Cloud and fire, waiting and leaping


Vayakheil-Pkudei-768x1024In this week's Torah portion, B'ha'a'lot'kha, we read again about the cloud of divine presence that hovered over the mishkan, the portable sanctuary our spiritual ancestors built in the wilderness. The divine presence took the appearance of a cloud by day and a fire by night. When the cloud settled, we made camp; when it lifted, we packed up and resumed our journeying.

"Whether it was two days or a month or a year -- however long the cloud lingered over the mishkan —- the Israelites remained encamped and did not set out; only when it lifted did they break camp."

The commentator known as the Sforno -- Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, born in Italy in 1475 -- notes that the Torah repeats this point five times. Because nothing is extraneous in Torah, these repetitions must be there to draw our attention to something incredibly important.

So why is Torah highlighting this point so strongly? Maybe to teach us something about discernment and journeying.

The journey undertaken by our ancient ancestors in the wilderness isn't just a historical story about something that happened to them back then. (Or maybe an a-historical story.) It's also about our lives in the here and now. And in our lives there are times when we need to pack up and move, and there are times when we need to pause and discern what should come next.

The paradigmatic journey taken by our ancient ancestors was from slavery to freedom to covenant. From constriction to liberation to connection with something greater than ourselves. We too take that journey, not once but time and again.

Unlike our ancient ancestors, we don't have the visual cue of a giant pillar of cloud by day and fire by night to tell us when it's time to sit with what is, and when it's time to leap into the unknown. That's discernment work we have to do on our own -- maybe with a trusted friend, or a rabbi, or a spiritual director. (Or all three.)

The new Jews we're celebrating this morning know something about sitting with what is, and they also know something about leaping into the unknown. Each of them spent a long time discerning who they are and what they need and whether the desire for change was motivated in the right ways. Each of them spent time beginning to learn about Judaism before making it their spiritual home. (I say "beginning to learn" because none of us is ever finished learning about the richness and depth of our tradition -- including me.)

And each of them decided, at a certain point, that it was time to take the plunge. It was time to stop waiting and reflecting. It was time to embrace the next step on their journey.

In other words: they enacted precisely the spiritual journey Torah describes our ancient ancestors taking. And the same can be true for all of us.

This week's Torah portion invites us to cultivate the quality of emunah, trust. Trust that if we're in a period of waiting and discernment, we'll be able to tell when it's time to get moving and in what direction to move when the time comes. Trust that if we're in a period of leaping, the new chapter to which we are leaping will be one of sweetness and growth. Trust that we're headed toward a place of promise, of abundance and sweetness -- and that we can always course-correct as needed.

And I think it also invites us to cultivate a quality of inner listening. Because we don't have the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, we need to listen for the subtle movements of heart and soul.

This can be one of the gifts of Shabbat: time to discern how we are and where we are and where we need to be. It can be one of the gifts of prayer: in Hebrew, l'hitpallel, literally "to discern oneself." It can be one of the gifts of spiritual practice writ large: learning how to listen for when it's time to sit still and when it's time to get going, learning how to listen for who and where God is calling us to be.

 

With gratitude to Rabbi David Markus for his teachings Waiting to Exhale and The Soul of Waiting.

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Image: Steve Silbert's Visual Torah sketchnote from parashat Pekudei, an earlier moment in Torah that introduces us to the pillar of cloud and fire.


Ordinary days

41753113654_88f5c5d3af_zWhere we live, school won't end until late June, but the end is beginning to be in sight. My kid is starting to talk about becoming a "rising third grader," which boggles my mind. I'm finalizing plans for his day camp adventures this summer,: there will be scavenger hunts and arts & crafts and swimming in ponds surrounded by rolling green hills. The first distribution week at our beloved CSA is coming up soon, and I'm eager to return to the profoundly holy spaces of its fields and gardens and barn.

All of these are sweet -- and none of them is particularly noteworthy. But they are part of spiritual life even so. Ordinary days are part of spiritual life too: not just the highs and the lows, but the stretches in between. These days offer the challenge of sanctifying the ordinary: walks on the dirt roads behind my condo, making supper for my child, unpacking groceries, watering the plants on my small mirpesset where last fall and the fall before I set up a sukkah festooned with tinsel and sparkling lights.  

From the morning's modah ani and m'chayei ha-meitim to the evening's ma'ariv aravim, every day offers countless opportunities to wake up and offer blessing -- and countless opportunities to get bogged down (in scheduling, laundry, the frequently grief-inducing daily news) and forget. It can be easy (or easier) to offer words of blessing at high times. And at low times, the heart may demand to cry out and be heard (mine often does). But much of life is in between those two extremes. 

And that in turn means that much of the work of spiritual life is in that in-between place. It's the work of staying mindful, cultivating gratitude, doing what I can to make the world a better place, reminding myself to rest. It's the work of the everyday, the ordinary, the weekly rhythm of Shabbat and chol. It's the work that happens in traffic (even though where I live "traffic" is likelier to mean a slow tractor on route 43 than a surfeit of cars on the road) and waiting to check out at the grocery store. 

It's not glamorous. It's not the stuff of soul-stirring sermons. But it is the stuff of daily life. It's like parenting: my kid's childhood is made up of mornings and bedtimes and school days and play dates. It's easy to focus on the big milestone moments: starting school, or going on a big vacation, or becoming b'nei mitzvah... but childhood is more than those, and the work of being a parent is more than those. Parenting is in the little everyday things that make up the backdrop against which the big milestones unfold. 

And spiritual practice is in the little everyday things that make up the backdrop against which the big milestones unfold. Now that we've made it through Shavuot, the celebration of covenant that is the culmination of the journey of freedom we began at Pesach, the Jewish calendar quiets down for a while. Just in time for northern-hemisphere summer, a season of long days and splashing in the pool and doing all of the quiet ordinary things that make up a life. Here's to sanctifying ordinary time.

