So much (Ahavah Rabbah)

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

 


Good (Yotzer Or)

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

and every single day
in Your goodness
and with Your goodness

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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


Change

1.

The CSA's first distribution week:
the flower gardent nascent, not yet formed.
The fields are all potential. No one knows
what plagues or pleasures yet will come to pass.
Who can say which plants will thrive this year?
This week the share's all leaves in shades of green:
tatsoi, arugula, yokatta na.
Atop my bag I nestle precious roots:
French radishes, like fingers, long and pink.
Pick up a pen to mark that I was here
on this first week in June, the season's cusp.
My name's listed alone, while his is paired.
The tears that come I blink away, and blame
upon the radishes' surprising bite.

 

2.

Clouds of pearly fluff float through the air
revealing hidden currents. Poplar seeds,
each with a silken parachute: they twirl,
make visible the breeze that strokes my neck.
I'm floating too, buoyed sometimes by forces
I can't see. Other times I feel
discarded by the tree that once was home.
Every breath I take's an act of trust
that in time I'll land, and root myself
in unfamiliar soil I can't yet know.
Can I learn to love being so light
I no longer insist I'm in control?
"God was not in the cloud: the still small voice..."
I wait, and drift, and listen for its sound.

Continue reading "Change" »


Holding my hand


28781688605_66f9c1d4bf_zWhen I wrap the straps around my arm
Shekhinah holds my hand.

Her small brown fingers intertwine
with mine. She holds on tight.

She whispers courage in my ear.
Says "don't hold up: be held."

Kisses my forehead, a mother
checking for fever or giving a blessing.

Our fingers tangle like lovers.
She strokes my palm and I shiver.

In grief I always think I'm alone --
think no one sees me, or wants to.

She shakes her head, exasperated
and fond. I keep forgetting.

Long after I've let go of her hand
she's still holding me.

 


the skies here

All through the long winter, I wait with eager anticipation for the long days of June. I have this in common with my mom, who also loves summertime's long days -- though at her latitude the winter days aren't as short, nor the summer days as long, as those I experience here. One of the things I anticipate most about summer is sitting outside in the late evening, listening to birdsong, watching the sky change color.

34342602194_1cd983cf4b_z

The house where I used to live was on a mountaintop, and it had absolutely spectacular views. When we first went to see it eighteen years ago, the real estate agent who was showing it to us laughed at the look on my face when I got out of the car and looked out at the view and the sky. Leaving that view was one of the hardest things about leaving that house.

35022276982_d5e655ac45_z

But I am blessed that the place where I live now has a little mirpesset, a little balcony overlooking an expanse of green. (That's where I built my sukkah in the fall.) And here too, there is a patch of horizon and trees and sky. It may not have the over-the-top splendor of the view from the old place, but it has afforded me some beautiful glimpses of the changing sky.

35056922861_5f092bcbe5_z

The sky's transition from afternoon to evening, sunset to nightfall, is predictable. It happens every day (unless there is rain.) It is the very definition of mundane: ordinary, worldly, banal. And yet sometimes it opens my heart to connection with transcendence. In this, it is like other ordinary and banal things: rainbows, or the way my heart dances when I see my child joyful, or what I feel when I marinate in love. 

 

Related:

Who rolls back light before dark and dark before light, 2016

Summer gratitudes, 2015

Looking at the prayer for evening in a new light, 2013 

 

This post borrows its title from the name of my first collection of poems, published by Pecan Grove Press in 1995.


In humbling company

Os-1495650588-aa4h4pl014-snap-imageAlthough this came out a month ago, it only last night reached my eyes: Judaism Shines Through All They Do: Ginsburg, Sandberg, Barenblat. Written by Haley Codron, this opinion piece ran last month in the Orlando Sentinel, and it puts me in some truly humbling company.

As May is Jewish American Heritage Month, I want to honor three women whose Judaism shines through all they do: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and “Velveteen Rabbi” blogger Rachel Barenblat.

As I contemplate the leadership of Ginsburg, Sandberg and Barenblat, I’m reminded of advice from my parents. They told me what to discuss – or not to discuss – at dinner tables: politics, religion and money. A part of me understands where my parents were coming from; the three topics are flashpoints. But there has to be an element of “picking sides.” Which is precisely why the three women make a difference – a positive difference, and have influenced me and countless people around the world...

