when I know that God is with me -- when I know that I am loved by an unending love -- then whatever comes, whatever life brings, I know I won't have to cross the waters alone.

 


Making my morning coffee holy

Cup-of-coffeeSometimes in the morning I find myself singing the words אין מספיק כפה בעולם / ein maspik cafe ba'olam -- "there's not enough coffee in the world" -- to the Rizhyner's melody for Ana B'Koach. (That's the first mp3 of the several on this NeoHasid page.)

And then I acquire a cup of joe, and I change my tune. Instead of bemoaning what I don't have, I celebrate what I do. The blessing I say over my morning coffee is a line from our daily liturgy, and the practice of using it in this way is one I learned from my friend Rabbi Megan Doherty.

In the daily amidah, the prayer which is recited standing and which is central to every Jewish service, there is a blessing which ends with the line ברוך אתה ה' מחייה המתים / baruch atah Adonai m'chayyeh ha-meitim –– "Blessed are You, Adonai, Who enlivens the dead." In modern times, some prayerbooks have amended the final word from מתים to הכל, so that it now reads "Blessed are You, Adonai, Who enlivens all things." Others amend the translation to "...Who enlivens the deadened."

Jewish teachings about resurrection, and how those ideas have shifted and changed over the last few thousand years or so, could make up their own very long post. For now, just take it as read that this phrase is part of our standard daily liturgy, and that these days it's understood in a variety of different ways. (If you're interested in learning more about Jewish ideas on death and resurrection, there's a decent overview at My Jewish Learning: Jewish Resurrection of the Dead.)

With the shifted translation -- making the bracha not about literal resurrection, per se, but about God Who brings life to that which had been deadened -- I've used this blessing sometimes over antidepressants. (See my poem Change, which appears in my second collection Waiting to Unfold.) In general I like the broader translation, and as a poet I think it's an entirely fair way to render  המתים  / hameitim. Anyway, these days I make this blessing over my first cup of morning caffeine.

Coffee

Here's the blessing most people offer.

The traditional blessing over coffee would be  שהכל נהיה בדברו / shehakol nihiyeh bidvaro – "...Who creates all things with Your word." That's the standard blessing which we recite over any food or drink which doesn't have its own blessing -- it's the catch-all for everything else. I like that blessing too. But I like doing coffee differently. It's a sweet little moment of ritual. It helps me sanctify one of the day's most mundane acts. And it reminds me to be thankful for being alive and being enlivened, every day.

 

 

Related: Morning blessings with Drew, 2013. Also, if you like the idea of prayers relating to coffee or tea, you might enjoy this pair of Caffeine (tea and coffee) Litanies I saw on Twitter recently.

 


A Vidui (Before Death)

Jewish tradition contains the practice of reciting a confessional prayer daily, annually, and before death. Some years ago, while in the ALEPH Hashpa'ah (Spiritual Direction)  program, I was assigned the task of writing my own. After I was blessed recently to have the opportunity of sitting with someone who was leaving this life, I was moved to revise and share the prayer I had written.



Vidui (Before Death)

 

Dear One, Source of All Being --
my God and God of my ancestors --
life and death are in Your hands:
hear my prayer.

I reach out to You
as I approach the contractions
which will birth my soul
into whatever comes next.

As my soul chose to enter this life
in order to learn and to love
I prepare now to leave
through an unfamiliar door.

I'm grateful for my place
in the chain of generations.
Grateful for teachers and friends
who have inspired and accompanied me.

I've made mistakes.
Lift them from my shoulders
and bless me with forgiveness.
I open my heart to You.

Help me to let go.
Help me to release regrets
so they don't encumber me
where I'm going.

All who have harmed me
in body, mind, or spirit
in this incarnation or any other --
I forgive them.

May all whom I have harmed
in body, mind, or spirit
in this incarnation or any other
forgive me in turn.

Help my loved ones to know
how deeply I have loved them
and will continue to love them
even when this body is gone.

God, parent of orphans
and defender of widows
be with my beloveds
and bring them comfort.

