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.

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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.

 


Oceanside shacharit

26118979020_91dc1d7b7f_zOne of my dreams, for this week in California, was to manage to daven one morning on the beach. As it turns out, it's only about a block from the friend's house where I've been staying to the edge of the Pacific.

As we walk down to the beach, the sun is shining brightly in a sky of pale robin's-egg blue. As we draw closer to the water, the wind lifts up my featherweight rainbow tallit around me like wings. 

We settle on the sand. Whoever feels moved offers the beginning of a prayer -- either a beloved melody, or the beloved lilt of weekday nusach -- and the rest of us join in. We work our way through the whole matbeah, the ancient ladder of the prayer service.

At the appropriate moment I chime in with part of the Song at the Sea, because -- well, here we are, at the seashore on the cusp of Pesach. Ozi v'zimrat Yah -- "My strength is in Your song..." Next time I sing those words at havdalah they will have a different feel.

Seagulls fly overhead. A sandpiper pecks at the wet sand by the water's edge. Two wetsuit-clad surfers paddle out into the water, and from time to time I see one of them stand and glide a ways in toward shore.

We move in and out of nusach. We have moments of silence which I spend beaming. We sing "Mi Chamocha" to the melody of "Adir Hu," a Pesach song, which evokes years of Passover memories. When we rise into our amidah, our standing prayer, I have a shivery moment of recognition. Recently I had a mental image of a doorframe on the beach at the edge of the sea. Suddenly the sea ahead of us here reminds me of the view through that door.  

We close with "Eli, Eli," a setting of a poem by Hannah Szenes. In English, it can be rendered as "My God, my God, I pray that these things never end: the sand and the sea, the rush of the waters, the crash of the heavens, the prayer of the heart." As we walk away from the beach, the prayer of my heart is a fervent Thank You. Thank You. Thank You.

 

 

 

 

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Four happy daveners, primed now for fabulous morning meetings!

(L to R: me, Rabbi T'mimah Ickovits of Holistic Jew, ALEPH's Rosh Hashpa'ah Rabbi Shohama Wiener and my co-chair Rabbi David Evan Markus.) 

Many thanks to the kind stranger who graciously snapped our photo so we could all be in the picture.


Collaboration with God: on Torah and bread

If you pay attention to the emails you receive from the synagogue office, you may have noticed that this month some of us are engaging in an experiment with the mitzvah of blessing our food. We're making an extra effort, during this lunar month of Adar 2, to remember to say a blessing over the foods we eat. At the end of the month, we'll take stock of how the experiment felt. We'll examine whether, and how, practicing this mitzvah of expressing gratitude for our food may have helped us to flourish as human beings.

One of the core blessings over food is the blessing we'll recite over our challah when this morning's service is complete: the hamotzi.

Hamotzi

At first blush it appears to be pretty similar to all of the other food blessings, right? We bless God Who creates the fruit of the vine, the fruit of the tree, the fruit of the earth. The hamotzi is just like those. Isn't it? Well -- not quite. We say borei pri hagafen over wine or grape juice or grapes. We say borei pri ha-etz over apple juice or over apples. But the hamotzi doesn't thank God for the grain of the field. The hamotzi blesses God Who brings forth bread from the earth.

Bread does not grow on wheat stalks. Bread requires human effort. God causes the grain to grow, but in order for there to be bread someone has to harvest the grain, mill the grain into flour, mix it with water and a leavening agent, shape it, proof it, and bake it. Without God, we wouldn't have the grain -- but without human beings, the grain couldn't become bread. God may indeed bring forth bread from the earth, as the poetic language of our blessing teaches, but the means through which God does that work is human hands.

Human hands are needed to turn wheat into bread... just as human hearts and minds are needed for the transformation of Torah into its most meaningful form. Sixteenth-century Rabbi Judah Loew, known as the Maharal of Prague, wrote, "Consider all of God's creations, and you will see that they are all in need of some finishing act. Wheat must be processed in order to be fit for human consumption; it was not created by God in finished form... [and just so], Sages finish and complete the Torah."

"The Torah of Adonai is perfect, restoring the soul," says the psalmist. But if the Torah is perfect, how can it need to be completed? Maybe the problem lies in what we think perfection means. Look out our beautiful sanctuary windows at the sky. Would you say that the sky right now is perfect? I would. Or at least, I aspire to be someone who can always see perfection in the sky. It's perfect whether it's blue or grey, clear or cloudy. It's perfect, and when it changes into something new, it will be perfect then too. Perfect doesn't have to mean unchanging. Perfection can lie in the very continuity of change.