Codron writes about Ruth Bader Ginsburg (one of the most extraordinary women alive today, in my estimation), Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (whose book Option B I've been intending to read), and me. I'm honored to be in their company.

You can read the whole piece here: Judaism Shines Through All They Do: Ginsburg, Sandberg, Barenblat.


Light

Step one: we attuned ourselves to light.
I don't mean the sun, but what came first.
(Heavenly bodies were day four.) The fire
of the burning bush, the glowing cloud
that hovered over the mishkan, the presence
of creation's supernal flame made us lift

our eyes. When the pillar would lift
we set off; when it settled, we'd light
our cookfires. Back then we had presence
of mind to check the celestial forecast first.
Didn't let our desires to move cloud
our judgment. We were on fire

for the One Whose presence gleams. Afire,
we reached step two: learning how to lift
our hearts even when the cloud
didn't move. We can travel light
even if we're not going anywhere. First
we learn how to live with holy presence.

Step three: open to what wholly presents
itself. Strike the iron while the fire
is hot, but paint our doorposts first.
When we left Egypt we knew how to lift
our hearts to the One, how to light
the tinder of prayerful spirit into clouds

of incense. But God was not in the cloud:
only hinted-at in the wordless presence
that filled the tabernacle with light.
"More than God wants the straw fire
God wants the well-cooked heart," so lift
yourself to the altar. Sometimes the first

thing to do is burn. Sometimes first
we bank our internal fires, offer up the cloud
of self that rises. When the lift
comes, when our hearts become our presents --
that's the time to add fuel to the fire.
The One Who rolls back darkness before light

first tunes our internal radio to the presence.
Then we notice when we get cloud, and when fire.
Let our spirits lift, and become light.


I don't mean the sun, but what came first. At the beginning of Bereshit (Genesis) God creates light, but sun and moon and stars don't materialize for another few days. From this our tradition intuits that the light of creation was something other than literal light, and there are many beautiful teachings about the supernal light of creation hidden away for the righteous.

The fire of the burning bush. See Exodus 3. One of my favorite teachings about Shabbat candles holds that when we kindle lights on Shabbat, we are to see in them the supernal light of creation and the light of the bush that burned but was not consumed. 

The glowing cloud that hovered over the mishkan... when the pillar would lift. See this week's Torah portion, B'ha'alot'kha, in which a cloud hovered over the mishkan (the tabernacle / dwelling-place-for-God's-presence). When the cloud lifted, we went on our journeys, and when it rested, we stayed put.  (For a beautiful d'var Torah on that theme, see Rabbi David's The Reason for Patience.)

Strike the iron while the fire / is hot, but paint our doorposts first. The Exodus story is a paradigmatic narrative of leaping when the opportunity presents itself... but before so doing, the children of Israel painted blood on the doorposts of their houses, an act we now echo in placing a mezuzah on the doorposts of ours. Doors are liminal spaces -- life is full of liminal spaces -- and it's up to us to make them holy.

But God was not in the cloud. See I Kings 19:11-12. God was not in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in the still small voice.

More than God wants the straw fire / God wants the well-cooked heart. A teaching from the Kotzker Rebbe. 

The One Who rolls back darkness before light. See maa'ariv aravim, our prayer for evening -- here it is in several variations.

Tunes our internal radio to the presence. This metaphor comes from Reb Zalman z"l, who used to speak about how God broadcasts on all channels and we receive revelation where we are attuned.


Glimpses of Shavuot 5777

Isabellafreedman_0

Isabella Freedman, where I just spent Shavuot.


Back when I first started blogging, I used to write about every retreat I attended. I was so thirsty for connection with Jewish tradition and with God! I kept a paper journal tucked into my tallit bag, and I wrote down everything. When I got home I would type up excerpts from my handwritten notes and turn them into blog posts. Everything was surprising and meaningful and new.

These days it tends to be my job to help to create the container within which the retreat experience unfolds. The teachers whose words I so thirstily drank in are now colleagues, and in many cases friends. And I'm no longer writing things down during every spare moment. All of these shifts have changed my ability to share retreat experiences with all of you. Still, I will try.

