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

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 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" »


A welcome message to Bet Ha'Am

For those who are interested... here's the welcome video we made to introduce ourselves to the community at Bet Ha'Am, where we'll be Bernstein scholars-in-residence this weekend. Over the course of three minutes, we talk a little bit about Jewish Renewal and the tools we've found there for harvesting joy and meaning in Judaism, and we close with the song that will be our musical theme for our weekend together:

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

To everyone at Bet Ha'Am: we're both driving north today, and hope to make it to you safely despite the projected rainstorms. We look forward to being with y'all for Kabbalat Shabbat tonight and for the weekend to come!

And to everyone else, Shabbat shalom and blessings from our hearts to yours.


How to embrace living in the unknown, in The Wisdom Daily

...When I accept that I can’t wholly know what my future will hold, I open myself to possibility. There are things I hope will happen. There are things I hope won’t happen. But I affirm that I don’t actually know what will be, and that there is a gift for me in the not-knowing. Because I don’t know, I can hold my imagined futures lightly. I can cultivate openness to learning from whatever unfolds. I can cultivate the bravery I need to keep moving forward, even when I don’t always know for certain where I am headed or how I will get there....

That's from my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily: How to embrace living in the unknown. I hope you'll click through and read the whole thing.


Because

ואהבת לרעך כמוך: אני הוי׳׳ה
Love your other as yourself: I am God. - Lev. 19:18

 

Because I am God
I ache
to give sweetness

my cup spills over
every time you need
or hurt

Because I carry
your heart
in mine

Because you carry my heart
in yours
you ache too

in the yearning
between us
is holiness

 


 

This week's Torah portion, Kedoshim, is at the heart of the Torah: the middle portion of the middle book of the five. And in the very heart of the heart of the Torah is the verse cited at the top of this poem -- the injunction to love one's neighbor, one's other, as oneself.

This year I found myself thinking about the juxtaposition of that verse with the words "I am God." What is Torah trying to tell us -- what's the connection between God being God, and us being called to love others? I thought about the teaching from Talmud (Pesachim 118) about how God yearns to give us blessing. I thought about how when we love one another, we feel (and want to balm) one another's losses. I thought about how it is the nature of God to ache to give to us, and how we are made in the divine image and therefore we partake in that same aching. And I thought of the word kadosh, "holy" -- a root which appears repeatedly in this week's Torah portion, and also appears in the word kiddushin, the sanctified relationship between two beloveds. 

This poem arose out of all of those. It's not part of my Texts to the Holy series (it's spoken in the Divine voice to us, rather than in our voice to the beloved or Beloved) but is part of the newer series I've been writing lately, along with Always and God says yes.


Healing and second chances

HealingA few days ago we entered into the new month of Iyar. Here's my favorite teaching about the month of Iyar: its name is an acronym for something beautiful. Torah teaches that after the children of Israel crossed through the Sea of Reeds and reached the far shore, they sang and danced -- and then, once they began their journey in the wilderness, they became afraid. What if there were no potable water for them to drink? What if there weren't enough to nourish them in life's journey?

So God instructed Moshe to throw a piece of wood into a stagnant pond, and the water became sweet. And then God offered one of Torah's most beautiful reassurances, saying "I am YHVH your healer." That's the phrase we can see hidden in the name of the month Iyar: אני יה רפאך / I am God, your healer.

In the words of my friend and teacher Rabbi Yael Levy of A Way In:

Iyar is an acronym for this promise the Divine Mystery has made to us: I am your healer. On life’s journeys you will face the seas of struggle, celebration, fear and joy, and whatever comes, I am there to heal and guide you. (Exodus 15:26)

She continues:

Iyar is a month of second chances because the full moon of Iyar provides the opportunity to make up for something that has been missed. During Temple times, it was considered essential for a person’s spiritual and material wellbeing to compete a sacrificial offering for Passover. If circumstances kept someone from someone from making this offering, he/she was given another opportunity to do so on the 15th day of the month of Iyar.

Iyar says it is never too late -- no matter what situation we find ourselves in, no matter how far away we have traveled from our intentions or goals, it is possible to find our way back.

Every life contains missteps and missed opportunities -- times when we look back and realize we wish we'd chosen differently. If only I had reached out to that person then, instead of staying silent. If only I had walked through that door, instead of staying outside. If only I had said "I love you" while I still could. If only, if only.