And perfect doesn't have to mean finished. Maybe what makes Torah most perfect is precisely that it's not finished... until we read it and add our voices to the tapestry of interpretation. Maybe Torah in a vacuum isn't perfect. Maybe Torah becomes perfect precisely when we commit ourselves to engaging with it, to spinning its fibers into beautiful tapestries, to grinding and mixing and baking its grain into nourishing bread. Torah is the raw material given to us by God, the grain of the field awaiting our contributions of effort and heart. Our task is to engage with those materials and make them into something new.

This week we enter into the book of Vayikra, "And God Called" -- known in English as Leviticus. This section of Torah is filled with the details of the ancient sacrificial system. It details the offerings our ancestors made before God: offerings in search of atonement or forgiveness, offerings of gratitude, wholeness offerings, elevation offerings. It describes the offering-up of bulls and goats, sheep and pigeons, elaborate breads and dishes of oil and flour. For many moderns, these are the most challenging portions in Torah from which to wrest meaning. Who among us can imagine communicating with God through the ritual slaughter of cattle and pigeons, or the burning of incense and fine meal?

The word for the service the priests offered in the temple is avodah, from a root meaning "to serve."(The same idea is embedded in our English word for what we've come here for this morning: "services.") Today we seek to engage in avodah she-ba-lev, the "service of the heart" a.k.a. prayer. The sacrificial system worked for us two thousand years ago... and then when our circumstances changed, we found a new way to understand the meaning of avodah. Who knows how we'll connect with God in another two thousand years? The only thing I hope I can say with certainty is that we will still be wrestling with the question. We will still be figuring out how to transform the raw stuff of Torah into bread that gives us the spiritual nourishment we need. 

What happens if we approach these descriptions of ancient sacrifice in the spirit of collaborative inquiry, bringing to bear on this Torah the leavening of our curiosity and the heat of our impassioned hearts?

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. 


The obstacle is the door

Another-doorI can't remember where I first heard the teaching from the Baal Shem Tov about lifting up the sparks of strange thoughts. Here's how that teaching goes:

It's human nature for one's mind to wander, even at times of contemplation or prayer. This is just what it's like to have a human brain. And then it's easy to imagine that one should castigate oneself for those thoughts which are getting in the way of connecting with God.

Not so, said the Baal Shem Tov. When those thoughts arise, our task isn't to banish them or to kick ourselves for having them, but to lift them up. Even an "unholy" thing has a pure spark of divinity within; find that spark and elevate it. (The binarism of holy / unholy may feel foreign or old-fashioned; just roll with it, because I think the teaching transcends the binarism.)

For instance, if one is distracted during prayer by the thought of a beautiful woman (of course he was speaking to men in a heteronormative context -- translate as needed into your own appropriate milieu), one shouldn't knock oneself for being distracted by that beauty. The thing to do instead is to lift up those sparks to God by thanking God for the God-given beauty which distracted you -- to find a way to make the distraction itself a path toward the One.

It's human nature to be constantly getting caught up in remembering the past (whether bitter or sweet), in anticipating the future (whether bitter or sweet), in telling oneself stories, in daydreaming about one's fears and one's hopes and one's desires. My meditation practice has revealed to me the constant chatter my monkey mind provides on all of those fronts. All of those can arise while I'm falling asleep, or driving the car, or washing dishes... and all of those can happen while I'm attempting to sit in meditation or to daven, too. 

It's easy to kick myself for that; to think that if I really had good focus I would be able to keep that stuff out of my mind while in meditation or prayer. But the Baal Shem Tov teaches that there is holiness -- there is God -- even in those recurring thoughts which seem to get in the way of prayer. Indeed: the machshevot zarot ("strange" or "foreign" thoughts) which get in the way of prayer are themselves a doorway into deeper prayer. They offer me an opportunity to make prayer out of my very distractions.

The obstacle itself becomes the door. This is a classic Hasidic move. Instead of feeling that gashmiut (physicality) is something which keeps us from God, we can use our very embodiment to drive our service to the One. Instead of seeing our mis-steps (or "sins") as things which distance us from God, we can see them as the first step toward making teshuvah, turning toward God again -- because when we fall away from God, we stimulate our own yearning to rise and reconnect. (Tanya / Likkutei Amarim, ch. 7)

The obstacle itself becomes the door.  Or, phrased another way (as I learned it from my teacher Jason Shinder of blessed memory), whatever gets in the way of the work is the work. (He was talking about poetry, but -- as I've said here many times before -- I find it a valuable teaching about spiritual life, too.) The hope or fear or yearning which gets in the way of my prayer can become the substrate of my prayer. The desires, anxieties, and thoughts which might appear to disconnect me from God become my way to connect.

 


Listen up, y'all

 

"Listen up, y'all," says Shekhinah
who looks today like a teacher
in corduroy dress and sedate boots.

"Let the smartphone rest a bit,
or learn how to hear My voice
coming through its speaker.

