In 2003, the same year that I started Velveteen Rabbi, I also started the practice of sending a poem to family and friends during the High Holiday season -- my own variation on the practice of sending High Holiday cards. On this page you'll find those poems, sent to friends and family during Elul from 2003 until now. (They're now ordered in reverse chronological order, with the newest one at the top.)
(Speaking of Elul poems: I've written daily poems during Elul off and on in recent years for #blogElul. If those interest you, you can read #blogElul posts via the Elul tag; you might also enjoy my collection of Elul poems which arose out of #blogElul a few years ago, now available in print and e-book form as See Me: Elul poems.)
Feel free to use these in your own preparation for the Days of Awe, in liturgy and sermons, etc. But please do ensure that my name and my web address remain attached to them, so that if people find meaning in them, they know where to find more of my work. And drop me a comment or an email; I always enjoy knowing when my poems have found an audience. Thanks!
2017 / 5778: Transplanted
God says: face facts. The old year
is ending. You’ve outgrown it.
The flowerpot that used to be home
isn’t big enough anymore. Once
it was spacious. Now your roots
push uncomfortably against the walls.
It's time to stop contorting yourself
to fit inside a story that's too small
for who you can become. God whacks
the bottom of your pot, sends you flying.
Once you're pried from the old year
your roots will ache, shocked
by open air. You'll wonder whether
you could have stopped growing.
But one morning you'll wake, realize
you've stretched in ways you never knew
you hadn't done before. The sun
will feel like a benediction, like
grace. You can't help turning
and re-turning toward the light,
toward becoming. And wait 'til you see
what dazzling flowers you'll discover
springing from your fingertips:
your life renewed, beginning again.
poem by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, 2017
2016 / Elul 5776 / entering 5777:
It's September, Elul: time to begin
discerning who we want to be. Again
late summer cricketsong returns
to the airwaves, reminding me anew
the season is turning. I steep in hope
that grows stronger like tea. The old year
has come due, the new year
waits in the wings for her scenes to begin.
All I can do is to cultivate hope,
remind myself no one's perfect, again:
doesn't matter if I "make it new,"
only whether I'm trying to return
to the best of who I've been, re-turn
in the right direction this year.
A marriage, ended: okay, this is new.
I admit, it's strange learning how to begin
a new chapter, being a beginner again
after all these years. Dare I hope
for lightness of heart, hope
this stripped-down life helps me return
to the Holy One of Blessing again?
So much has changed since last year
I scarcely know where to begin
when friends blithely ask "what's new?"
But every day the world is made anew.
Psalm 27 invites me to hope
in the One, to trust that if I begin
to try God will help me return.
The Hebrew word we translate as year
is almost the word "change." Again
we bring ourselves (here we are again)
to the cusp of defining ourselves anew.
Harvest the wisdom of the old year
to carry us, coat pockets full of hope,
through the season that's coming. Re/turn
again. Are you ready? Then begin
again, let your heart expand with hope.
Everything can be new. Return
to your truest self as the year begins.'
poem by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, 2016
2015 / Elul 5775 / entering 5776
When the list of school supplies arrives
my heart skips a beat. I'm not ready.
How can I be surprised? I've known all along
how one month follows the next, but
kindergarten looms. (Not, though,
for the five year old. Time renews itself
every time he opens his eyes.) When the days
of awe appear again on the horizon
my heart skips a beat. I'm not ready.
How can I be surprised? I've known all along
how the spiral of the year recycles end
into beginning again. Another summer
yields with less or more grace to fall
and I do too. Sometimes my gears grind,
I wish tomorrow would come sooner
or yesterday would return. I blink
and a month disappears. Where was I?
How can I be surprised? I've known all along
without my attention next new moon won't be
the world's birthday, just a night with less light.
And this impossibly precious moment
when I could be cupping my hand
to the side of your face with tenderness --
gone like the numbers on a digital clock.
But if I stop to see what's in front of me
and choose the blessing in it, if I
sanctify the threshold between now
and what comes after now, and after now,
then every moment gleams, infinite
as the love which links your heart and mine.
poem by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, 2015
2014 / entering 5775: DEAR GOD
Spiritual life unfolds
in staccato bursts of prayer:
@God thanks, help, please.
Do You miss the measured curves
of pen and ink on cardstock,
our prescribed correspondence
each morning, picture postcard
every afternoon, night's letter
brief but complete? I do too.