Part of what it means to me to say that God is our healer is to say that God accompanies us into our second chances. I don't have a time turner; I can't actually go back in time to undo my mistakes, so that I could do then what I wish now that I had done. But Rabbi Levy points out that just as our ancestors were given the opportunity to offer the Pesach sacrifice late, we too can find opportunities to make up for where we missed the mark... and I think that's one way that God can help us to find healing.

Illness and healing are major themes in this week's Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora. Torah's ancient paradigm of tamei and tahor, impure and pure -- or charged-up with the energy of life and death, and absent that psycho-spiritual "electricity" -- may not speak to us. But part of what I relearn from this Torah portion each year is that when one is sick, whether physically or emotionally or spiritually, one may feel exiled from the community. Cut off and isolated. "Outside the camp" in an existential sense: alone even when surrounded by other human beings.

And in those times God comes to us and reminds us אני יה רפאך -- I am God, your healer. I am the One Who is with you in sickness and in health, the One Who accompanies you even when you feel most existentially alone.

When we are sick and feel isolated, the One Who Accompanies is with us. And when we are sick at heart because of the places where we missed the mark, the One Who Accompanies is with us too. May this month of Iyar be a time when our second chances gleam bright before us, so we can find healing in making amends, and making new choices, and remembering that -- as Rabbi Levy teaches -- no matter how far we've strayed from where we meant to be, it's never too late to find our way back. 

 

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


Coming to Maine!

Logos

The month of May is almost upon us, and with it comes a weekend I've been looking forward to for some time: an opportunity to visit Congregation Bet Ha'Am in Portland, Maine with Rabbi David Evan Markus! We're honored to be this year's Bernstein Scholars-in-Residence there. (Previous years' scholars have included Dr. Nehemia Polen, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, and Rabbi Art Green.)

Over the course of our weekend, we'll be co-leading a Kabbalat Shabbat service, offering Shabbat morning Torah study, offering a Shabbat evening se'udah shlishit ("third meal") and havdalah program with teaching and poetry, and sharing some teaching with their community Hebrew school on Sunday morning. Through song, text, teaching, and experience we'll offer an introduction to Jewish Renewal.

Here's what they've shared about our visit on their website:


Congregation Bet Ha'am, through the Rosalyne S. & Sumner T. Bernstein Scholar-in-Residence Fund, is proud to welcome this year’s Bernstein Scholars-in-Residence, 'The Velveteen Rabbi" Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Markus, co-chairs of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Mark your calendars and plan to join us for the weekend of May 5-7, 2017.

The weekend marks the halfway point between Passover and Shavuot, exactly halfway between liberation and revelation. Here, the Torah teaches us “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Activities and discussions will focus on the themes of love, community, and holiness through various practical and spiritual lenses. We’ll look at how Jewish Renewal can use themes and motifs to deepen the spiritual experience of public prayer services timed to the Torah cycle and the spiritual flow of the year, how mitzvot are intertwined with ritual, and the support of Jewish community in modern times.

Friday, May 5, 7:30 PM - Kabbalat Shabbat Evening Service: Holiness, Love, and Community - Loving your neighbor in modern times.

Saturday, May 6 9:00 AM - Torah Study: The spiritual and practical of community and renewal.

6:00 PM - Potluck Seudat Shlishit and Havdalah: Havdalah Service with a program on Illness and Healing.

Sunday, May 7 10:30 AM - Adult and Children’s Workshop Mitzvah and Mysticism - Holy Doing and Holy Being.

All are welcome!

Please contact Benjamin Gorelick in the Bet Ha'am office at 879-0028 or benjamin@bethaam.org for more information about this exciting weekend.

If you're in or near Portland Maine, we hope to see you there next weekend.


The Book of Joy

9780399185045When a friend told me that she was reading a series of dialogues between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu on joy, my first thought was "I need to read that too." Their dialogues are published in a book attributed to the two luminaries along with Douglas Abrams, called The Book of Joy.

Here's the first place in the book that drew forth my impulse to make marginal markings. This is the Archbishop speaking:

Discovering more joy does not, I'm sorry to say, save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.

We may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too -- that feels right to me. Joy is not the antithesis of sorrow. It doesn't cancel sorrow out, or make one less prone to the sorrows that come with human life. But joy can help us face our sorrows in a different way.