 

Image: the beginnings of summer where I live.


And bring you peace

BlessingIn this week's Torah portion, Naso, God speaks to Moshe and tells him to transmit to Aharon the following words of blessing to give to the people:

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ / May God bless you and keep you. 

יָאֵ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ / May God's presence go before you and be gracious to you. 

יִשָּׂ֨א יְהוָ֤ה ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם / May God's presence be always with you and bring you peace.

Two things strike me about this passage this year.

The first is the Divine game of telephone. Granted, this is a common game of telephone at this point in the Torah: God speaks to Moshe and tells him to tell us pretty much everything. But in this instance, I see an extra layer of meaning in the way the transmission comes through. God telling Moshe to tell Aharon to tell us becomes an example of a deeper truth: blessing is connective. Blessing is relational. Blessing originates with God, but we speak it into being through our connections with each other.

The other thing that strikes me is the content of the blessing. For many of us this is a familiar text. Some of us maintain the practice of saying it to our children every Friday night. In some communities the rabbi offers it as a closing benediction after every service. I say these words to every b'nei mitzvah kid who stands on our bimah. At last weekend's conversion, I offered these words to our new Jews. These words are so familiar we may not pay a ton of attention to them most of the time.

But notice:

The text promises that God will bless us and keep us -- but it doesn't claim that God will keep us free from struggle or change.

The text promises that God's presence will accompany us with grace -- not just "graciousness," in the sense of gracious hospitality, but grace, חן / chein, that unearned and un-earnable flow of abundance from on high -- but it doesn't claim that grace will spare us life's ups and downs.

The text promises that God will be with us and will bring us wholeness and peace -- but it doesn't claim that "peace" means perfection or an end to our spiritual work or our spiritual growth. 

Elsewhere in this parsha we read about the ritual for when spouses suspect each other of infidelity and there has been a breakdown of their relationship that may or may not be reparable. And we read about the promises of the nazir, one who makes certain commitments to God for a stated period of time. With this juxtaposition, Torah seems to be saying: the promises we make to each other as human beings may or may not endure. Our human promises may be temporary or time-limited.

But the promise that God makes to us is not time-limited or temporary. When we stand as channels of blessing for each other, when we speak these words of blessing to one another, we invoke God's accompanying presence and grace and care. Always.

God's presence and grace and care can't protect us from challenges or disappointment... but they will always endure. God will always keep our souls safe in the palm of Her hand. God's presence always accompanies us and showers us with love we cannot earn and cannot lose, no matter what. And that presence always offers us access to wholeness and peace: not through pretense, but through authenticity and realness.

Because שלום / shalom doesn't just mean the absence of conflict. It means the presence of wholeness. And wholeness doesn't come when we put a bandaid over our sorrows: wholeness comes when we allow ourselves to be real, in our sorrow and in our joy. Putting a bandaid over our sorrows (spiritual bypassing) is fragmentation: I feel this, but I will pretend that. And fragmentation is the opposite of wholeness. Wholeness requires us to feel what is, all of what is, with all that we are. 

So I say to you today:

May you feel God's presence blessing you and keeping you, no matter what curveballs life throws your way.

May you feel God's presence accompanying you and steeping you in a love that can't be lost.

May God's accompanying presence in your life bring you wholeness, now and always.

Amen.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

Image: a papercut of this passage by David Fisher.

 


Blessed

In going and in returning
    even when where you go
        isn't what you expected,

even when where you return
    isn't yet a world redeemed.
        In sleeping and in waking.

You are loved
    when you lie down
        and when you rise up.

Rise up
    like a hummingbird
        in prayerful vibration.

There is nectar
    to sustain you
        in all your journeying.

 


In going and in returning. See the travelers' prayer.

When you lie down / and when you rise up. See Deuteronomy 6:5-9, which is part of the prayer known as "the v'ahavta," for its first words, "You shall love..."

Nectar. For a hummingbird, nectar is both sustenance and sweetness -- like the milk and honey to which Torah is compared. 

What would it take to be able to really believe that sustenance and sweetness lie ahead: that our needs will be met, no matter where we go?


When surprises turn out just right: a conversion, though not as I planned

29791142_10155434505157371_4627250841242018874_nTwo years ago, before Shavuot, my friend Rabbi Brent Spodek asked me to serve on a beit din -- the rabbinic court of three who preside over Jewish legal matters -- for the purpose of taking part in welcoming a new soul into the Jewish people. Rabbi David Markus was the third member of the beit din. We gathered at Isabella Freedman before that year's Shavuot retreat, met with the prospective Jew-by-choice for meaningful conversation, then accompanied him to Lake Miriam for his mikvah immersion. 

One year ago, before Shavuot, Rabbi David convened the same trio for the same purpose. We met again in one of the yurts beside the lake at Isabella Freedman; had a deep and rich conversation with the woman who was choosing Judaism; then accompanied her to the same lake before that year's Shavuot retreat. Both of these were extraordinary experiences for me as a member of the beit din. We joked last year that since each of them had brought someone now, it would be my turn in 5778.

At the time I truly thought we were all kidding. I've been a rabbi since 2011 and no one had ever sought to study toward conversion under my auspices. And then two people independently came to me seeking study toward conversion to Judaism. I wanted them to have an experience of community, so I opened up a class and encouraged others to join. And it became clear that this year it would actually be my turn to be em beit din and to convene my colleagues for this humbling and holy purpose. 

I had a lot of time to plan how I wanted the beit din and the conversion to flow, and I had everything all planned out. The beit din and immersion would take place at a beautiful spot: Surprise Lake, the lake at the Hudson Valley summer camp of the same name where our three congregations were convening for a Shavuot retreat. My whole Journey Into Judaism class signed up for the Shavuot retreat and made plans to come down early to support their classmates who were taking the proverbial plunge.