The first thing I want to remember from Shavuot 5777 took place before the retreat even began: I was part of the beit din, the rabbinic court, presiding over a conversion. After an extraordinary conversation, we walked together, singing Pure Heart, to Lake Miriam for mikveh. When the new Jew emerged from her third immersion, she was radiant with light.

I want to remember the two nights of davenen in the Isabella Freedman sanctuary where years ago I experienced most of DLTI. Both nights I sat with hevre, beloved colleague-friends, with whom I had the deep pleasure of singing in harmony, guided by Shir Yaakov's gentle presence and beautiful melodies and by Shoshana Jedwab's rich and resonant drumming.

I want to remember the late-night learning on the first night of Shavuot. In the wee hours of the morning I was in the beige yurt, where Rabbi David Evan Markus taught a lesson on how "why" grew up in Torah. And then I taught a lesson on eit ratzon, "a time of will / a time of yearning," and the giving of Torah, and what it means to say that God yearns to give.

I want to remember how it felt to wake, after a three-hour catnap, to daven hallel outdoors by Lake Miriam. I want to remember Rabbi Jill Hammer's's gorgeous Torah service on the first morning, and how she mapped the blessings that went with the first three aliyot to the three mother letters from Sefer Yetzirah, and paired each with a different color / texture of chuppah.

I want to remember the first afternoon of Shavuot: both attending Rabbi David Ingber's beautiful teaching in which he shared classical (midrashic and Zoharic) texts on suckling / nursing and the revelation of Torah, and then going for a walk with two hevre afterwards in the glorious sunshine, and unpacking his teaching and its meaning for us as we walked.

I want to remember teaching after dinner on the second night about the silent aleph and revelation (including that text from the Ropcyzer about seeing God's name in the face of every human being, which I've shared here before, as well as a variety of other texts about the aleph and revelation.) It was so sweet to share teachings that I love and to harvest responses from the room.

I want to remember sitting with three dear friends outside the sanctuary on the second morning of the holiday, arms around each other, singing and laughing through tears. And I want to remember doing "waking dream" work with Reb Eve in the gazebo beside the lake that same morning after davenen was over, and the images that arose for me, and what those images meant.

I'm not sure any of the words I've just written actually capture for you what the Shavuot retreat experience was like at Hazon / Isabella Freedman this year. In a certain way, the holiday retreat experience is ineffable: it's as much about the experience, the melodies and conversations and the early-morning mist over the water, as it is about anything I can chronicle or describe. 

Even if I can't write about it in a way that really conveys what the experience was like for me this year, I'm grateful for the opportunity to take a deep dive into one of the three great ancient pilgrimage festivals, and grateful to have been given the chance to help create the retreat experience for some 250 others, especially in such a beautiful and holy place.

 


Shavuot and parenthood, then and now

When I think of my last Shavuot of rabbinical school, all I can remember are glimpses. Like the slide shows that I remember my parents used to project on the dining room wall. Most of my memories of my son's first year of life are like that. They're a punctive story told through images. He didn't sleep through the night until he was well over a year old, so my memories of that first year are spotty. The visuals are points on a line that don't quite add up to a whole.

When I try to call up the slideshow of those Shavuot memories, I see the square of light that used to shine when the carousel was first turned on, and then I see disconnected moments. Click: trying to get my kid to sleep in the portacrib in the closet area of my room at Isabella Freedman. Click: walking with the stroller in the middle of the night to the great hall, because if my kid wasn't going to sleep, then by God I wasn't going to miss Reb Zalman's 4am teaching.

Click: pushing the stroller in circles around the back of that room while I listened to the rebbe teach. He taught about the Torah of our mothers. Click: morning davening, singing in harmony with beloved friends. (Have I ever known a more fervent form of prayer than singing in harmony?) Click: morning davening, leaving the room so I could nurse my son in private on the other side of the wall. Nursing him while still immersed in the sounds of the community singing.

34518277320_034a7d925a_z

My son and me: Shavuot, Isabella Freedman, 2010.