Abrams seizes on this, and brings it back to the Archbishop: "The joy that you are talking about," he says, "is not just a feeling. It’s not something that just comes and goes. It’s something much more profound. And it sounds like what you’re saying is that joy is a way of approaching the world." The Archbishop agrees, and adds that as far as he is concerned, our greatest joy arises when we seek to do good for others.

Coming from anyone else, that might sound insincere, but from Desmond Tutu I am inclined to believe it. Reading his words made me aware that I fear I don't spend enough time seeking to do good for others. But then I realized that he could be speaking not only about vocation or community service, but also on a more intimate scale about trying to do good for people I love. Doing something to brighten the day of someone I love brings me intense joy. (Maybe the real work is figuring out how to broaden the sphere of those whom I love.)

The Archbishop also says some things about hope that resonate deeply for me:

"Hope," the Archbishop said, "is quite different from optimism, which is more superficial and liable to become pessimism when the circumstances change. Hope is something much deeper..."

"I say to people that I'm not an optimist, because that, in a sense is something that depends on feelings more than the actual reality. We feel optimistic, or we feel pessimistic. Now, hope is different in that it is based not in the ephemerality of feelings but on the firm ground of conviction. I believe with a steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless. Hope is deeper and very, very close to unshakable..."

"Despair can come from deep grief, but it can also be a defense against the risks of bitter disappointment and shattering heartbreak. Resignation and cynicism are easier, more self-soothing postures that do not require the raw vulnerability and tragic risk of hope. To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one's chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass."

I love his point that optimism depends on feelings, and it's the nature of feelings to be malleable. Often I know that the way I feel isn't necessarily correlated with how things "actually are" -- intellectually I can see that things aren't so bad, but emotionally I feel as though they are. (Or the other way around.) If my optimism depends on feeling good about the situation at hand, it will necessarily falter sometimes.

Hope, for the Archbishop, is something different. Hope is a choice, a way of being in the world. Hope is an affirmation that whatever challenges, or grief, or sorrow may be arising will pass. Hope says: there is more to life than this, even if we can't see that right now. In a sense, it requires a leap of faith. It asks us to operate on the assumption that there is more to life than whatever we are experiencing right now.

Abrams writes:

We try so hard to separate joy and sorrow into their own boxes, but the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama tell us that they are inevitably fastened together. Neither advocate the kind of fleeting happiness, often called hedonic happiness, that requires only positive states and banishes feelings like sadness to emotional exile. The kind of happiness that they describe is often called eudemonic happiness and is characterized by self-understanding, meaning, growth, and acceptance, including life’s inevitable suffering, sadness, and grief...

"We are meant to live in joy," the Archbishop explained. "This does not mean that life will be easy or painless. It means that we can turn our faces to the wind and accept that this is the storm we must pass through. We cannot succeed by denying what exists. The acceptance of reality is the only place from which change can begin."

I'm struck by the Archbishop's assertion that we are meant to live in joy -- and that this doesn't mean that life can be, or even should be, devoid of pain. Joy and sorrow are so often intertwined: at the happy occasion when one remembers a loved one who has died, at the celebration of a joyous milestone when a loved one is struggling. We shatter a glass at every Jewish wedding to remind us that even in our moments of joy there is brokenness. Authentic spiritual life calls us to hold this disjunction all the time.

Archbishop Tutu is right that authentic spiritual life also calls us to begin by recognizing what is, and sometimes what is is painful. But we can hold that painful reality loosely, alongside awareness of the gifts we receive from loving others and aspiring to sweeten their circumstance. As the Archbishop also notes, when we seek to do good for others, we open ourselves to some of life's deepest joy. And that's a joy that is rooted not in what we have, but in what we give away -- in the love and caring that comes through us. And because it comes through us, rather than from us, it has no limits.

The Psalmist wrote, "Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning."  The "night" in question may be long. It may be personal, or national, or global. But we can live in hope that morning will come and will bring joy, even if we don't know what that will look like, even if we don't know when or how that will be.

 

Related:

Joy, 2009


Always

When I say I love you
I mean always: when you greet
the day with exultation
and when you wake with tears

when you shine like the skies
and when you're clenched
in despair's grip,
every drop of joy wrung out.