And then storms and tornadoes tore through the area and Surprise Lake lost power, and the retreat was canceled, the day before the beit din. Some scrambling ensued. My rabbinic colleagues moved heaven and earth to make a Plan B possible, including helping us find lodging in a region where every hotel and motel is booked solid with folks still taking refuge from storm damage. And on Friday afternoon, my whole Journey Into Judaism class (plus family members) drove down to the Hudson Valley.

We met at the mikvah in Poughkeepsie, which is housed in an Orthodox shul. The shul was opened just for us, and a mikvah attendant showed us around. My students gathered in a classroom, and the beit din gathered in the shul library, and one by one we met with the candidates for conversion. Then we met with them together. And then we held a tallit-chuppah over their heads and sang Reb Zalman's mother's niggun (which we had sung often before class) as we walked down the hall to the mikvah.

The mikvah attendant (colloquially known as a "mikvah lady") helped us ensure that the immersions were kosher to her usual standards. The men on the beit din stood outside the door of the mikvah, listening for the splash and the sound of our voices from inside. Each of my three candidates stepped down into the water, immersed and made the blessing, and immersed again, and immersed a third time, and emerged reborn as a woman fully in the living flow of Jewish spiritual and national identity.

And then we returned to the library to sign their documents and bless them, and then we all drove to Rabbi Brent's shul in Beacon. There we were awaited not only by a celebratory potluck Shabbat but by a large crowd from his congregation who welcomed our new Jews into the room with a rousing chorus of "Siman Tov u-Mazal Tov." (I don't think they expected that -- to be so heartily welcomed by a room full of strangers -- though of course they weren't strangers; they were fellow Yidden.)

It wasn't the day I had spent so long planning. We weren't outside in the sanctuary of nature, immersing in a natural body of living waters surrounded by trees -- instead we were in a windowless interior room in a shul none of us had ever seen before. There was an unfamiliar woman inspecting them for stray hairs before their immersions, and giving them a lace doily to cover their heads to make the immersion bracha. And because all of this was in God's hands and not mine, it was absolutely perfect.

We'd talked a lot about how when one joins the Jewish people, one is joining the gantze mishpacha, the whole clan: not just my shul, not just places where the practice and custom matches what we do in our small-town Reform-Renewal community, but the whole thing. When one joins the Jewish people, our Conservative and Orthodox and Reconstructing and post-denominational cousins become one's family too. The Jewish family is big, diverse, complicated, sometimes exasperating, and sweet.

I couldn't have dreamed up a better example of that truth than arranging to immerse on 24 hours' notice at an Orthodox mikvah. Some of my students had never set foot in an Orthodox synagogue before (there isn't one in Berkshire County). But the wonderful people at Schomrei Israel opened their doors to us without hesitation, because that's what you do for fellow Jews. And then we showed up at an independent synagogue served by a Conservative-ordained rabbi and we were welcomed there too.

No matter how broad our conversations in our Journey Into Judaism class, they couldn't convey the experience of being part of this multifaceted people -- of being welcomed into this multifaceted people, with our wide range of customs and practices, modes of dress and styles of observance, melodies and prayerbooks. I couldn't convey in words what it feels like to walk into a strange synagogue in a strange city and feel like kin even when we differ, because our Jewishness connects us.

Last week's storms and the damage they caused threw a giant monkey wrench into my careful plans, and the way the day turned out was exactly what we needed. It taught my students something I couldn't have taught them on my own. It gave two communities the opportunity to enact the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. It gave us a lived experience of feeling welcomed and cared-for and part of something much bigger than even the trio of shuls that had planned a joint retreat.

I'm endlessly grateful: to the folks at Schomrei Israel and Beacon Hebrew Alliance for welcoming us, for my hevre on the beit din for joining me in this holy work, to the members of my class for driving down to support their classmates, to the three who entrusted me with their journey, to Soferet Julie Seltzer for lending us her apartment for a night, and to the Holy One of Blessing Who ensured that the whole day unfolded exactly the way it was meant to, with surprises that turned out just right.

 


Lift up your heads, and know that you count

078f18a43033a8495bf3c77a0e40085cTake a census, this week's Torah portion tells us. שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל -- literally, "Lift up the heads of the community of the children of Israel." Don't just count them: uplift them. Let them feel in their hearts and know in their minds that they count.

Of course, the text goes on to specify who we should count: the men. We didn't yet have consciousness of how limited -- and limiting -- that paradigm is for us and for the world. But the core teaching that every one of us counts is some powerful Torah.

Today we encounter these words as we prepare ourselves to receive Torah anew. I don't think that's a coincidence. Before we can receive Torah tonight, we have to lift up our heads. We have to take an accounting of who we are.

We have to make sure we know that we all count: men and women and nonbinary folks, Jews by birth and Jews by choice and seekers of other traditions who walk alongside us. We have to take note of every one of us, in all of our multiplicity and diversity of experience and background and heart.

Tradition says that all of us were there at Sinai -- the soul of every one of us, every Jew who ever was or ever will be. And since we know that a mixed multitude left Egypt with us, surely that mixed multitude stood together at Sinai too. Shavuot is our celebration of covenant with God, and every one of us is part of that covenant. If even one soul had been missing, it wouldn't have been complete. We all count.

Three members of this community formally joined the Jewish people yesterday. [Here's where I was going to say some things about that, connecting them to the Torah portion - but that part was personal and is not being published online.] As of this weekend they count in a minyan: another form of counting and being counted.

Does the concept of counting ring any other bells for you right now? For seven weeks we've been counting days, ever since the second seder. Tonight that count culminates in revelation. Today is the final day of the Omer. According to our mystics, today is the day of Malchut She'b'Malchut -- the day of immanent indwelling feminine divine Presence; the day of Shechina.