My son was six months old then. We had survived colic and postpartum depression. Sleep was still hard to come by. When I went to Isabella Freedman for Shavuot that year, I packed the "bouncy seat," the little inclined chair that played music and vibrated gently. I carried it with me. On the second morning of Shavuot I parked him in that seat so I could try to daven my way wholly through shacharit for the first time since he was born. It was harder than I expected.

By the following Shavuot, I was ordained and in the process of negotiating for what would become my first rabbinic position, serving Congregation Beth Israel, where I still serve. In coming years I would occasionally send congregants to Isabella Freedman to hear Reb Zalman teach, but I didn't feel able to go myself. I didn't return to the Shavuot retreat experience until last year, when I took a delegation from my congregation with me. (This year I will do the same.)

The year I took my infant son to Shavuot at Isabella Freedman, I knew that I would someday tell him that over the first Shavuot of his life I took him to hear my rebbe teach, and to receive a blessing from the teacher of my teachers. I wish I could remember the blessing that Reb Zalman gave him. I was still so sleep-deprived that my brain wasn't forming longterm memories, and I didn't know then that if I didn't write it down immediately it would become lost to me.

34564269280_9591a8781b_b

My son and me, a few days ago.

I couldn't have imagined, then, what life would be like now. My son is seven and a half now: tall and lanky, funny and sweet. This past Shabbat we played Trivial Pursuit. The first question he drew was one about which day is considered the day of rest in Judaism, and he crowed with delight. He sings me songs, reads aloud, assembles his stuffed animals into elaborate families. (One is a family of stuffed kittens. The other features both Pokémon and giraffes.)

Parenthood has given me new ways to understand the idea that God is constantly revealing Torah. The Kotzker Rebbe taught that Shavuot is called the day of the receiving of the Torah, not the day of its giving, because God is always giving. Shavuot is when we notice the gift that we receive. Parenthood too is an adventure of always-receiving, though I'm not always mindful of the Torah that's coming through. I forget, lose track, and get caught up in ordinary life's minutiae.

And then every now and again I wake up again to the reminder that I can learn from the Torah of every human being I meet, including and especially the tall funny cuddly seven-year-old human being who is in my care and keeping. I'm grateful for what he teaches me about finding God in the presence of change. One of our tradition's names for God is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, "I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming." Parenthood is an amazing reminder that in change, we glimpse God.

 


New essay on Modah Ani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


New Torah commentary at My Jewish Learning

Earlier this year I was delighted to contribute a d'var Torah to My Jewish Learning for the first Torah portion in the book of Leviticus: Vayikra - What Silence Conceals and Reveals. They've asked me to write a few more commentaries for them, and one of them has just been published. This one's for the Torah portion called Korach, which we'll be reading later this summer.

Here's a taste of what I wrote:

... It’s easy for moderns to empathize with Korach. Maybe we too have chafed against leadership, religious or otherwise, that has seemed too top-down. The modern-day legal system under which we live says that every citizen is equal in the eyes of the law, and the ancient priestly system that placed Aaron and his sons at the top of the hierarchy may offend our democratic sensibilities.

Most of all, Korach’s cry — “all of the community are holy, and God is in their midst” — speaks to us on a spiritual level. Torah teaches that when we build a space in our lives for God, God dwells among us (or within us). Being a leader doesn’t make one closer to God, and any leader who thinks that it does is in need of doing some serious internal work.

But this story isn’t as simple as it may initially seem. Korach is identified as a son of Levi — part of the “secondary” priestly caste in the ancient system that placed Kohanim (priests) at the top of the ladder, Levi’im (Levites, or secondary priests) beneath them, and Yisrael (ordinary Israelites) at the bottom. It’s possible that his rebellion wasn’t motivated by the kind of communitarian impulse that moderns might admire, but by the desire to depose Aaron and his sons so that Korach and his sons could be at the top of the hierarchy instead. Seen through that lens, Korach and his followers attempted a coup that would have replicated the same top-down use of power against which we want to think they are rebelling.

I’m also struck by the language the Torah uses to describe the incident: Korach and his followers “assemble against” Moses and Aaron. This isn’t a friendly conversation, a heart-to-heart about the direction the Israelites are taking in their wilderness wandering, or a question about leadership style and priorities. This is rebellion. ...

