Ten years with the angels

1.

The year is 2005. I am at the old Elat Chayyim -- in its original campus, the Catskills hotel in Accord, NY. It is "smicha students' week"  and I am not yet a student. I'm spending the week with the ALEPH Ordinations Programs community: learning with them, dining with them, davening with them.

This is part of our mutual discernment process: is this the right program for me? (I know in my bones that it is.) Am I the right fit for them? (I pray with my whole heart that I am.) I am staying in a room with two students and another applicant. I don't yet know that I will begin the program in the fall.

DLTI -- the Davenen Leadership Training Institute -- is meeting during this same week. I will realize, years later, that this must be their third session of four. Their facility with leading prayer, and the way their energies and harmonies interweave seamlessly, would not be possible during week one.

But at this moment I don't know that, and I'm mostly just awed by the way they lead prayer. This is the first time in my life that I hear weekday nusach, the melodic mode used for weekday davenen, and I fall in love with it instantly. It's also the first time I ever hear an invocation of the angels at bedtime.

One night, my room-mates who are in the program sing it to the two of us in the room who are applicants. The melody is by R' Shlomo Carlebach z"l. "In the name of God, the God of Israel -- on my right is Michael, on my left is Gavriel..." When did anyone last sing me a lullaby? It brings me to tears.

 

2.

The year is 2010. I am once again at smicha students' week -- this time at Pearlstone, a Jewish retreat center outside of Baltimore. I am spending two weeks there with the entire AOP community. It will be my last summer residency as a rabbinic student. It is also my first summer residency with a baby.

My mother spends a week there taking care of the baby so that I can go to class. She brings him to me when he needs to nurse, and otherwise she strolls him around the grounds, reads him board books, plays with him. One night she asks me the name of the beautiful Israeli folksong I sing him at bedtime.

It takes me a moment to realize that she means this piece of traditional liturgy, set to R' Shlomo's melody. I explain that this is an invocation of the angels -- Michael, Gavriel, Uriel, Raphael -- to watch over us while we sleep. Part of the liturgy of the bedtime shema. Every night, she listens to me sing.

 

3.

The year is 2015. I am perched on the edge of my son's bed. "Do you want me to say the prayers tonight, or do you want to say them?" I ask. Tonight he wants to do them himself. He blesses everyone. He sings the shema. And then he sings me the angel song, in Hebrew and in English.

Some of the Hebrew words are a bit garbled. And I have no idea what he thinks an angel is. But in this moment, I am awestruck. Ten years ago the idea of invoking the angels of wonder, strength, light, and comfort was new to me. Five years ago, it was new to my mom. But this is not new to my son.

For him, this is ordinary. A natural part of the bedtime routine, just like saying "God bless..." and singing the shema. And sometimes now, before his own bedtime, my son sings the angel song to me -- just as my friends did, bringing me to tears in that dorm room at the old Elat Chayyim, a lifetime ago.

 

 

Related:Bedtime angels, July 2015


Navigating transitions with grace - at the Wisdom Daily

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...Watching my son learn to navigate transitions has given me more compassion for myself as I navigate my own emotional landscape. I have more life experience than he does, so I should be able to face transitions with less anxiety and more grace. And frequently I do. But I also struggle with beginnings and endings. I think everyone does.

One season gives way to the next. Summer vacation gives way to school. On the Jewish calendar, we've just moved from an old year into a new one. All of these transitions come bearing gifts - as well as challenges. And if that's true for annual transitions like the shift from summer to fall, how much more true it is for emotional transitions which may not follow any calendar or arise predictably....

That's a taste of my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily. Click through to read the whole thing: Can You Learn to Love Navigating Transitions?


New Year's Poem 2015 / 5776


When the list of school supplies arrives
my heart skips a beat. I'm not ready.