Let your love for Me well up
like unexpected tears. Everyone serves
something: give your life to Me.

Let the channel of your heart open
and My abundance will pour through.
But if you prefer profit, if you pretend --

if you're not real with Me
your life will feel hollow
and your heart be embittered.

I won't punish you; I won't need to.
Your hollowness will be punishment enough,
and the world will suffer for it.

So let My words twine around your arm,
and shine like a headlamp
between your eyes to light your way.

Teach them to everyone you meet.
Write them at the end of your emails
and on your business cards.

Then you'll remember how to live
with the flow of all that is holy --
you'll have heaven right here on earth."

 


 

This is a creative rendering of the second paragraph of the shema, Deuteronomy 11:13-21. It was written for the service I'm leading this morning with Rabbi David at Rabbis Without Borders. (I offer deep thanks to David both for co-leading davenen with me, and for reading an early draft of this poem and offering wise suggestions.)


Tu BiShvat Resources for Our Living Planet

Cross-posted from Kol ALEPH, the blog of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Earth

This year we (at ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal) rededicate ourselves to caring for our living planet as a place of holiness. Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees (coming up on January 25), is a natural opportunity to link our deep ecological values with the life of the spirit. Here are some resources which we hope will bring added meaning to your Tu BiShvat:

  • Rededication (pdf) - a new liturgical poem for Tu BiShvat by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
  • Blessing for Tu BiShvat (pdf) - a prayer from the original Tu BiShvat haggadah, offered by Rabbi David Seidenberg at NeoHasid.org
  • One page flowchart haggadah (pdf) - a one-page printable flowchart haggadah, offered by Rabbi David Seidenberg at NeoHasid.org
  • A digital haggadah for Tu BiShvat (slideshow / powerpoint) - a new digital haggadah for Tu BiShvat, intended for projection on a screen (to save trees!)  Liturgy, poems, prayers, video, and more. That same haggadah is available online via slideshare:

May our celebrations of Tu BiShvat bring us closer to healing our living planet and connecting us with the One Who enlivens and sustains us all.


Who continually renews

SunshineIn rabbinic school I learned to love the daily liturgy. I love all kinds of variations on that liturgy, and I also love the phrases and images of the liturgy as we've received it.

One of the neat things about davening with a (somewhat) fixed liturgy is that while the words remain the same, the lens I bring to them changes. Words and phrases mean different things to me at different times. Lately when I've been davening, my attention has snagged on one line in the morning prayer which blesses God as creator of light. In Hebrew, it's this:

וּבְטוּבוֹ מְחַדֵּשׁ בְּכָל יוֹם תָּמִיד מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית

In English, these words describe God as the One Who, every day, in goodness, continually renews the work of creation.

"Continually renews the work of creation." Sometimes that phrase suggests to me that God is perennially speaking the universe into being. As Torah teaches that creation began with the words "let there be light," just so, every atom which exists is being spoken-into-being by God in every moment. Sometimes that phrase suggests something different: that every morning we wake to a world which is (or can be) entirely new. No matter what happened yesterday, each day is a chance to begin again.

Today I was struck by the first word in that phrase, which means "in [God's] goodness." God renews creation each day not out of habit, but in goodness. (Or "with goodness" -- the Hebrew could be translated either way.) Goodness is the tool with which God renews creation, or maybe the renewal of creation is itself goodness. It is goodness which brings about renewal, and renewal is perennial. Creation is constantly being renewed, and because we are part of creation, so are we.

I know that sometimes in my life I feel stuck, or I know that someone I love is stuck: in illness, in grief, in a difficult situation that (no matter how I might try) I can't balm or fix. I know that every human life comes with heartache. I know that sometimes the things that hurt feel perennial and never-ending. The hurt can feel as though it will swell until it eclipses everything else.

At those times I need a reminder of precisely what this prayer teaches. I need to be reminded that renewal is foundational and is built in to the fabric of the universe. I need to be reminded that creation didn't just happen once-upon-a-time: it's still happening even now, in every moment. I need to be reminded that (at least, in the view of my tradition) goodness is central to existence as we know it, and that goodness is always unfolding. That God is always unfolding. That creation is always unfolding.

Yesterday morning I davened the morning service at 30,000 feet as I flew back from a few days visiting family. As early sun gilded the beautiful bright tops of the clouds, I blessed God Who creates light: not only the literal light of the star we call the sun, but also the light of wisdom and of insight. And I paused for a while on the line which names God as the One Who every day, in goodness, continually renews the work of creation. I'm glad to have the daily liturgy to remind me that that is so.