I hope you'll click through and read the whole thing: A Failed Rebellion.

Deep thanks to the editors at MJL for publishing my work.


My latest for The Wisdom Daily

My latest essay has been published at The Wisdom Daily. It's about divorce, and life changes, and the difference between rebuilding and starting something entirely new. Here's a taste:

...From the matrix of community relationships into which I remain woven, to the reality of the child my ex and I are still committed to co-parenting, I haven’t completely left my old life behind. To be sure, large parts of that life have been gutted and await restoration. (Parts of my heart occasionally still feel gutted and in need of restoration.) But the structures I’m building in this new chapter have to dovetail with the old ones...

Read the whole thing: Life After Divorce Is About Repairing, Not Building Anew.


Open to me

My breasts are full and tender:
I ache to give to you.

Say yes and I will bathe you
in flowing milk and honey.

Taste and see that I am good.
How I yearn for you to know me!

I want to quench the thirsts
that keep your heart from resting.

I crave your gasp of surprise
and your sigh of completion.

My heart's desire
is to share myself with you.

Open to me, beloved
so my precious words can let down.

 


 

This is another poem arising out of my study and reflection on the relationship between yearning and the revelation at Sinai. (See also I want.) 

My breasts are full and tender. The Hebrew word for "breasts" is shadayim; one of Torah's names for God is "El Shaddai," which can be understood to depict God as a nursing mother.

I ache to give to you. See Pesachim 221a: "More than the calf wants to suckle, the cow yearns to give milk." (See also "El Shaddai (Nursing Poem)," the first poem I wrote after my son was born -- now published in Waiting to Unfold.)

Flowing milk and honey. Song of Songs 4:11 speaks of "honey and milk under your tongue." One traditional interpretation holds that this is a description of Torah's sweetness. Just as milk has the ability to fully sustain a newborn, so Torah is considered to provide all of the spiritual nourishment that we need.

(Reb Zalman z"l taught that this isn't necessarily so -- sometimes there are spiritual "vitamins" we can most readily receive from other traditions, rather than our own -- but the tradition's likening of Torah to milk is one of the reasons why it's customary to eat dairy at Shavuot when we celebrate revelation.)

Taste and see. See psalm 34:8: "Taste and see that God is good."

My heart's desire. This riffs off of a line from the Kabbalat Shabbat love song "Yedid Nefesh" -- in Reb Zalman z"l's singable English translation, "My heart's desire is to harmonize with yours." Here I imagine that God's heart's desire is to share God's-self with us.


When you cry out

You think I'm not listening.
You can't feel my hand
on your shoulderblade, my lips

pressed to your forehead
my heart, ground down with yours
into the dust of the earth.

Sweet one, I feel your grief
like a black hole inside my chest
strong enough to swallow galaxies.

I can't lift it from you.
All I can do is cry with you
until I struggle for breath

all I can do is love you
with a force as limitless as gravity,
endless as the uncountable stars.

 


 

[E]ndless as the uncountable stars. See Shir Yaakov's Broken-hearted (psalm 147.)

This is another poem in my current series -- aspiring to speak in the voice of the Beloved, responding to us. (Previous poems in the series: Missing youBecauseAlwaysGod says yes.)


Passing the Flame Forward: A Letter from Rachel and David

19333512771_598cf38f7e_z (1)In early 2015 it was announced that we would serve as the next co-chairs of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.  Today we announce that we are stepping down. Our term will end in July.

When we began, we saw four key goals.  First, to help steward ALEPH through the complex aftermath of the death of Reb Zalman z”l, whose third yahrzeit soon approaches.  Second, to offer hundreds of people around the world ways to express hopes, dreams and longings – and bring their hearts and ideas back to ALEPH for integration.  Third, to support in tangible ways the continuing flow of Jewish Renewal for today and tomorrow.  Fourth, to model a stewardship that saw our roles as temporary and sought our successors quickly.