May we be suffused with awareness of holy Presence as we prepare ourselves to receive. May we prepare ourselves to be sanctuaries -- so that Shechina can dwell with us, and among us, and within us, now and always.

 

This is (more or less) the d'varling I had intended to offer this morning at Shabbat services on our Hudson Valley Shavuot Retreat, had the camp not canceled the retreat. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

Image source.


Up the mountain, breaking Shabbes, and the things I can't control

Last week I did something that felt very strange: I counseled three people to break Shabbat.

I've been teaching an adult education class this year that I've called "Journey Into Judaism." We're all on a journey into authentic spiritual life, into the continuing unfolding of who we are and who we're called to become. Some of the students in my class are Jewish and seeking deeper connection with their traditions. Others enrolled because they're partnered with Jews. Others enrolled because they felt a pull toward becoming Jewish and wanted to learn more. 

This Friday, on the cusp of the Shabbat that will lead into Shavuot, three of my students will take the plunge into Judaism both literally and metaphorically. After spending some time with the beit din (the rabbinic court of three who will officially preside over their transition), they'll immerse in a mikvah and then emerge to a new chapter of their spiritual lives. Last Friday was the final Shabbat before their immersion, so -- following a very old custom -- I told them it's customary for them to break Shabbes.

Shabbat isn't something that just "happens." It requires a combination of intention and action; otherwise, it's just plain old Friday-night-and-Saturday. In common Jewish parlance, we "make" Shabbat (or Shabbes -- "Shabbat" is the modern Hebrew pronunciation, "Shabbes" is a more old-fashioned Yiddishized pronunciation, but they're the same word.) We make Shabbat when we enter into holy time mindfully. Through blessing candles and the fruit of the vine and bread, we sanctify time.

And as for "breaking" Shabbat, that means different things in different communities. Most members of my synagogue community don't "keep" Shabbat in the traditional forms. But my students and I have talked a great deal about Shabbat consciousness and holy time, and about different ways of honoring Shabbat, and about what Shabbat can look like. We've held two immersive Shabbatonim for the purpose of giving them full, deep, rich, sweet experiences of Shabbat from start to finish.

And last week I told them to break Shabbes. On purpose.  

In some communities, non-Jews are not permitted to observe Shabbat, and prospective Jews-by-choice are instructed to secretly break Shabbat each week before their immersion, because the covenant of Shabbat is between God and the Jewish people and they aren't yet part of that group. I don't hold that thick a line between "us" and "them" -- I am happy to share the sweetness of Shabbes with seekers of all stripes -- but it is true that once my students immerse, Shabbat will be "theirs" in a different way.

In some communities, prospective Jews-by-choice are encouraged to break Shabbat on purpose right before their immersion, to see what it would feel like to do so. If they've grown accustomed to candles and challah and wine, what would it feel like to forgo those things? If they've grown accustomed to seeking a heartspace and headspace that's apart from weekday consciousness, what would it feel like to intentionally open the bills on a Saturday afternoon and shatter that sense of separateness and peace?

The old paradigm of rabbinic authority was often top-down. But that's not the paradigm that's embraced in the community I serve. We aspire to practice an informed wrestling with the tradition, making conscious choices about how our practice evolves. I shared with my students the custom of breaking Shabbat before their immersion... and all of them engaged with it thoughtfully, and made their own decisions about how to honor it and what they were, and weren't, willing to forgo.

And I couldn't be more thrilled. Because in learning the custom, and pondering it, and checking in with their own discernment about their spiritual needs and their evolving Jewish practice, they unconsciously lived out exactly the kind of Judaism that is my hope and my prayer for them in days and years to come. They showed me that Shabbat means something to them, and that Jewish practice means something to them, and that they have taken permission to engage with the tradition on their own terms. 

A few days ago I spoke with Rabbi David, who will sit on the beit din, about the logistics of how the day will go. "I want their experience to be beautiful," I fretted -- feeling anxiety about the weather, and about the setting, and about all the things I can't control about how Friday will unfold. Rabbi David gently reminded me that I can't "give them" a perfect experience no matter how hard I try. My job is to lead them up the mountain. What they experience at the mountaintop is in God's hands, not mine.

I needed to be reminded of that, especially on the cusp of Shavuot -- another liminal space-and-time, another long-anticipated moment, another time when I want so deeply to be able to give those whom I serve a renewed connection with Torah and with our traditions and with our Source. What we experience on the mountaintop isn't up to me. That's not in my hands. My job is to lead people safely along the path, and to trust the Kadosh Baruch Hu -- the flow of holiness and spirit that we name as God.

The universe handed me another reminder this week that I'm truly not in control: the storm and tornadoes that tore through the Hudson Valley. The summer camp that was supposed to be our weekend retreat location remains without power. As a result, our retreat has been canceled. Thankfully, we've found an alternative way to hold the beit din: at a regional mikveh, with celebration (potluck supper, Kabbalat Shabbat, song and dance and joy) to follow at a local shul. 

My students' doorway into Jewishness will not exactly take the shape I had intended or planned, but it will be their doorway -- and as a doorway, entered mindfully, it will be holy. This will still be a Shabbat for them unlike any other that has come before. It will still be the Shabbat after I surprised them with the instruction to break Shabbes... and the first Shabbat for them in the flow of Jewish national and spiritual identity, the first Shabbat of the rest of their new and renewing Jewish lives. 

 

For my students, with endless gratitude.


Fruits: a poem for Shavuot

 

The fruits of my hands
bright origami cranes
minced garlic and chiffonaded kale
clean t-shirts, folded.

The fruits of my heart
poems of yearning and ache
text messages that say I love you
in a hundred different ways.

The fruits of my mind
sentences and paragraphs
eloquence and argument
new ideas casting bright sparks.

The fruits of my soul
the harmony that makes the chord
prayer with my eyes closed tight
inbreath of tearful wonder.