But I trust Your mailbox opens
to these ad hoc forms,
praise You for gifts tucked
in the folds of my days:
the cat's rusty purr, scent
of candy-colored Play-Doh,
boy leggy as a flamingo
bouncing on our bed at dawn.
Teach me to listen like You
with endless love. Grant me
another year to practice.
Unfurl my heart's armor.
Comfort, please, the sick;
console those who mourn
open the faucet of blessings.
In return I'll turn
toward You like a sunflower.
Ever grateful for Your ear,
bent to hear
what I need to say.
Here's to the year.
poem by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, 2014
2013 / entering 5774: CARVING GROOVES
At three and a half, your glee
at stomping on a sand castle
is as vast as your desolation
when another kid won't share.
At thirty-eight, I seek
good novels and vinho verde
instead of chocolate-chip cookies
and Dora cartoons --
though when an email angers me
I seethe just like you do.
But if I've carved grooves
of gratitude on the soft sand
of my heart, my tempests drain.
I can calm my own sea.
The sages of the Talmud say
if we teach you Torah
and how to make a living
and how to swim
then our work here is done.
I want to give you the Torah
of curiosity and kindness,
of noticing beauty everywhere.
The life's work of saying thanks
even for what shakes you.
The skill to navigate
your own turbulent waters,
to take deep breaths, to wake
into new reasons for gratitude.
poem by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, 2013
2012 / Elul 5772 / entering 5773 ROLE MODEL
begins every day
bouncing with glee.
I've trained myself
to wake with gratitude
but for him it's natural,
nothing he's had
are as readable
as a board book.
Sometimes he dabbles
in anger, flopping
on the grass to sulk, but
a quick time-out
restores his spirits
to their morning shine.
Let me learn from him
how to release
all my grudges
how to treasure
trucks and puddles
how to return
in every embrace.
poem by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, 2012
2011 / Elul 5771 / entering 5772: HERE'S THE THING
Here's the thing my son doesn't know:
I may be mom, but some days I too
want to fling myself on the ground
and rage against whatever doesn't unfold
as I imagined. Inside my ribcage
angry bees pound to be released.
All I want is for You to notice me wailing
and tell me everything's going to be okay.
Every day I choose again to trust
in Your mercy and compassion.
When I'm clumsy and frustrated
by every mistake, You don't mind.
Cradle me, God. Let me pour my hopes
into Your listening ear.
Help me turn my tantrums into dancing,
my anxieties into boundless joy.
poem by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, 2011
2010 / Elul 5770 / entering 5771: ROCKING CHAIR
The exalted throne on high
is a gliding rocker.
God watches us with kind eyes
rejoicing when we figure out
how to fit two pieces together
and create something new
looking on us with compassion
when we struggle for balance
and thirst for what we can't name.
On the birthday of creation
every moment of our lives.
The sages of the Talmud knew
more than the wobbly calf wants to suck
the mother yearns to give milk
God is the same way
overflowing with blessings, and yet
we turn our faces away and wail.
When will we learn?
God's lap is always open
all we have to do is return.
(You can also read this poem translated into Hebrew by Rabbi Simcha Daniel Burstyn, here.)
poem by Rachel Barenblat, 2010
2009 / Elul 5769 / entering 5770: BIRTH
In Hebrew, "compassion"
shares a root with "womb"
and God is the One in Whose womb
creation is nurtured.
On Rosh Hashanah we say
today the world is born.
Or: this moment right now
is pregnant with eternity.
In each human life
as in the cosmos writ large
infinite possibility waits
to burst forth.
What mystery do you carry?
What stirs in you, faintest flutter
growing into the insistent kick
of change, ready or not?
Elul: the leaves turn
and we turn
toward our Source, toward
who we haven't yet become.
Don't be afraid.
There are blessings here
even if you can't see them.
Open and let them come.
poem by Rachel Barenblat, 2009
2008 / Elul 5768 / entering 5769: ACCOUNTING
(the Hebrew word
that signals the waiter
a request for the check)
taking stock of the soul.
Scanning the bill
at the end of this year
I think I ordered wisely,
though I admit
sometimes the internet
was more alluring
than my studies.
Prayer, writing, exercise:
On the bright side,
this year I loved a lot.
Sometimes I took
the hard way through
and found blessings.