Into Your hand I place my soul.
You are with me; I have no fear.
As a wave returns to the ocean
I return to the Source from which I came.

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ ה' אֶחָד

Hear, O Israel; Adonai is our God; Adonai is One.

 

 

Related:

 

The vidui prayer of Yom Kippur -- and of every night, 2011.

A prayer before departing this life, 2013.


Texts to the Holy




Shechina is riding shotgun.
Her toenails are purple.

She's tapping at her smartphone
sending texts to the Holy.

What's it like, I ask her,
being apart? Do you wake up

melancholy and grateful
all at once, and fall asleep

thinking Shabbos can't come
soon enough, is always too short

you're always saying goodbye
and your own heart aches

to know he's hurting too?
And she looks at me

eyes kind as my grandmother
and timeless as the seas

and says, you tell Me, honey.
You tell Me.

 


 

The last time I saw Reb Zalman z"l, he spoke about conversing with God while driving. He would imagine Shechina, the immanent divine Presence, in his front seat -- and would pour out to God whatever was in his heart.

While driving recently I imagined the Shechina in my front seat... and this is the poem that ensued.

The original draft of this poem said that Shechina was writing "texts to the KBH." KBH is an acronym for the Hebrew phrase Kadosh Baruch Hu, which can be rendered in English as "Holy One of Blessing." Holy One of Blessing is a name associated with divine transcendence -- the part of God which is high-above and far-away. (Shechina, in contrast, is the part of God which dwells here in creation.) I've revised it, though, to be "texts to the Holy."

When we observe mitzvot with whole heart and intention -- says the mystical tradition -- we unify divine immanence and divine transcendence, for a time.

In my deepest yearnings, can I imagine what it's like for one part of God to ache for another part?

 

Edited to add: this is now the title poem of my next collection, which will be released by Ben Yehuda Press sometime in 2017 or early 2018.


A mincha beyond walls

There has not been formal prayer at Beyond Walls, though each morning and evening someone leads a meditation which features some silence and some words or prayer or song. Midweek, one of the Jewish participants suggested that we gather to daven mincha, the short service named after the afternoon grain offering which was once shared on the altar at the Temple in Jerusalem. We met on the patio behind the dining hall just after dinner on Wednesday night. The dining hall was beginning to cast long shadows across the lawn, but we walked through those shadows and into the sunshine.

We were a group of perhaps ten Jews and at least twice as many curious Christians. Rabbi Jamie said a few words explaining mincha and led us in an ashrei chant which I know and love and have sung often -- and which I did not know was his own composition! Then I led the weekday amidah: the first three blessings in Hebrew, and then the remainder in extemporaneous English. As I came to each of the bakashot (requests) I glanced at the Hebrew in my tiny pocket Koren siddur, connected with its meaning, and sang out a sentence or two in English before closing with the chatimah, the final line.

This is a mode of prayer I learned from the teacher of my teachers, Reb Zalman z"l (of blessed memory -- see Remembering my rebbe.) It seems innovative, but is actually a very old way of approaching prayer in general and the amidah in particular. Once upon a time, the shaliach tzibbur ("delegate for the community," e.g. prayer leader) would riff on the set themes of the blessings; only the final words of each blessing, which express its theme, were fixed. I love davening the amidah in this way, especially when I'm with a mixed-faith group for whom the pure Hebrew would not hold meaning.

Rabbi Jamie led us in a wordless niggun as our prayer for peace, and then an ein od chant as our aleinu. Meanwhile, my eyes were riveted on a clump of mown grass near us where a glorious orange butterfly was resting. At one point it rose up and flew away a bit, but it returned to another nearby clump of grass. I liked imagining that perhaps it was listening to our prayer. (Can butterflies hear?) Afterwards as people were thanking us for the service, others noticed the butterfly too. "It's probably dying," noted Rodger Kamenetz wryly. "What -- I'm a realist!" Well, at least we gave it a sweet send-off.

19729846216_0493b50a2e_z

A butterfly very like the one we davened with.