I offer the first of these
the best of these
in my smudged imperfect hands
from my holy imperfect heart.

I have been in tight places
I've cried out -- and You heard me!
Now I stand on the cusp
of flow and abundance.

I give You these first fruits
not because they're "enough"
but because I want to draw near
to You, now and always.

 


 

The fruits of...  In the days of the Temple, we brought the first fruits of the harvest as offerings to God on Shavuot. Today our harvest may be more metaphorical.

Hands... heart... mind... soul... This is a reference to the Four Worlds teaching that is central to my understanding of Jewish renewal and to my spiritual life and practice.

I have been in tight places... Deuteronomy 26 teaches that when we enter into the land, we are to take the first fruits of our harvest and bring them as offerings to God, whereupon we are to recite "My father was a wandering Aramean" -- the passage recounting how we went into slavery in Egypt, and cried out to God, and God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and outstretched arm.

On the cusp / of flow and abundance... See Deut. 26 again: these words are to be recited as we enter into the land, described (Deut. 26:9) as a place of milk and honey.

I want to draw near... The Hebrew word for "sacrifices" or "offerings" is קרבנות / korbanot, which comes from the root meaning to draw near. The English word "sacrifice" connotes giving something up, but the Hebrew korbanot means something we give freely in order to draw nearer to our Source.

 

I'll offer this poem during Shavuot morning services on Sunday at the Progressive Shavuot Retreat at Surprise Lake. If the poem speaks to you, you're welcome to use it too, as long as you keep my name attached. (That's always true, by the way: I welcome and encourage the use of my poems in services, always, as long as there's attribution.)


Pastoral care in tight places

Cf62b1ee-de67-4cd2-8d7e-333a273d112fRecently  I got an email from a dear friend who teaches at Knox College, asking, "Is there any chance you can come to Knox in the next few weeks?"

The Jewish community at Knox has been navigating some tough stuff around racism and antisemitism. (I don't want to give that stuff energy by linking to it; if you're interested, Google will enlighten you.) And there's no Jewish chaplain or campus rabbi to offer pastoral and spiritual support as the Jewish community navigates these tight places. 

So I'm going to Knox for a few days. While I'm there I'll join the chair of the religion department for a few of his classes, and I'll give a poetry reading. But the primary purpose of my visit is to offer care to the campus Jewish community. I'll hold "office hours" for anyone who wants to talk, and I'll offer a Jewish contemplative practice opportunity that will be open to all. 

My visit to Knox is pastoral. I'm not coming as an expert in antisemitism or racism. (The College is looking into having an actual expert in those areas come to campus in the fall -- hopefully a Jew of color.) I'm coming to be a chaplain, a "non-anxious presence." I hope my visit will offer some comfort to Jewish students/faculty/staff. Those who are in tight places need care. 

What's unfolding at Knox is part of a much larger phenomenon. People and organizations and institutions are beginning to grapple with the far-reaching effects of both racism and antisemitism and how different forms of oppression can mirror, intersect, and collide with each other. There's an opportunity for tremendous learning here -- and also a need for inner work to prepare the soil so that the seeds of that learning can bear fruit.

Many Jews with white skin don't think much about how our skin benefits us and how we partake in white privilege by virtue of our skin. And we may also be unconscious of how horrendous and pernicious are the impacts of racism in this country. America still hasn't reckoned with our legacy of chattel slavery or how that legacy persists in structural racism of all kinds, including police violence against people of color, mass incarceration of people of color, and widespread prejudice against people of color.

Many people who are not Jewish don't think much about the legacy of centuries of antisemitism: from ancient hatreds that led to exile, to Church teachings about deicide, to pogroms and mass slaughter (from Lisbon to Kishinev), to the Holocaust: the 20th-century Nazi attempt to eradicate the Jewish people from the face of the earth. And they may also be unconscious of how even light-skinned Jews fear the antisemitism that's built into white supremacist worldviews, and of the trauma we carry as Jews.

(I spoke about these issues at length in my Rosh Hashanah sermon last year: After Charlottesville.)

And, not all Jews have white skin. It's easy to frame the tensions at Knox, or the recent tensions around whether or not the ADL should participate in Starbucks' anti-bias training, in terms of the colliding worldviews of Jews and people of color -- but that framing erases altogether the presence of Jews of color. And... I don't want to make Jews of color responsible for educating the rest of us -- for sensitizing their Jewish community to racism, or sensitizing their community of color to antisemitism. 

We all need to take responsibility for educating ourselves, even when (especially when) that learning is uncomfortable. There's so much that we all need to learn about each other... and when we're feeling attacked or traumatized or activated by an incident of hatred or bias, it's incredibly difficult to do that learning. When we're feeling attacked, emotionally and spiritually we shut down. It's a valuable defense mechanism. We need to honor that and give it appropriate time before we can move beyond it.

As I prepare for my visit, I'm working on the practice of cultivating compassion for everyone who feels afraid and marginalized and attacked in the current American political climate as incidents of hatred continue to mount. I'm reminded of the teaching that no one gets to tell a member of another group whether or not they're experiencing oppression: we need to listen to each other and honor each others' experience. I'm thinking about how rarely we give ourselves space to pray, reflect, and heal.

I'm thinking about how important it is that our communities come together to work against hatred, prejudice, and bigotry of all kinds. I'm thinking about the work we can do together when we find the places where our yearnings and politics align -- without demanding complete mutual understanding or ideological perfection, because if we demand complete understanding from our allies before we can begin to work together, we'll never get to the kind of justice that the world so desperately needs.

And I'm thinking about the need to replenish ourselves as we work toward that more just world. Sometimes in order to have the strength to have the difficult conversations about how someone else's unconscious "stuff" hurts us, we need to turn inward first. We need to notice, and balm, our own aching places before we can build bridges or coalitions with others -- especially when our interactions with those others have re-activated those aches. We need to be kind to ourselves as we process and heal. 