The feast of the year
is ending. We’ve said
our prayers of gratitude
I owe the half-shekel
of my heart, the one
that becomes whole
when I reach down deep
and give it freely,
opening my hands.
poem by Rachel Barenblat, 2008
2007 / Elul 5767 / entering 5768: ASPIRATION
What matters isn't
who I am on retreat,
singing the day into being,
but who I am
when I've come home
to the cat and the bills,
to-do list as long
as the yoga mat
I too rarely unfurl.
The real work
is living my intentions
at my desk, the laptop open;
in a slow-moving line
at the grocery store
past screaming tabloids;
when someone I love
loses a job or a partner
or a body that works.
Elul, this moon
cycling its phases
before the days of awe,
is a string on my finger
tefillin on my arm
a winding reminder
that I don't need
the addictions of ego
is a new year, a new chance
to bear again in mind
that every sunrise
is the light of creation
in sweet reprise
and every moment
is a prayer I'm blessed
to be able to recite.
poem by Rachel Barenblat, 2007
2006 / Elul 5766 / entering 5777: CLEAN
I’m cleaning the cupboard
beside the stove, low to the floor,
where pots and pans hide
Our kitchen is well-used,
baker’s rack gleaming
with neat jars of peaches,
string beans, preserves
but one swipe of paper towel
across this hidden surface
and I flinch at the grime
I never noticed before.
This is teshuvah: opening
every closed-up space. I’m
a window smeared with dust,
a cabinet in need of scouring.
It’s simple work, but
part of me resists, preferring
distraction to clarity.
When I make the leap
I suddenly can’t believe
I ever ignored the dirt.
Hot water blesses my hands
into action. God, help me
put my house in order,
begin the year in readiness
for the wonders I know
are coming, are always here.
poem by Rachel Barenblat, 2006
2005 / Elul 5765 / entering 5766: RETURN
How to make it new:
each year the same missing
of the same marks,
the same petitions
We were impatient, unkind.
We let ego rule the day
and forgot to be thankful.
We allowed our fears
to distance us.
But every year
the ascent through Elul
does its magic,
shakes old bitterness
from our hands and hearts.
We sit awake, itemizing
ways we want to change.
We try not to mind
that this year’s list
looks just like last.
The conversation gets
easier as we limber up.
Soon we can stretch farther
than we ever imagined.
We breathe deeper.
By the time we reach the top
how nervous we were
that repeating the climb
wasn’t worth the work.
Creation gleams before us.
The view from here matters
not because it’s different
from last year
but because we are
and the way to reach God
is one breath at a time,
one step, one word,
every second a chance
to reorient, repeat, return.
poem by Rachel Barenblat, 2005
2004 / Elul 5764 / entering 5765: TESHUVAH
God and I collaborate
on revising the poem of Rachel.
I decide what needs polishing,
what to preserve and what to lose;
God reads my draft with pursed lips.
If I really mean it, God
sings a new song, one strong
as stone and serene as silk.
I want this year’s poem
to be joyful. I want this year’s poem
to be measured like flour,
to burn like sweet dry maple.
I want every reader
to come away more certain
that transformation is possible.
I’d like holiness
to fill my words
and my empty spaces.
On Rosh Hashanah it is written
and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
who will be a haiku and who
a sonnet, who needs meter
and who free verse, who an epic
and who a single syllable.
If I only get one sound
may it be yes, may I be One.
poem by Rachel Barenblat, 2004
2003 / Elul 5763 / entering 5764: IMMERSION
If you offer Fortune a beer
she giggles, demurs, because she's
"born again." I'm not exactly sure
what that means in Ghanaian parlance
though I imagine a lake baptism
like the one I saw in Galilee,
robes billowing against dark water.
Rebirth is always metaphor.
Forty days to refocus, like a lens,
then Yom Kippur's labor, singing
and praying, hoping against hope
this year the old words
and hunger’s familiar pangs
will bear new meaning.
The closest I've come
was that week on retreat, sitting
until pins crept up my calves, then
walking the fireweed fields rapt
in my prayer shawl. Friday afternoon
we shucked modesty, plunged
in the swimming pool, laughing
and blessing, then a hot tub dunk
to welcome the Sabbath bride.
We could dip each week in those waters.
We could sanctify every morsel.
We could open our eyes and be thankful,
could dwell in that house all the days
of our lives. And we don’t. And that's
okay. The goldenrod always blooms
five weeks before first frost
and these forty days are for pausing
relearning the Name in every breath
preparing to be open to awe
again, to be ready
to make ourselves born.
poem by Rachel Barenblat, 2003