The Angels of San Bernardino: prayer after a shooting

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The angels of San Bernardino
Were busy on their appointed rounds:

One hovering atop each blade of grass
Calling forth its skyward stretch,

One ready to tap the lip of each baby
About to be born into holy amnesia,

One giving directions to a lost passerby,
One restarting a paralyzed heart,

One for each shooter’s right shoulder
Desperate to redirect their savage aim,

One at the lifeless feet of each victim
As God took them with a kiss and a tear.

Help us to feel the angels now among us
Even when they seem absent or late.

Help us draw strength from their presence
Even when we feel most alone and unsure.

Help us be Your messengers for each other,
Your holy agents of justice, healing and hope.

 

Rabbi David Evan Markus and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Co-chairs, ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal

 

Busy on their appointed roundsTradition imagines that each angel is created for a single mission or purpose (Gen. Rabbah 50:2).  Hovering atop each blade of grass –“Not even a blade of grass is without an angel that taps it and says, ‘Grow'” (Gen. Rabbah 10:6). Tap the lip – From the Talmudic legend that all babies learn the wisdom of holiness in the womb, but before birth an angel touches the lip and they are born forgetting what they learned (Talmud, Niddah 30b).  One giving directions to a lost passerby – When Joseph was lost looking for his brothers, the angel Gavriel redirected Joseph and changed the course of history (Rashi Gen. 37:15).  Lifeless feet of each victim – An angel attends the feet at the moment of death (Deut. Rabbah 11:11). God took them with a kiss – No less than for Moses himself (Talmud, Bava Batra 17a).

 

This liturgical poem, co-written by ALEPH's co-chairs, originally appeared at Kol ALEPH.


To affix the mezuzah

23278205325_439633ff6b_zMy study at home doesn't have a door. It's part of a bigger room, walled off by standing bookshelves which face in both directions. Because my study doesn't have a door, it doesn't have a doorframe or doorposts. As a result, there's never been a mezuzah at the entrance to my study...until now. 

I've had this glass mezuzah for as long as I can remember. I think that I bought it from a visiting sofer (scribe) at the Jewish day school I attended in second grade. It's traveled with me from place to place, room to room, always sitting on a shelf or on a table. (From time to time, as needed, it travels with me to my shul so that the local sofer can examine it when he comes to examine our Torah scrolls.) And now it hangs on the edge of one of the bookshelves which acts as a doorframe to this ersatz room.

As I was preparing to hang it, I was struck by the particular phrasing of the blessing for affixing a mezuzah. In English, one way to translate it would be this: "A fountain of blessings are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of the universe! You give us the opportunity to make ourselves holy with these connective-commandments, including the commandment to affix the mezuzah."

The word I'm rendering as "affix" is לקבוע / likbo'a  – the same root as in the phrase מקום קבוע / makom kavua, the "fixed place" one is supposed to make for oneself in prayer. (Here's a nice commentary on that -- I especially like the idea, from Dr. Alan Morinis, that when one chooses a fixed spot for prayer, one frees up the rest of the space in the room for others -- just as when one maintains good ego boundaries, one frees up the rest of the psycho-spiritual space in the room for others.)

Contrary to the Gemara's instructions, I don't have a "fixed place" for my spiritual practices, whether poetry or prayer. I do both wherever I go, including when I am on the go. Sometimes I pray aloud while driving the car. (Sometimes I write poems in my head while driving the car.) This life is one of perennial multitasking. Rabbinate, parenthood, serving ALEPH, writing poetry: all of these roles interpenetrate, and I embody them wherever I go. I'm still mom when I'm at the synagogue. I'm still rabbi when I'm packing a lunch for school. I'm still a poet when I'm writing sermons or making pastoral care calls. I am all of these things wherever I go, and my spiritual practices are portable -- they go with me. 

Still, affixing a mezuzah at the entrance to my study feels like a way of making that room an extra-special place for my spiritual practices. Now when I walk through the "door" into my study, I can pause and kiss my fingers and touch them to the mezuzah -- sanctifying the transition from one space to another, one room to another. I love that our tradition gives us this tool for noticing liminal spaces and making them holy. And I love that when I enter this room where so many of my poems are revised, including this year's many poems of love and longing for the Beloved, I'll be reminded to love the One with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my being (because the prayer which reminds me to do so is written on the mezuzah's parchment.)

Most days, I also wear the words of that same prayer -- the declaration of God's Oneness, and the exhortation to love the One with all that I am -- on a silver amulet designed by artist Jackie Olenick. Maybe that amulet is the portable "mezuzah" on the room of my body, the room of my heart. My glass mezuzah can help me sanctify my home office -- not necessarily my only fixed place for spiritual practice, but one of the places where I practice; and my necklace can help me cultivate holiness as I bring my spiritual practices with me, wherever I go. 

 

Related:

Doorposts, 2010

 


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.