May I be an instrument of balm and comfort for those in need.


Love and justice

B_7eQn4WEAAc7w_This extraordinary quote from Cornel West has been floating around lately: "Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public."

Love and justice are two sides of the same coin. That's a familiar idea to me from Jewish mystical teaching and theology. In the spiritual journey of the Counting of the Omer, the first divine quality we cultivate in ourselves is chesed, abundant lovingkindness -- and it's always followed and matched by gevurah (sometimes called din): boundaries, strength, justice.

It's not only in our mystical tradition, either. In the Torah the call to love our neighbor / our other as ourselves is juxtaposed with "do not bear false witness," "treat workers fairly," and "do not stand idly on the blood of your neighbor" (do not stand by when someone is being harmed, whether with actions or with prejudice or with words.) We practice love through justice.

Love doesn't exist in a vacuum separate from justice. Without justice, "love" is a feel-good veneer hiding a rotten core, what Reb Zalman z"l used to call "whipped cream on garbage."   

This isn't just about our individual choices (though those do matter, and should be ethical and just to the best of our abilities). It's also about our systems and structures and communities. If with our silence we normalize unjust behavior, we become complicit in that unjust behavior even if we didn't perpetrate it ourselves. From the macrocosm (e.g. racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, white nationalism) to the microcosm (e.g. lashon ha-ra, sexual assault, abuse), Judaism calls us to actively pursue justice not only as individuals but in community. We do this not separate from the call to love the other, but precisely as an expression of that call to love.

One might imagine that love is "spiritual" and justice is "political," but Judaism teaches that the spiritual and the political are always necessarily intertwined. Torah and Talmud both interweave "spiritual" teachings with "political" ones. Halakha ("Jewish law," though the word comes from the root meaning "to walk," so I like to translate it as the Jewish "path" or "way of walking") concerns itself deeply both with spiritual / ritual life and with political / community engagement.  My religious tradition and spiritual path call me to care for the widow and orphan, to love the stranger, to pursue justice, to give hatespeech no quarter.

Love is a core spiritual value in most religious traditions (including mine). But love isn't enough. In kabbalistic language, chesed (lovingkindness) by itself isn't enough: it needs to be balanced with gevurah (boundaries, ethics, justice), among other things. If we only want to feel love and don't also put our hands to the task of building justice, then we're doing it wrong. If we only want to feel love and aren't willing to do the hard work of seeing toxic systems and structures for what they are, then we're doing it wrong. If we only want to feel love and aren't capable of naming injustice and demanding better, then we're doing it wrong.

Because -- as Cornel West teaches -- love is what justice looks like in public. Torah urges us to love our neighbor, our other, as ourselves. That doesn't mean "love your neighbor the way you yourself want to be loved" -- I mean, in some cases it might, but it can't mean only that. It has to also mean "love your neighbor the way they want to be loved," and "love your neighbor in a way that recognizes their inherent dignity and worth," and that requires demanding for them every human right, every due process, every dignity to which they are entitled. It means not allowing hateful speech of any kind to stand, much less to proliferate. 

Love can't be separated from justice. Anything less isn't the love we're called to pursue.

 

Related: The need for justice to balance love, 2017.


My latest for The Wisdom Daily

...Our ancestors believed that only something “perfect” was fit to be given to God — whether as an offering, or as the one who facilitated the offering. Reading those words now, I’m struck by how neatly they align with the negativity we’re taught to feel about our bodies. Only someone “perfect” will be desirable, says the toxic siren song of American culture. Only someone “perfect” will be wanted, will be cherished, will be blessed with companionship on life’s journey...

That's from my latest for The Wisdom Daily. Read it here: Perfect Bodies Are Glorified Everywhere... Even In the Torah


Two upcoming readings from Texts to the Holy

TextsHappy new (secular / Gregorian) month of May! I'm doing two readings from Texts to the Holy this month in the Berkshires: one in Williamstown on Saturday May 5, and one in Pittsfield on Thursday May 10.

Saturday May 5, 7:45pm, Williams College Jewish Association 

How do we engage the sacred through the written word? Join Rabbi Rachel Barenblat for a special se'udah shlishit (final Shabbat meal) and havdalah (ritual to close out Shabbat) where we'll read and learn from her recently published book of poetry, Texts to the Holy

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams. A widely published author, popular teacher, and spiritual director, in 2016 she was named by the Forward as one of America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis and most recently is a Founding Builder at Bayit: Your Jewish Home.

All are welcome; FB users can RSVP at the FB event page. This program will harness the unique spiritual valance of Shabbat drawing to its end with niggunim (wordless melodies), poems from Texts to the Holy, a havdalah ritual, and (once Shabbat is over) an opportunity for schmoozing and getting books signed. 

Thursday May 10, 10:45am, Knesset Israel (presented by Jewish Federation)

The Jewish Federation Connecting with Community presents "Two Contemporary Poets Read" with Jean P. Moore, PhD and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat.  The women will share the stage as they read from their newly published books of poetryJean's presentation will focus on her nature poems, largely inspired by her many years spent in Tyringham. Rachel will read from Texts to the Holy, her latest collection. 

This free program is part of the Federation’s Connecting With Community Series and will be followed by a kosher hot lunch. Lunch is a $2 suggested donation for adults over 60 years of age or $7 for all others. Advance reservations are required for lunch and can be made by calling (413) 442-2200 before 9 a.m. on the day of the program.

For more information, see the recent notice in the Bershire Eagle, Pittsfield - Jewish Federation Hosting Contemporary Poets. I'll have some copies to sell at KI and am happy to sign them if you would like.

If you're local to the Berkshires I hope to see you at one or the other of these events!