We did much that we came to do.  Along with Board colleagues and staff, we spent 15 months on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour, taking stock of who and where ALEPH and Renewal are -- how the renewal of Judaism has spread and matured, what is cherished, what should change and what must never change.  It was a tremendous blessing to journey into those deep places together.  We took hundreds of pages of notes, and brought what we learned back to ALEPH, the Ordination Program and OHALAH (the association of Jewish Renewal clergy).  Some of those ideas are starting to take root now.

Behind the scenes, ALEPH evolved a new governance system aspiring to be more inclusive.  We established an Advisory Council to harness the wisdom of elders, teachers and visionaries across the Jewish landscape to support Judaism’s ongoing renewal.  ALEPH laid the foundation for a Communities Council so that ALEPH Network members -- communities, organizations, and individuals -- could help set a new bottom-up agenda for how to support ALEPH communities in the future.  ALEPH began strategic planning with Reverend Bill Kondrath, a consultant specializing in midwifing faith-based organizations through major transitions, including and especially the death of a charismatic founder.  

In the public realm, the magic of the 2016 Kallah happened at Colorado State University: 37% of attendees were first-timers, and brought the joy and “juice” of Jewish Renewal home with them. ALEPH began planning the 2018 Kallah.  (Stay tuned for more information soon.)  New spiritual communities joined ALEPH – both “new” ones (started from scratch), and existing ones rooted in Reform and Conservative denominational contexts.  New programs and projects sought ALEPH affiliation.  ALEPH was featured in a variety of publications and podcasts.  ALEPH began developing new initiatives, including Clergy Camp and Tikshoret (an education platform to bring tastes of Jewish Renewal to a broad online audience), while also better supporting beloved ALEPH stalwart programs and initiatives.  Finances improved, and funds were invested wisely and securely.

Perhaps most importantly, as co-chairs, we said from the start that we wanted to model stewardship that flows in ways we learned from our teachers.  We created a Nominations Circle, on which we did not serve, and asked that it immediately seek successors for the Board and its leadership.  We felt that, especially in this era after Reb Zalman’s life on this plane, it would be important for many reasons to fulfill this intention to serve with all our hearts while making way for the next turning.  The time for that next turning has now come.

For the confidence, volunteerism, and support ALEPH received during our time of service, we are grateful beyond measure: these are tremendous gifts, and we thank you for them.  We are especially grateful to ALEPH’s executive director Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin, ALEPH’s deputy directors Tamy Jacobs and Steve Weinberg, their predecessor David Brown, Lynda Simons, and Ming Shem-Lu, who have nourished ALEPH and have done the very hard work of bringing ideas and relationships to life.  They are ALEPH’s unsung heroes, and they deserve wild applause for their dedication and hard work.  We are grateful to our teachers, and their teachers, and their students, and the students of their students – both within and beyond ALEPH – for so very much that has come through them over the years.

The work of renewing Judaism, by its nature, is never complete (Pirkei Avot has something to say about that).  The next phase of this ongoing journey now is for our successors, to keep that flame burning bright in ways that perhaps today can scarcely be imagined.  We wish them every success and blessing as they dream and lead forward.

With blessings on this Omer day of chesed sheba yesod (lovingkindness in foundation),

Rachel and David

 

 (Cross-posted to David's website and to Kol ALEPH.)

 


I want

I want with all my might
to give you milk and honey

aspire only to feed you
(look: you're skin and bones,

the Jewish mother in me
aches to fill your plate)

but not just nutrients:
like manna that took on

each person's yearned-for flavor
I want my offering to you

to meet your every need
balm your every sorrow

fill your mouth with sweetness
you didn't know you didn't have

I want to give you my heart
but all I can offer are words

you'll misunderstand them
sometimes you'll resent them

often you'll resent me
for the neverending letters

that I can't stop pouring
because I can't stop loving you

 


 

I've been thinking a lot lately about God giving Torah at Mount Sinai, which we'll re-experience at Shavuot in a few short weeks. One of my favorite teachings about creation is that God brought creation into being because God yearned to be in relationship with us. I've been reflecting on how we might extend that teaching to say something about the revelation of Torah, also. What if God yearns to give us Torah, the way one yearns to give the gift of one's heart to a beloved? That's the question that sparked this poem. (And also a couple of other poems still in early draft form -- stay tuned for those.)