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate! And to everyone else, may your weekend be sweet.


Bedtime angels

On Tuesday evening I was blessed with the opportunity to lead our evening meditation at Beyond Walls. I had planned to sing two prayers, with some silent meditation in between, and that's exactly what I did -- first the ma'ariv aravim prayer which blesses God Who brings on the evening, and then the hashkivenu prayer which asks God to spread over us a shelter of peace as we head toward bed. But as I was finishing that second prayer I realized that there was something else I wanted to sing, something I sing to our son nightly: the invocation of the four angels who watch over us as we sleep.

The invocation of the angels is part of the liturgy of the bedtime shema. I grew up reciting the simple one-line shema at bedtime, but didn't learn about the other parts of the traditional liturgy until adulthood. One piece of that liturgy is a beautiful prayer of forgiveness (both seeking it, and granting it) which I have written about before. (See The vidui prayer of Yom Kippur...and of every night.) Another piece is birkat ha-mapil, which asks God to protect the sleeper to lie down in peace and rise up in peace in the morning. And a third piece is an invocation of a quartet of angels.

Here are the words to that invocation, as I learned it at Elat Chayyim many years ago:

בשם ה' אלוהי ישראל
מימיני מיכאל
ושמאלי גבריאל
מלפני אוריאל
ומאחורי רפאל
ועל ראשי ומעל תחתי שכינת אל

B'shem Hashem, elohei Yisrael
B'ymini Michael u-smoli Gavriel
Milfanai Uriel, u-me'acharai Raphael
V'al roshi, u-m'al tachtai, Shechinat-El

In the name of God, the God of Israel
On my right is Michael, on my left is Gavriel
In front of me is Uriel, behind me Raphael
And all above, surrounding me, Shechinat-El.

Sometimes this is called "the angel song." It invokes the presence of four angels. On the right is Michael, which in Hebrew means "Who is Like You, God?" -- in simple words, Wonder. On the left is Gavriel, which means "God's Strength" -- in simple words, Strength. In front is Uriel, which means "God's Light" -- simply, Light. Behind is Raphael, "God's Healing" -- simply, Comfort. And above us, and surrounding us, every present with us, is the Shechinah, the immanent divine Presence. (The idea of naming each angel with a one-word quality comes from the children's book The Bedtime Sh'ma.)

If you can't see the embedded video, above, it's here on YouTube.

The melody I used at Beyond Walls was one by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach z"l, and it's the one I most often sing to our son at bedtime. (Though when I was at Getting It... Together a few weekends ago, I learned a beautiful new melody for these words, written by Shir Yaakov.) I love this little prayer. I love the idea of invoking these four angelic presences to watch over us while we sleep. I love the fact that in our tradition there is an angel of Wonder, an angel of Strength, an angel of Light, an angel of Healing. And I love the use of this lullaby to gentle the transition out of waking and toward dreams.

The Talmud teaches that sleep is 1/60th of death. When we go to sleep, our tradition teaches, we place our souls in God's keeping -- and when we rise and sing the modah ani, we thank God for restoring them to us and for the gift of another day. Sleep means letting go of whatever we've been carrying all day, and letting go of control. When we sleep we have to trust that our hearts will go on beating and that the world will keep on turning. For me, invoking the presence of these four angels is a bolster against anxiety and a comfort. I'm grateful that I was able to share this practice with this community.

 

Related:

Calling all angels, 2010

Bedtime prayers and the alphabet, 2013

Vayechi: a blessing at bedtime, 2015


Beloved



Again the ache
    floods my ribcage,
        wets my face with salt.

Missing you
    wells up in me:
        painful undertow.

The water is wide
    and I can't see you
        on the distant shore.

What use my hands
    if I can't touch you,
        my heart if it's alone?

When you're with me
    I can see new colors.
        All creation gleams.

What can I give you?
    My words, my offerings
        could never be enough.
        
I close my eyes.
    Maybe before I wake
        I'll see your face.
        