Replenish

Series.replenishLife is full of obligations. Work, school, caring for children, caring for parents, deadlines, due dates, doctor's visits, the carpool, the groceries, the laundry, the bills. Then there's the news, which contains reasons for anxiety and spurs to action: postcards, petitions, protests, campaigns. Then there's the rabbit-hole of looking deeper into one's media choices: am I reading a sufficiently broad cross-section of sources, am I engaging with diverse viewpoints, am I putting my attention in the right places? If I'm an activist on this front, am I ignoring that issue? And meanwhile did I forget to pick up the dry-cleaning, and when will I unload the dishwasher, and is there milk for breakfast tomorrow morning, and, and, and...

Each of us could list a litany of stressors and obligations. (And for some of us making the list is comforting, offering a sense of "control" over the to-do's -- while for others the fact of the list itself can be anxiety-provoking, fuel for an emotional tailspin.)

But what would go on your counter-list, the list of things that replenish you rather than draining you?

Maybe it's curling up with a cup of tea or coffee, not as fuel for your daily work but as an opportunity to pause and savor. Maybe it's cuddling with a pet or a loved one. Maybe it's treating yourself to a good novel or piece of fiction. Maybe it's studying Torah or Hasidut or Mussar. Maybe it's reading poetry. (Maybe it's writing poetry.) Maybe it's a hot bath, or a visit to the gym, or a walk outdoors. Maybe it's yoga or meditation. Maybe it's prayer. Maybe it's wrapping yourself in tallit and tefillin. Maybe it's listening to music, or singing, or playing an instrument. Maybe it's lunch with a friend. Maybe it's Shabbes -- which could mean lighting candles and blessing bread and wine, or being with friends or family or community, or going to shul, or staying home; it could mean relinquishing technology for a day, or changing your technology use so that it nourishes rather than depleting.

For me one of the perennial challenges in replenishing myself is giving myself permission to focus there in the first place. There's so much that needs doing: on a personal level (work, dishes, parenting), on a community level (am I doing enough to give back?), on a national level (I'm not satisfied with the current American body politic), on a global level (am I doing enough to work against climate change, or toward greater interfaith understanding?) The work that needs to be done is endless.

And that endlesssness is precisely why and how I give myself permission to replenish my own well. The work is without limit: it will never be done. If I try to throw myself at it without stopping, I'll burn out and that will be the end of my capacity to make things better than they are. If I can pause to replenish, then I can return to the neverending tasks at hand with renewed vigor. 

There are things that replenish me in body, in heart, in mind, in spirit (all four worlds.) Some of them change with the seasons, though many are perennial. Over time I've learned what refills my well, and I've learned techniques for short-circuiting the self-critical voice that sometimes nags "why are you taking care of yourself when there's so much else to do?" I've learned that my body is nourished by good food and hot showers and clean laundry, and my heart is nourished by time with my beloveds, and my mind is nourished by reading and study, and my spirit is nourished by tallit and tefillin and song.

What replenishes you, and what are you doing to take care of yourself so you can wake with strength to another day?

 


Looking forward to Shavuot!

Shavuot is drawing ever-nearer!

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If you're looking  for more information about the progressive Hudson Valley Shavuot Retreat that I'm organizing for members of my community along with members of three other small innovative congregations (Temple Beth El of City Island, Beacon Hebrew Alliance, and Shtiebel) here are some anticipated highlights of the weekend, and here's a thirty-second video about our retreat. We hope you'll join us (click on the "register now" button to sign up.)


Blue reflecting blue

41540405682_b46fa349c5_zThe view from my mirpesset.

 

It's traditional to tie a thread of blue into our tzitzit (the fringes on our prayer shawls).

Some say this is to remind us of when our ancestors "went up" to God and saw a sapphire floor that was "like" a floor beneath a throne that was "like" a throne. (I'm putting those words in quotes because -- as parashat Mishpatim makes clear -- an encounter with God is necessarily beyond all language.)

Others say that the blue thread in our tzitzit is "just" the blue of sky -- no need for mystical visions of sapphire, the blue threads simply remind us of the heavens. Still others see the blue thread as the blue of the sea. Maybe it's the blue of sea reflecting sky reflecting sea in endless conversation.

This morning I davened shacharit (morning prayers) from my little mirpesset (balcony) overlooking the water. I'm profoundly blessed to be spending this week in a place where I can see the sea, and the sky, in all of their ever-changing splendor. 

One of the standard morning blessings praises God Who spreads the earth over the waters. Today I inverted it, blessing the One Who covers so much of this planet with the wonders of the sea.

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.

 


Shabbat shalom

14305236341_27b5351f2e_zMay the Shabbat that is coming

bring comfort to all who grieve,

sweetness to all who are in need,

and balm for our wounded places.

May it bring us rest

and gentleness

and light.

May Shabbat enable us to shed

our world-weary weekday faces

and to soak in gratitude and wonder.

May we feel connected

with whose whom we love

and with our deepest selves

and with our Source.

May we emerge from Shabbat

nourished and ready

to meet the new week.

For now, may we prepare ourselves

to greet the Shabbat bride

with joy.

 


Yom HaShoah

Tbe-1521766167Today is Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Remembrance Day. As a Jew and as a rabbi I feel that I "should" have something to say, but when I look inside to discern what my heart wants to articulate, I find only tears and silence.

In this week's Torah portion, Aaron's sons are killed and Aaron himself is silent. (I wrote about that a few days ago.) I often read his silence as a kind of stunned, grief-stricken numbness.  The horror is too great: there are no words to adequately express it.

There's a resonance between that passage and how many of us relate to the Shoah. Millions of human beings rounded up like cattle, forced into hard labor, experimented-upon without anesthesia, murdered and cremated: it's unthinkable. 

The attempt to wholly eradicate the Jewish people from the face of the earth: it's unthinkable. Mass extermination also of queer people, Roma, disabled and mentally ill people: it's unthinkable. Extermination camps and gas chambers: it's unthinkable.