Sometimes you're bare branches,
then chartreuse life bursts free.
Do you imagine I'm with you
only in the springtime?

You are precious to me
when you feel strong
and when you feel broken
and when you can't feel at all.

I'd give you a talisman
to carry in your wallet, a string
to tie around your finger
but I know you:

you'll stop wearing it
or stop remembering what it means.
It means always, even
when you can't see me.

When you push me away
because hope hurts too much.
Even then, what I feel for you
eclipses the light of creation.

 


 

I'm working on a new series of poems.

The Texts to the Holy poems (my next collection, coming out from Ben Yehuda later this year ) are in my own voice, spoken to the Beloved (or beloved). These poems are in response -- love poems that you might read as spoken by the Beloved to us.

(Related: God says yes.)


Learning to Walk in the Dark

51LLOq4rwuL._SY344_BO1 204 203 200_If you are in the middle of your life, maybe some of your dreams of God have died hard under the weight of your experience. You have knocked on doors that have not opened. You have asked for bread and been given a stone. The job that once defined you has lost its meaning; the relationships that once sustained you have changed or come to their natural ends. It is time to reinvent everything from your work life to your love life to your life with God -- only how are you supposed to do that exactly, and where will the wisdom come from? Not from a weekend workshop. It may be time for a walk in the dark.

-- Barbara Brown Taylor

When we were in Tuscaloosa, my friend and colleague Reverend Rick Spalding mentioned to me that he was reading Barbara Brown Taylor's Learning to Walk in the Dark. "That sounds like a book I need to read," I said. Not long thereafter, I found his copy in my mailbox, waiting for me to read it.

And oh, wow, did I need to read this book. The copy I was reading wasn't mine, so I didn't give in to the temptation to underline and highlight -- but if I had, it would be marked up everywhere, because so much of what Barbara Brown Taylor writes here resonates with me. Like this:

Even when you cannot see where you are going and no one answers when you call, this is not sufficient proof that you are alone. There is a divine presence that transcends all your ideas about it, along with your language for calling it to your aid... but darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day.

Sometimes we feel that God is agonizingly absent from our lives, but this is a matter of epistemology, not ontology -- a matter of how we experience the world around us, not a genuine indicator of how that world actually is. This is a core tenet of my theology. I felt a happy spark of recognition, reading it in Brown Taylor's words.

Continue reading "Learning to Walk in the Dark" »


A ritual for the end of Pesach

34107028195_cc5fa30544_z"Is there something like havdalah for the end of Pesach?"

That question was brought to me a few days ago by my friend and colleague Reverend Rick Spalding.

Reverend Rick has, in the past, expressed to me his "holy envy" of havdalah. (In Krister Stendahl's terms, one feels holy envy for that thing in another tradition which one wishes existed in one's own tradition.) I love that he thought to ask about whether we have a unique separation ritual for the end of Pesach... and I'm kind of sad that the answer is no.

(This is additionally complicated by the fact that as a people, we don't agree on when the end of Pesach is! Jews in the land of Israel observe seven days. Reform Jews everywhere do likewise. Conservative and Orthodox Jews outside of Israel observe eight days. To the best of my knowledge, the Reconstructionist movement doesn't set official policy on this matter. And Renewal Jews exist everywhere -- in communities of every denominational affiliation and no denominational affiliation -- so it's impossible to generalize.)

But regardless of whether the end of Pesach comes after the seventh day or the eighth day, we don't have a formal ritual unique to ending this festival. Those of us who remove leaven from our homes during the festival have probably evolved informal rituals for moving the Pesachdik dishes back into storage and the regular dishes back into rotation, or for buying or baking the first loaf of bread after the festival has come to its close. But there's no Pesach-specific form of havdalah to mark the end of festival time. 

What we do have is the tradition of counting the Omer, the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot. In a sense, counting the Omer blurs the boundary at the festival's end. Long after Pesach is over, we're still counting the days until the revelation of Torah at Sinai -- a journey we began at the second seder. The counting stitches the two festivals together, making the end of Pesach less stark. Passover ends, but the Omer continues as each day we turn the internal kaleidoscope to see ourselves through new lenses.