       


Jewish tradition is rife with poems of yearning written to God. I would feel chutzpahdik in the extreme were I to place myself alongside Yehuda Halevi or Solomon ibn Gabirol or the author of Yedid Nefesh (hear that poem sung by Nava Tehila, or read it in Hebrew and in Reb Zalman z"l's English translation at Open Siddur)...but perhaps this poem arises out of a similar yearning for the face of the beloved.

I think of this poem as the other side of the connection evoked in Your voice knocks. I seem to be writing a series of these; the third is already in progress. Stay tuned...


Your voice knocks



When I wake
your name is honey
on my lips.

All day long
you're with me.
My heart rests

in your hand.
I am safe
in your embrace.

You know
my innermost parts.
Nothing I say

nothing I am
could drive you
away from me.

Your voice knocks.
Like a magnolia
I open.

 


This poem arose in me on my way home from West Chester, PA, where I spent the last several days doing ALEPH things -- first the "Getting It... Together" weekend, then an ALEPH board meeting, then getting a tiny taste of Ruach ha-Aretz and doing a bit of listening tour work before returning home.

The final stanza is the one which came to me first -- probably because I had been listening to Nava Tehila's beautiful album Libi Er (Waking Heart). The title track includes the phrase קוֹל דּוֹדִי דוֹפֵק -- "the voice of my beloved is knocking." (It's a quote from Song of Songs chapter 5.)

"You know / my inmost parts" hints at Psalm 139.


New poems for the Shofar service

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

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

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

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

 

 

MALCHUYOT

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

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

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

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

Continue reading "New poems for the Shofar service" »


Prayer, love, and text messages

I remember, many years ago at the first retreat I ever attended with Reb Zalman z"l, hearing him talk about prayer* -- specifically about the sense one might have, at a certain point, that the words have all already been said. If one is taking on a daily (or even weekly) prayer practice, there will likely come a time when one has the feeling: I've said all of this already. Does God really need to hear this again?

But prayer isn't that kind of communication. It's like saying "I love you." Imagine that one were to say to one's beloved "I love you" -- would one's beloved respond with "eh, who cares, you said that already"? Of course not. The point of saying "I love you" is not merely conveying intellectual data. The point of saying "I love you" is creating, or rekindling, a connection on the level of the heart.

When we pray, when we engage in any kind of devotional practice, in a sense we're saying I love You to God. Ultimately it's not about the words we use or the information we're communicating. What matters is what's happening in our hearts. (And, the mystical tradition teaches, also therefore in the heart of the Holy One of Blessing. When we offer love to God, we stimulate the flow of love in return.)

TextsIf there's a way in which prayer is like saying "I love You," I think there's also a way in which saying "I love you" (lower-case "y") is like prayer.

Anytime I say "I love you," if I'm saying the words with intention, I'm speaking to the spark of divinity which enlivens that person -- the nitzotz elohut, the spark of godliness in that soul.

When I say "I love you" to a beloved, I'm also saying it to God. That's true whether the words emerge out of deep conversation, or whether I'm texting a shorthand ILU from my phone to theirs.

Here too the analogy between connecting with my human beloveds and my Divine Beloved holds true. Holiness is in the place of connection between I and Thou, even if that connection is brief.

There are times when I manage only snatches or snippets of regular prayer, which might as well be text messages from me to the Divine. What makes those short texts to God work is the fact that they're part of an ongoing conversation.

Any time I open my siddur, or sing lines of liturgy while driving the car, or open my heart to ask for a change I wish I could see in the world, I can feel the connection open. Every time I talk to God is "to be continued," because the conversation is never really over.

And I know that what matters is not whether I'm using "the right" words or whether I'm saying something I've never said before. What matters is that I'm saying it from the heart. When I speak from my heart, when I really mean my words, something in me opens. And if I have the feeling that you received (or You received) the words the way I meant them, then the connection between us can bloom.

 

 

*I had been absolutely convinced that I remembered Reb Zalman saying this about prayer. And then I went to look back in my retreat notes from the retreat where I was pretty sure he said it... and it turns out he said it about Torah, instead! I still offer this teaching in his honor.