The mind shuts down. The heart shuts down. The spirit shuts down. Because the alternative is screaming, wailing, rending our garments, a primal and existential outcry of why and how and where were You, God, when we were led to the slaughter?

Why? The only explanation is humanity's capacity for hatred -- which persists in our day. White supremacy, hatred of Jews,  hatred of Muslims, hatred of queer / trans folks, hatred of immigrants: all are part of the same hateful dehumanization.

How? Because during a time of fear, hatred of the other became ascendant and was normalized. Which is why we have to be vigilant, and push back against fascism and xenophobia and white supremacy and hatred, wherever / whenever they appear.

Where were You, God? There are a lot of different answers to that question. My theology holds that God was with us in our suffering. God was with us in the camps and in the gas chambers. God wept with us then and God weeps with us now.

On this awful day of remembrance, may all who mourn be comforted. May the memory of the six million Jews murdered in the Shoah be for a blessing. May the memory of the eleven million (Jews and others) murdered in the Shoah be for a blessing.

And tomorrow, when this day of remembrance is behind us, may we all reconsecrate our hearts and hands to the work of building a world in which these hatreds, and the horrors to which they led, are a thing of the past, never to be repeated.

 


A teaching from Torah on grief and on joy

Coin-300x225In this week's Torah portion (at least according to the Reform lectionary), Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu bring "strange fire" before God and are consumed by divine fire. In the haftarah assigned to this week's Torah portion, from II Samuel, a man named Uzziel places his hands on the Ark of the Covenant and God becomes incensed and strikes him down on the spot. Two deeply disturbing stories of people who apparently sought to serve God, "did it wrong," and were instantly killed. 

The haftarah tells us that when Uzziel is killed, David becomes distressed and feels fear, and changes his plan for the Ark of the Covenant to come to Jerusalem. Instead he diverts it elsewhere. Only three months later does he bring the ark to the City of David with rejoicing, and music, and leaping and whirling before God. Meanwhile, in the Torah reading, Aaron's reaction to the death of his sons is existential silence. He says nothing. Maybe in the face of such a loss there's nothing one can say.

I don't have a good answer to the question of why God would behave this way. I read these passages instead as acknowledgments of a painful truth of human life: sometimes tragedy strikes and we can't understand why. These passages remind me that sometimes when we meet unexpected loss we have to withdraw, or change our plans, because the thing we thought we were going to do no longer feels plausible. And sometimes loss is a sucker punch, and words are inadequate to the reality at hand.

Yesterday was the seventh day of Pesach -- according to tradition, the anniversary of the day when our ancestors crossed the Sea into freedom. Midrash holds that when the sea split, everyone present had a direct and miraculous experience of God. The Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael (Tractate Shira, Parasha 3) teaches that in that moment, everyone encountered God, "even the merest handmaiden." Another source (Tosefta Sotah) holds that even toddlers and babies witnessed Shechinah, the divine Presence.

Yesterday we re-experienced the crossing of the Sea, when we were redeemed into freedom and encountered God wholly. We sang and danced on the shores of the Sea, celebrating redemption and transformation, filled with hope. Today's Torah portion crashes us back into reality. How can we integrate the sweetness of Pesach, the miraculousness of the Song at the Sea, with this?

For me the answer lies exactly in the gear-grinding juxtaposition. Torah reflects human life and human realities. This is human life: wondrous and fearful, painful and glorious. It would be nice to have a waiting period between joy and grief, a chance to adjust to the psycho-spiritual and emotional shift between one and the other, but we don't necessarily get that luxury. Authentic spiritual life asks us to feel both of these wholly: our shattering, and our exultation. 

Maybe those who constructed our calendar wanted to remind us that rejoicing and grief can fall of two sides of a single coin -- and that both can open us to encountering the Holy. The Kotzker rebbe points out that "there is nothing so whole as a broken heart." Sometimes we find wholeness not despite our brokenness, but in it. And when we feel broken, we can seek comfort in our tradition's ancient hope for redemption: whether we frame it in messianic language, or simply in the hope that life can be better than it is right now. 

So here's my prayer for us today, arising out of these texts. When grief and loss intrude into our times of joy and celebration, may we have the wisdom of Aaron, to know when we need to fall silent because no words can convey the shattering of our hearts. And may we also have the wisdom of King David, to know when we need to shift our plans and give ourselves time to heal... so that when we are ready we can turn our mourning into dancing, and our silence into song. Kein yehi ratzon / may it be so.

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered at my shul this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 


Pantoum for the Seventh Day

Step into the water.
You can't see the far shore.
Is the foam rising, or receding?
Take a deep breath and keep walking.

You can't see the far shore.
There's no knowing what's ahead.
Take a deep breath and keep walking,
Cultivating faith in your body.

There's no knowing what's ahead.
This is what the sages mean by
"Cultivating faith in your body."
Can you trust that you'll make it?

This is what the sages mean by
"The water is wide, I cannot get o'er."
Can you trust that you'll make it?
You're not crossing the sea alone.

"The water is wide, I cannot get o'er."
The only way out is through.
You're not crossing the sea alone.
Sing with me as we make our way.

The only way out is through.
Is the foam rising, or receding?
Sing with me as we make our way.
Step into the water.


Step into the water. Today is the seventh day of Pesach, regarded by tradition as the anniversary of the date when our ancient ancestors crossed the Sea of Reeds. 

Is the foam rising, or receding? Midrash holds that the waters didn't part until a brave soul named Nachshon ben Aminadav stepped into the water and continued until the waters reached his mouth.

Cultivating faith in your body. See the teaching from the Netivot Shalom about how embodying faith enables us to sing.

The water is wide, I cannot get o'er. From a folk song, used in some communities as a melody for "Mi Chamocha," the song we sang at the sea.