 

Notes:

To give you milk and honey. Torah is often compared to milk and honey; this is one reason why it's traditional to eat cheesecake at Shavuot.

Like manna that took on / each person's yearned-for flavor. See Exodus Rabbah 5:9: "Rabbi Jose ben Hanina says: ... the manna that descended had a taste varying according to the needs of each individual Israelite. To young men, it tasted like bread...to the old, like wafers made with honey...to infants, it tasted like the milk from their mothers’ breasts...to the sick, it was like fine flour mingled with honey."

For the neverending letters // that I can't stop pouring. I learned from Reb Zalman z"l that the revelation of Torah wasn't just a onetime thing that happened to "them" back "then" -- it's something that continues even now.

As Reb Zalman used to say, God broadcasts on every channel; we receive revelation based on where and how we are attuned. The flow of revelation into the world -- the flow of Torah into the world -- is for me first and foremost an act of divine love. 


When Mother's Day hurts

In the United States today is Mother's Day. We're reminded of that in a million little ways: from television commercials for Hallmark cards, to ads for Mother's Day brunch deals, to countless social media postings about mothers and motherhood.

I'm always aware that days like these can be fraught and painful, for all kinds of reasons. Maybe you had a difficult relationship with your mother. There are mothers who are neglectful, narcissistic, and/or abusive; maybe yours was one. Maybe this day reminds you of everything you wish your relationship with your mother could have been but wasn't. Or maybe you had a wonderful relationship with your mother, and now she has died and this day reminds you of how much you miss her. 

Maybe you yearned to become a mother, and faced infertility. Maybe you yearned to be a mother but your marriage has ended. Maybe you've had a miscarriage, or an abortion. Maybe you are a mother, and you have a painful relationship with one or more of your children. Or maybe you are a mother and your child has died -- the English language offers us a word for a child whose parents have died, and a word for a person whose spouse has died, but we don't have a word that means a parent who has lost a child.

All of these are land mines hidden among the greeting cards, the commercials, and the friends on social media posting photographs of their happy families and hand-drawn mother's day cards. There are endless social and cultural messages telling us how we are "supposed" to feel today. And it can be extra-isolating to feel out-of-step with the way we think we're "supposed" to feel on a birthday or an anniversary or a holiday like this one. Days like today can evoke, trigger, and intensify feelings of loss. 

If you are someone for whom today is purely sweet, I am glad for you. May you be blessed to always experience this day as a source of sweetness. 

If you are someone for whom today contains bitterness or sorrow, I am holding you in my heart. Be gentle with yourself today in all the ways that you can. 

 

Other resources:


A crack in everything

Broken-heart.jpg.653x0_q80_crop-smartIn this week's Torah portion, Emor, we read that no one who has a defect may draw near to God through offering sacrifices on the altar. And then Torah goes into exquisite detail about all of the different kinds of physical defects that would disqualify a priest from serving.

Fortunately for us, we live in a post-sacrificial paradigm. When the Temple was destroyed, we engaged in an act of radical reinterpretation. We no longer talk with God through burnt offerings: we talk with God through prayer, the "service of the heart."

In the old paradigm, anyone with a "defect" was disqualified from service. I want to turn that on its head: anyone who thinks they are perfect should be disqualified from serving the community, because they are so full of themselves that there's no room to let God in.

We all have imperfections. We all have broken places. We all have bodies that will age and will someday not work as well as they do now. (I suspect that for most of you, that truth is not yet a reality -- though for others it's old news; even at 20 one can be injured or sick.) We all have hearts that break and ache and grieve. We all have minds that sometimes fail us. We all have souls that sometimes feel lost and lonely.

This is what it means to be human. To be human is to be imperfect, and sometimes to feel broken. Authentic spiritual life calls us to serve not despite our brokenness, but in and with the parts of ourselves that feel most damaged. 

The word קרבן is usually translated as "sacrifice," but it comes from a root that means drawing-near. The English word "sacrifice" connotes giving something up, but that's not what the priests were doing. Their task was to draw near to holiness, to meaning, to what we call God.