Prayers for the morning, part 3: Body

CoverThis is the third post in a series of short meditations on morning prayers. (See Part 1: Gratitude and Part 2: Soul.)

 

I always say that my favorite prayer is modah ani, the blessing for gratitude. And it is. But the asher yatzar, the blessing for the body, is a close second:


בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶת הָאָדָם בְּחָכְמָה, וּבָרָא בוֹ נְקָבִים נְקָבִים, חֲלוּלִים חֲלוּלִים, גָלוּי וְיָדוּעַ לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶךָ שֶאִם יִפָּתֵחַ אֶחָד מֵהֶם, אוֹ יִסָּתֵם אֶחָד מֵהֶם, אִי אֶפְשַׁר לְהִתְקַיֵים וְלַעֲמוֹד לְפָנֶיךָ: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, רוֹפֵא כָל בָּשָׂר, וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשׂוֹת:

(Transliteration)

Blessed are You, Adonai our God
Who forms the human body with wisdom
And creates within it a miraculous combination
Of organs and arteries, tissues and sinews.
It is known before Your throne of glory
That if one of these were to be open where it should be closed
Or closed where it should be open
We would not be able to stand before you and offer praises.
Blessed are You, Adonai, creator of embodied miracles!

"Organs and arteries, tissues and sinews" is a creative translation which I think I first encountered in Reb Jeff's homegrown siddur; the Hebrew literally says "ducts and tubes," hinting at flutes, meaning something like "openings and closings" -- e.g. the organs and veins and ducts in our bodies.

Some people call this "the bathroom blessing," because these are the words traditionally recited after (washing the hands after the act of) elimination. I love the fact that we have a blessing which reminds us not to take the regular functioning of our bodies for granted. (It also appears in daily liturgy.)

When I had my strokes back in 2006, my relationship with this blessing shifted radically. It's one thing to say, in the abstract, that in order for me to be present before God and pray I need a body which will keep me alive in order to do so. But the strokes brought that reality home in a new way.

"It is known...that if one of these were to be...closed where it should be open" -- if, for instance, a blood clot found its way again to my brain -- I might not be able to be here in relationship with God. I might not "be here" anymore at all. I try to remember that my body is a miracle, every single day.

Rabba Emily Aviva Kapor has written a beautiful variation on Asher Yatzar which takes into account how the classical prayer can be problematic, in its unconscious ableism and in how it can erase the experience of trans* folks who struggle with the assertion that God made their bodies "with wisdom."

Whether I daven the traditional text or Rabba Emily Aviva's variation, this prayer feels incredibly important to me. Maybe because it's easy for me as a woman to knock my body, and this prayer reminds me instead to thank God for the miracle of this body which allows me to exist in the world.

And my mashpi'ah reminds me that this prayer teaches also that we need to be aware of openings and closings on other levels. In emotional life there can be blocks which need clearing. In intellectual life. In spiritual life. Channels need to be open in all four worlds of body, heart, mind, and spirit.

What in your life is closed which you yearn to open, or opened which you wish you could safely close? Does this blessing speak to you and to your sense of your lived experience in your body? What are the sine quibus non, the things or conditions without which you could not be present and offer praise?

 

Related:

Sanctifying the body, 2005

Morning blessings for body and soul, 2007

On bathrooms, blessings, and a learning experience, 2012

Daily love song to my body, 2013

Every body is a reflection of God, 2013

Gratitude for my body, 2015

 

Image: the cover of this children's book.

 


Prayers for the morning, part 2: Soul

PrayConnectionsThis is the second post in a series of short meditations on morning prayers.(See Part 1: Gratitude.)

 

When I asked colleagues for their suggestions of morning prayers which start the day on the right foot, several of them mentioned Elohai Neshama -- "My God, the soul that You have placed within me is pure."