How can I be surprised? I've known all along
how one month follows the next, but

kindergarten looms. (Not, though,
for the five year old. Time renews itself

every time he opens his eyes.) When the days
of awe appear again on the horizon

my heart skips a beat. I'm not ready.
How can I be surprised? I've known all along

how the spiral of the year recycles end
into beginning again. Another summer

yields with less or more grace to fall
and I do too. Sometimes my gears grind,

I wish tomorrow would come sooner
or yesterday would return. I blink

and a month disappears. Where was I?
How can I be surprised? I've known all along

without my attention next new moon won't be
the world's birthday, just a night with less light.

And this impossibly precious moment
when I could be cupping my hand

to the side of your face with tenderness --
gone like the numbers on a digital clock.

But if I stop to see what's in front of me
and choose the blessing in it, if I

sanctify the threshold between now
and what comes after now, and after now,

then every moment gleams, infinite
as the love which links your heart and mine.

 

לשנה טובה תכתבו ותחתמו

May you be inscribed for a good and sweet year!

From me and my family, to you and yours.

 

(For those who are so inclined, here's a link to my archive of new year's card poems... and here's the new year's poem I co-wrote with my ALEPH co-chair Rabbi David Evan Markus.)


i carry it in my heart

B9646da06dccdd354b36623ee8b98897You've probably heard the aphorism that being a parent is like having a piece of one's heart walking around outside of one's chest. Being a parent means being vulnerable to everything that can go wrong in the world. It means (or should mean) being intimately attuned to someone else's physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual wellbeing; feeling their sorrows and their joys.

This is not only true of being a parent. It is the complicated blessing of being a person who loves any other person deeply. When someone is beloved to me, and I to them, our hearts become permeable. I open myself to feeling some of what my beloveds feel. I yearn for my beloveds to be blessed with joy, and I accept that when they feel grief my own heart will ache along with theirs.

In this place and time the language of love and beloved is presumed to be romantic, having to do with two people "falling in love." But I think that if that's all the word "beloved" means to us, then we're shrinking the capacity of our language. A sibling can be beloved. A friend can be beloved. We don't just "fall" in love; if we're blessed to have relationships which deepen over time, we grow in love.

Every intimate relationship comes with the price tag of having a piece of one's heart walking around outside of one's chest, vulnerable to harm. If I give a piece of my heart to everyone who is beloved to me, then my heart is always expanding. A little piece of me travels with each of my beloveds wherever they go. An invisible thread connects my heart to theirs, always. They are never alone. Neither am I.

This is an incalculable gift. It is beyond words, and I don't say that lightly -- God knows I have plenty of words for most occasions! But emotional and spiritual intimacy beggars my language. We don't have good words for it, and the words we do have are too-easily written-off as overblown or corny. To love and to be loved -- to be beloved...! The connection is more than I know how to describe.

And sometimes the heartache is, too. I don't mean the heartache you hear about in pop songs, one lover leaving another behind. I mean the heartache of precisely the opposite: of being connected, heart to heart, feeling a loved one's happiness with them -- and also their sorrow or their grief. Have you ever felt so much love for someone that your heart threatens to burst out of your chest?

I've been thinking lately about what it means to seek to live with an open heart -- even when that also means that my heart is vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, not only my own but also the fortunes of those whom I love. How can I live that truth with integrity? How can I express my love in a way which will help to sustain my beloveds, and how can I receive their caring in return?

I'm using the term "beloved" to mean someone dear to my heart. But Beloved, with a capital B, is one of our tradition's ways of imagining God. God is the ultimate Beloved, and to God, we are all beloved. God has compassion for us, which is to say, God feels with us, because we are beloved of God. When we feel sorrow, God's heart breaks along with ours... and when we feel joy, we illuminate the heavens.

Our liturgy teaches that we are loved by an unending love -- a love transcending all space and time. A forever love. An infinite love. Sometimes I catch glimmers of how the love I feel for my beloveds is an infinitesimal fragment of that ahavat olam. Sometimes my love threatens to overflow my chest, and I think: I'm just one. If we could put together the love of all humanity, we could move mountains.

To borrow a term from Thich Nhat Hanh, when we love each other we inter-are. I become a part of you, and you become a part of me. This is one of the places where I experience God: in the connection between your heart and mine. God is in the space between us which is charged with concern and with caring and with love. And that's true whether we are physically side by side, or a thousand miles apart.