When weather permits, at this time of year, I like to sit outside on my mirpesset and watch the evening sky change. As darkness takes over the sky I make the blessing and count the new day of the Omer. Watching the sky slowly shift from one shade of blue to the next, it's clear to me that the end of a day isn't a binary. We don't go from day to night in a single moment of transition. As our prayer for oncoming evening makes clear, "evening" is a mixture of day and night, constantly shifting.

There's some of that same fuzziness in the end of Pesach. Even once we've moved the regular dishes back into the kitchen, or gone out for that first celebratory pizza after a week of matzah, the festival lingers. It lingers in the counting of the Omer. It lingers in the matzah crumbs we'll be sweeping up for weeks. It lingers in our consciousness, in our hearts and minds, in whatever in us was changed this year by re-encountering our people's core narrative of taking the leap into freedom.

Still, Reverend Rick's question continues to reverberate in me. Havdalah has four elements: wine, fragrant spices, fire, and a blessing for separation. If we were to dream a ritual to make havdalah specific to the end of Pesach, how would we re-imagine havdalah for this purpose? The one thing that's clear to me is that the ritual would need to be simple and accessible, not requiring additional preparation -- Pesach is so full of extra work that I don't think I could bear to add additional strictures or obligations or ritual items!

Blessing a glass of wine, symbol of joy, is easy. For the fragrant spices, this year, I want a scent of the outdoors -- from my mirpesset I can breathe the sharp scent of new cedar mulch -- to spark my soul's embrace of what is growing and unfolding and new. Instead of the light of a braided havdalah candle, I might hold my hands up to the ever-changing light of the sky. And as a blessing of separation, the new night's Omer count, separating and bridging between what was and what is yet to be. 

 

Edited to add: I realized after this post had been published that I wasn't altogether clear. Here's an addendum: 

It is traditional to make a modified form of havdalah at the end of festivals (and I should have been clearer about that -- oops.) The conversation that sparked this post wasn't about that per se, but about a Pesach-specific ritual for the end of Pesach -- and while Mimouna is a Pesach-specific custom for post-Pesach, it also doesn't exactly answer the question I raise at the end of the post, about how we might repurpose havdalah itself to incorporate scents and sights of this moment in time.


Deep Ecumenism and Being a Mixed Multitude

Multitude-WebOne of the things I love about the Passover story is that every year the story is the same, and every year I hear it anew. (This is true of the whole Torah, too, but I knew and loved the Pesach story before I knew and loved the whole Torah.) Every year we retell how we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt and God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. And every year, something different about the story leaps out at me and says pay attention.

This year the thing that leaps out at me is the erev rav, the "mixed multitude" that went forth with us from Egypt. When we left Mitzrayim, tradition teaches, we did not leave alone. A mixed multitude came with us. One tradition holds that some Egyptians chose to leave with us, to strike out toward freedom and self-determination. Another tradition holds that even Pharaoh's daughter came with us, and in so doing acquired a new name: Batya, "Daughter of God."

I imagine us as a vast column of refugees walking together into the wilderness... and in that great crowd of people were people who were born into this community, as well as fellow-travelers who chose to accompany us on our journey toward freedom. Together they redefined identity, so everyone became an insider, not divided by label or practice. This is the story that constitutes us as a people, the story we retell every Pesach, the story we allude to in the kiddush every Friday night and in the Mi Chamocha prayer every single day -- and in this core story, we are a mixed multitude. From the moment of our formation as a community, we are diverse.

Immediately upon leaving Egypt, we came to an insurmountable obstacle: the Sea of Reeds. On Monday night, Ben Solis-Cohen gave a beautiful d'var about Nachshon ben Aminadav, the brave soul who took the first steps into the waters. Nachshon kept going until it seemed that he would drown, and then the waters parted. This is a story about trusting in something beyond ourselves and getting through adversity we didn't think we could get through. Because in and of ourselves, we couldn't. As a theist, I would say God accompanied us, and therefore we became more than we thought we could be. That language may or may not work for you, but what matters is this: when the journey ahead seemed impossible, we found the courage to keep going, and the impossible became possible.

This is the story that constitutes us as a people, and it's not entirely an easy story. After we came through the sea, the waters rushed back in and swept away the Egyptian armies that had pursued us. Midrash teaches that God rebuked the angels for rejoicing, saying, "My children are perishing, and you sing praises?" Both "we," and "they," are equally God's children. The story that constitutes us as a people demands that we ask what price is being paid for our liberation, and by whom. Whose bondage or suffering is the price of our freedom and comfort, and what right do we have to exact that price?