Sometimes I daven the full prayer, and other times I sing Rabbi Shefa Gold's one-sentence chant, but here's the whole thing (the chant is just the first six words):

אלהי נשמה שנתת בי טהורה היא. אתה בראתה אתה יצרתה נפחתה בי, ואתה משמרה בקרבי ואתה עתיד ליטלה ממני ולהחזירה בי לעתיד לבא. כל זמן שהנשמה בקרבי מודה אני לפניך, יי אלהי ולהי אבותי ואמותי, רבון כל המעשים, אדון כל הנשמות. ברוך אתה יי, המחזיר נשמות לפגרים מתים

(Transliteration.)

My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure. You created it, You formed it, and You breathed it into me. You guard it while it is within me; some day it will return to You, and You will restore it to me in a time beyond time. As long as my soul is within me, I will thank You, my God and God of my ancestors, Source of all creation, Sovereign of all souls. Blessed are You, Adonai, Who restores the soul to the body.

(The version of this prayer which appears in Mishkan Tfilah, the Reform movement's siddur, leaves out the line about the soul returning to God and being restored to me in a time beyond time. You can see their version on a beautiful two-page spread here: Elohai Neshama in Mishkan Tfilah [pdf].)

I like Elohai Neshama. It reminds me that no matter what mistakes I made yesterday, I wake today to a soul which is pure. It reminds me that my soul is created anew each day by God and breathed into me for the duration of this lifetime, and that someday my soul will return to its ineffable Source.

But it's not a prayer that's become integral to my daily practice, unlike the blessing for gratitude and the blessing for my body. Maybe that's because I've never needed it in the same way that I need the other two. I've never struggled to believe that my soul is pure, whole, and holy -- at least, not yet.

That said, I gladly sing this prayer when I reach its place in the morning service. I think there is something radical about asserting that the soul is pure every day: no matter what our mistakes, no matter what burdens we are carrying, something within us is always pure and clean and clear.

Several years ago I spent some time working on a cycle of poems arising out of our daily morning prayer, some of which -- including the one I'm about to share here -- will appear in my next book of poetry, Open My Lips, due later this year from Ben Yehuda Press. Let me know if it speaks to you.

 

ELOHAI NESHAMA

 

My God, my
own: my soul
that You have given me
is pure, clear
like mikveh waters

the spark
which makes me more
than automated clay,
than cells sprouting cells
is holy

neshama: feminine
no matter whose,
women and men
and those blessed
in-between

what's gendered
female is what
creates: this
drop of divine
breath that breathes in us

let what I create
in the world, my God,
be as pure
as Your breath
in me

 

Related:

Morning blessing poem cycle, 2012 (a reprint from 2004)

Morning blessings for body and soul, 2007

 

Image source: ArtKetubah.com.


Prayers for the morning, part 1: Gratitude

Modeh AniAfter I posted about afternoon prayer recently, my mom wrote back to tell me that she liked the post and the prayer, and to ask whether I could share a brief morning prayer, too. It seemed likely to me that if she were interested, someone else might be too. My very favorite prayer is a morning prayer:

 

מודה אני לפניך
מלך חי וקים
שהחזרת בי נשמתי בחמלה,
רבה אמונתך.

Modah ani l'fanecha,
melech chai v'kayam,
shehchezarta bi nishmati b'chemla,
rabbah emunatecha!

I am grateful before You,
Living and enduring God --
With mercy You have restored my soul to me.
Great is Your faithfulness!

 

It's only one sentence, but it holds so much. "I am grateful" -- I begin the day with gratitude. "Before You" -- the reminder that even if I am feeling isolated, I am not alone. "Living and enduring God" -- I assert that I am speaking to the force which enlivens all things, and which endures forever.

"You have mercifully restored my soul to me" -- that phrase depends on the assumption that while we sleep, our souls are in God's keeping. While we sleep, our souls are sheltered and cared-for by God. When we wake, our souls return to our bodies. This prayer reminds me to notice that I am alive!

"Great is Your faithfulness"-- sometimes the last clause is my favorite part. One might imagine that emunah, faith, is something we are meant to have in God. But this prayer asserts exactly the opposite. God has faith in us. I begin my day by reminding myself that someone -- some One -- believes in me.