That's our task, too. All of us have the opportunity and obligation to take our spiritual lives into our own hands. Spiritual life isn't just what happens on Shabbat or in the sanctuary. All of our life is spiritual life -- or it can be, if we're willing to be real with ourselves and each other.

And that means being real about the places where we feel whole and strong and beautiful, and the places where we feel crushed and ground-down. We draw near to God (and if the G-word doesn't work for you, try "holiness" or "meaning" or "love") not despite our broken places, but in and through them. 

The school year is ending. Some of us are feeling loss: our friends are graduating, or we ourselves are graduating, and our community is going to change. Some of us are feeling sorrow: the year wasn't everything we hoped it would be, or it was everything we hoped for but now it's over and what do we do with that?

My answer is: be real. Be real with yourself and with each other. Don't paper over the broken places. They're not a flaw in our lives or in who we are: they're integral to who we are. The great sage Leonard Cohen wrote, "There is a crack in everything -- that's how the light gets in." May our broken places let in infinite light and comfort, hope and love, now and always.

 

This is the d'varling I offered tonight at the end of Kabbalat Shabbat services at the Williams College Jewish Association.  (Cross-posted to Under the Kippah: Thoughts from the Jewish Chaplain.)

 


Missing you

 

Dear one, I left love notes
for you everywhere today --

tucked into the petals
of the tulip magnolia

encoded in the braille
of black willow bark,

hidden in the patterns of rain
on your windshield

-- but you didn't notice.
My missives remain unread.

Your despair renders me
invisible. You forget

I'm right here. How
can I balm your sorrows?

If only you could hear me
in the ring of your phone.

Feel my fingers
twined with yours, my kiss

on the tender place
in the middle of your palm.

 


 

What if everything in our lives were a love note from God, but most of us are too distracted most of the time -- by life, by our to-do lists, by our griefs -- to experience ordinary things like blooming trees or rainfall as expressions of love? That's the question that sparked this poem.

Lately I've been thinking of laying tefillin as "holding hands with God." The closing lines of this poem come from that image and that experience of wrapping my fingers with the leather straps and feeling as though the Holy One of Blessing were holding my hand.

This is part of the series I've been thinking of as God's responses to my Texts to the Holy poems. Others in the series: BecauseAlwaysGod says yes.


Shabbat, renewal, and you

A d'var Torah offered at Congregation Bet Ha'Am in Portland, Maine. Offered aloud by me; jointly written by me and Rabbi David

C7c3865c-f199-4156-8c1e-c6ca975a447e

 Welcome home.

Why am I welcoming you home when you live here and I'm the visitor? I don't mean welcome home to Bet Ha'Am; I mean welcome home to Shabbat – or more aptly, welcome home into Shabbat – because Shabbat is a homecoming.

Rabbi David and I are delighted to join you as scholars in residence, or maybe scholars in homecoming. This weekend we hope to share with you tastes of Renewal, starting with the renewal we call Shabbat. For six days we busy in our doings; on the seventh day, we come home to our sense of being human beings. 

When we can "just be," when we really know that we're enough just as we are, we can touch that loving miracle of spirituality that Jewish mystics call the World to Come, right here and now. That's what I mean by coming home.

Now I freely admit to y'all – and I say y'all as a good south Texan transplanted to southern New England, now visiting southern Maine – that not every Shabbat in my life lives up to this ideal of a homecoming. But tonight, singing and praying and being with y'all even for this short while, I feel the supernal Shabbat becoming that feeds my soul – and I feel at home here with you.

This sense of inner homecoming is Renewal – both the lower-case "r" of experiencing the love and joy we call the renewal of spirit, and the capital "R" of Renewing Judaism, and its umbrella organization -- ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal -- that Rabbi David and I call home. And these two Renewals are linked. A Judaism that is vital and vibrant in body, heart, mind and soul – what we call the Four Worlds of Jewish spirituality – is the quest and passion of Jewish Renewal.

Tonight we want to share with you how we see two Renewals as linked with the theme of our weekend together – holiness, for Parshat Kedoshim – and the heart of Parshat Kedoshim, to love our neighbor as ourself / ואהבת לרעך כמוך. How does Renewal relate to holiness and love?

Continue reading "Shabbat, renewal, and you" »