It's our job as Jews to rejoice in our freedom, and it's our job to look at this system, this community, this nation, this planet, and ask how and whether we're complicit in the suffering of others who are not yet free. What is the price of our spiritual freedom, and who is paying that price, and what can we do about that? And considering our complicity isn't enough. It's also our job as Jews to work toward liberation for everyone. Until everyone is free, our liberation is incomplete.

The mixed multitude who left Egypt included people who were not Jews... as our Shabbat dinners here include those who walk on other spiritual paths. On most Christian calendars today is Good Friday. In their tradition, today commemorates the death of Jesus on the cross. In their tradition, the price of spiritual freedom for humanity was the death of the rabbi they call Jesus who was both human and divine.

For our Christian friends, tonight is a dark night that will give way on Sunday to the brightest of new dawns. The emotional journey of going from Good Friday to Easter does for them what the emotional journey of Pesach can do for us. Remembering the tenth plague, the death of the Egyptian firstborns -- remembering the Egyptian army swept away in the Sea of Reeds -- impels us to recognize the preciousness of this life, and to cultivate openness to growth and change.

Following the teacher of my teachers, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z"l, I want to suggest that the best way we can relate to Good Friday is not by trying to be Christian, but by being all the more Jewish. This is what he called "deep ecumenism." From the authenticity of our spiritual practice, we can walk alongside others in theirs, partaking in a universal human journey that has multiple forms. And that journey would be darkened and diminished if even a single one of us didn't take part.

Every religion, Reb Zalman taught, is like an organ in the body of humanity. We need each one to be uniquely what it is, and we also need each one to be in communication with the others. If the heart tried to be the liver, we'd be in trouble, but if the heart stopped speaking to the liver, we'd be in even more trouble! Each community of faith -- including those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or secular -- needs to live up to its own best self, and each needs to be in dialogue with the others.

Humanity hasn't quite mastered this yet... but the rest of the world could learn a lot from Williams campus life. When the Chaplains' Office organizes a multifaith prayer experience after the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and Muslim mosques. When Williams Catholic, or Williams Secular, or the Feast, shows up to cook Shabbat dinner for WCJA. When Feminists of Faith gather on a Saturday afternoon, as we will do here on April 29. This is what it means to be a mixed multitude: not because we're stuck with each other, but because we embrace each other. Because our pluralism is part of who we are.

On Sunday night we'll enter into the seventh day of Pesach, which tradition says is the day when we actually crossed the sea. We'll remember how after crossing that sea, Miriam and the women danced with their timbrels, singing in gratitude to the One Who makes our transformation possible.

That's our job too: to sing out in praise. To cultivate gratitude and joy, without ignoring the things that are hard, either in our past or in our anticipated future. Miriam and the women are my role models in that. They'd experienced trauma and loss, they were on a journey with an unknown destination, they were carrying their whole lives on their backs -- and they danced anyway.

Miriam and the women teach me that no matter what I've been through and no matter what challenges lie ahead, there is always reason for hope and rejoicing. "Look around, look around: how lucky we are to be alive right now!"

This is the story that constitutes us as a people: a mixed multitude, welcoming and diverse -- growing and becoming, taking a leap of faith singly and together -- grappling with systems of oppression -- supporting each other on our various spiritual paths -- aware that transformation is always possible -- with hearts expansive enough to hold both life's adversity and life's joy.

We live into this story through every act of tikkun olam (healing the world) that we do singly and together: in our learning, in our fellowship, in our activism, in our prayer, in our community-building. Each of these is a step on the road to Sinai, a step en route to the land of promise awaiting us all.

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered tonight during dinner at the Williams College Jewish Association.  (Cross-posted to Under the Kippah: Thoughts from the Jewish Chaplain.)

Image: "Multitude," by Sam Miller. (Source.)


Ready to be changed

Img_9134-e1332770936209This week we're taking a break from the regular cycle of Torah readings. Our special Torah reading for Shabbat Chol Ha-Moed Pesach, the Shabbat that comes in the midst of this festival, returns us to the book of Exodus.