I put out this question to a handful of rabbi friends on Twitter, curious to know what short morning prayer they would highlight. They suggested elohai neshama, which reminds us that we wake each day with pure souls, and asher yatzar, which reminds us that our bodies are miracles.

Stay tuned for a little bit more about each of those. Meanwhile, I'd love to know (via comments on this post, or via Twitter conversation -- I'm @velveteenrabbi) your favorite morning prayer(s) and/or gratitude practice(s). What have you found to work for you, as the best way to begin your day?

 

Related:

Melodies for gratitude , 2011;

On gratitude and thanks, 2013;

Privilege, prayer, parenthood, 2014.

 

Image source: Esther Zibell.


Afternoon offering

I've trained myself to begin and end each day with what my ALEPH teachers would call prayerful consciousness. I begin the day with modah ani, sung silently in my head if not aloud; I end the day with the shema and blessing those who are dear to me. Even though I often don't manage to make the time to daven (pray) the whole morning and evening liturgy, I feel good that I have inculcated these practices deeply enough that they persist without me having to remind myself to do them.

What I don't have is any kind of consistent practice for afternoon's mincha time. (This is not new.) Lately I've been spending time with a one-paragraph meditation written by Rabbi Edward Feld, which I long ago copied from Kol HaNeshamah, the Reconstructionist siddur. It's an abridged version of the middle of the weekday amidah, the standing prayer which is central to every service. The amidah is our time to stand before God, whatever we understand that to mean -- God far above or deep within.

On Shabbat we offer seven amidah blessings; the weekday version contains 19 blessings. (Why longer on weekdays? Because traditionally one doesn't ask for anything on Shabbat, which is meant to be a special time out of time. On weekdays, we can make requests.) The weekday amidah has some heft to it, but the tradition makes allowances for those who are traveling and can't manage the whole thing. This abridging, replacing the middle 13 blessings with one, is one of our traditional "workarounds."

Anyway, here's the abbreviation of those middle 13 requests with which I've been spending time lately:

 

פקח עיני לראות בטוב יצרך
והפך דעתי לדעתך ורצוני לרצונך.
יהיו כל מעשי כקרבן רצוי לפניך
ותסלח לכל פשעי.
תנ לי לראות אורך בכל פגישותי
ורפא נא מכאובות לבי.
כי אתה שומע תפלת כל פה.
ברוך אתה יה שומע תפלה.

Open my eye, that it may look upon the goodness of Your plan,
 and turn my knowledge into knowledge of your ways, my will into Your will.
May all that I do be like an offering received into Your presence,
and may You forgive me all I have done wrong.
Enable me to see Your light in all whom I encounter,
and please heal the pain within my heart.
For You are one Who listens to the prayer of all who speak.
Blessed are You, Eternal One, Who hears all prayer.

 

I know that Rabbi Feld did not intend for this blessing to replace the weekday amidah altogether, but on days when my time is tight, sometimes this is my whole afternoon amidah. (I keep it printed out beside my desk so I can grab it as needed in the pause between meetings.) Even when it's all I manage to do, it does shift the tenor of my heart a little bit. I think it helps me to bring more awareness and spaciousness to whatever meetings or obligations or teaching might be coming next.

I love how this blessing presumes that if my eyes are open, they will see God's goodness. There is goodness in the world; I need only to open myself to it, and I will recognize that it is there. I love the line about wanting my actions to be an an offering -- to me, that hints at the name of the afternoon service, mincha, which means offering, as in the afternoon offering once made at the Temple in Jerusalem. I love the intention of seeing God's light in all whom I meet as I go about my day.

And I love that there is a request for healing. Sometimes there is an ache sitting heavy on my heart.  Sometimes I am sad about something, or worried about someone, or wishing I could make life sweeter for someone I love. And sometimes it feels as though my sorrow, or my worry, or my yearning is a block to my ability to daven. But this prayer reminds me otherwise. My yearnings themselves can feed my prayer; can become my prayer. They are the holiest thing I can offer up on the altar of my heart.