In this Torah portion, Moshe pleads with God, "Let me behold Your presence!" And God says "Yes! -- and no." God says, "I will make My goodness pass before you, but no one can look upon Me and live." God says, "Let Me protect you in this cleft of a rock, and after I pass by, you can see my afterimage."

This is among the most intense and profound moments in Torah. We could spend hours exploring this text... and instead I have two minutes.

I was talking about that this week with my learning partner -- after all, rabbis keep learning too -- and the question arose: so how long did it take for God to pass by? Probably none of us believe that God has a physical body, so this question is about Moshe's awareness. In Moses-time, maybe it took two minutes. Probably it happened in a flash. An experience -- even a life-changing one -- can unfold in two minutes. But understanding that experience, integrating it into the fullness of our lives, can take a lifetime.

The teacher of my teachers, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z"l, said that "theology is the afterthought of the believer. You never have someone coming up with a good theology if he or she didn’t first have an experience." Experience comes first. Our attempts to understand that experience come after.

Understanding can happen in the body, when we feel something viscerally. Or in the mind, or the heart, or the spirit. Often it's one but not the other -- you know how sometimes you know something in your head, but your heart hasn't yet gotten the memo? Experience is easy. Understanding is harder.

Your years at Williams are like that too, filled with experiences that might take you weeks, or months, or a lifetime to fully explore. The thing is, we never know which moment will be the moment when an experience knocks us off our feet and changes us. We have to be open to it whenever it comes.

And that takes me back to Pesach. When it was time to leave slavery, the children of Israel had to go right then. No time to let their bread dough rise, just -- time to go, now, ready or not. One minute they were hemmed-in and trapped, and the next minute they were faced with wide-open possibility.

The haggadah says each of us should see ourselves as though we ourselves had experienced that transformation. Every life is filled with Exodus moments: when everything you thought you understood turns upside-down, when you realize your world is more expansive than you ever knew, when you have to take a leap into the unfamiliar and unknown.

A life-changing experience could happen anytime. Going from constriction to freedom could happen anytime. Liberation from life's narrow places, or God's presence passing before us in such a way that we feel the presence of goodness, could happen right now. Our job is to be ready for the experience of being changed. 

That kind of mindful living takes practice. College is busy. Life is busy. The life-changing experience of a moment may be a gift of grace, or a total accident. But good practice makes us accident-prone. 

So here's a blessing for being prone to the best kind of accidents, the serendipity that can change a life in the blink of an eye, the two minutes that can last a lifetime, two minutes that can change a life.

 

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.)

Image by Jack Baumgartner. [Source.]

 


Layers of Hallel, layers of time

33588459020_8bf5713c2d_zOn the first morning of Pesach I took my pocket siddur onto my mirpesset (balcony) and davened the psalms of Hallel. I sang them quietly enough not to disturb my neighbors, but loud enough to hear myself singing.

I hadn't really spent time on the mirpesset since Sukkot ended. The weather got cold, I folded up the chairs and table, and I didn't go onto the balcony for months.

This was my first time back out there, and just like at Sukkot, I was singing Hallel. But unlike at Sukkot, this time I was sustained by memories of last time. When I sang these psalms at Sukkot I put down a first layer of spiritual experience in this place, and when I returned to them at Pesach, that first layer gleamed beneath the layer of the now and the new.

Sitting on my mirpesset now, I remember how it felt to have my little sukkah over me, spangled with autumn garlands. The location -- both physical (the mirpesset) and spiritual (the festival, the singing of Hallel) layers the now over the then, links what is and what was. 

The festivals serve in this way regardless of physical location. Their melodic motifs in particular work this way for me, hyperlinking Pesach with Shavuot with Sukkot, one year with the last and with the next. But because my move last year was such a big deal for me (after seventeen years in that house, and eighteen years in that marriage), the shift from my old life to my new one was seismic in ways I'm only now beginning to recognize.

That, in turn, means there is extra comfort in beginning to put down roots here -- both in this physical place, and in this new chapter in which I am a single person rather than a partnered person, a divorcée rather than a wife. Singing hallel on my mirpesset from festival to festival helps to ground me in this new normal. And it's a piece of the life I had hoped to build for myself, and for that I am grateful.

מן המצר כראתי יה, ענני במרחב יה –– from the narrow place I called to You; You answered me with expansiveness.

 Amen, amen, selah.