"When you love one another, then God is within you," as the Shaker hymn has it. Maybe that's why my heart feels too expansive for my chest. What human ribcage could contain that luminous Presence which is made manifest within us when we open our hearts in loving connection? As e. e. cummings wrotei carry your heart(i carry it in my heart) -- and in the link between our hearts, there is God.


Childhood cancer: I have no words.

A few years ago I posted about two little boys who were fighting cancer, named Gus and Sam. At the time, Gus was four and had recently undergone brain surgery to remove a tumor; Sam was six and was undergoing treatment for leukemia. Sam -- a.k.a. Superman Sam -- died of his cancer. Gus went into remission.

Until now. Gus' mom Sasha recently posted that the doctors have found more tumors in Gus's brain. They are going to operate again, a few days after he finishes kindergarten.

I have no words to offer in response to the horror which is pediatric cancer. I am holding Gus and his family in my heart and in my prayers. Jewish tradition teaches that prayers are uplifted by our tzedakah, our righteous giving. Perhaps my prayers for Gus will have more "oomph," as it were, because I am accompanying them with a gift of money in his honor / toward his treatment or care.

If you would like to help defray the expenses of Gus's treatment, his family has established a dedicated PayPal account at 10birthdaysforgus@gmail.com -- but they request especially that we donate to the Tanner Seebaum Foundation. His mom writes, "It's run by friends of ours and directly supports research into Gus' cancer, most of which is done by his oncologists. Right now, that research is going to save his life."

If you can spare a few dollars, the Tanner Seebaum foundation is a good place to give them. Give in honor of Gus; give in hopes that the research that foundation is doing will find better ways to help kids like Gus and their families who are dealing with tumors of the brain and spine.

In memory of Sam, donations are also welcomed at the Sam Sommer Fund, established by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer and Rabbi Michael Sommer, Sam's parents. That fund supports pediatric cancer research and pediatric cancer patients and their families. The Sommer family has also supported the St. Baldrick's Shave for the Brave campaign.

On a related note: those who follow me on Facebook may have seen recently that I posted a link to Rabbi Phyllis Sommer's TEDx talk Dead is Dead: Euphemisms and the Power of Words. It's about fifteen minutes long and it is incredibly powerful. (It has also shaped my willingness, in this post, to use real words like "Sam died" instead of euphemisms like "Phyllis and Michael lost their son.") I recommend the video highly.

Please join me in praying for Gus and his family.

May the One who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless those in need of healing of body, mind and spirit.  May the compassion of the Holy One be upon them and watch over them.  Strengthen them with courage in each day, along with all who are ill, now and swiftly.  And let us say: Amen.


 


#blogExodus 7: Ask

Blogexodus5775Every night before bed I sit with our son and we say our prayers (asking God to bless everyone we know and love, "and everybody else, amen" and the shema) and then we sing a handful of songs.

There's a lullaby we've been singing to him all his life which is still part of our bedtime routine (though just this week he's beginning to insist that he's outgrown it, which feels bittersweet.) Usually one of us also sings "I Love You, A Bushel And A Peck."

About a month ago, around Purim-time, I started adding the first question of the Four Questions to our bedtime routine. Within a couple of weeks, he was singing along. Now he sings the whole first question by himself proudly, and sings along with most of the words of the other questions too.

I love hearing him sing the Four Questions. My heart swells every time I hear it. One of my strongest memories of my own childhood seders is of singing the Four Questions proudly in front of my aunts and uncles and cousins. It was my job, and I loved that moment in the spotlight. That our son is now growing into that role brings me tremendous joy.

Asking the questions is central to the seder. Why is this night different from all other nights? Why are we doing these unusual things? Why are we putting pillows on all the chairs, why are you roasting an egg, why are we reading a storybook during dinnertime, why do you have your guitar at the dinner table, why are we hitting each other with scallions? According to one theory, all of the rigamarole of the seder evolved precisely in order to spur kids to ask the question "why."

Because when the kids ask, then we can answer. We do this because of what God did for us when God brought us forth from slavery to freedom, from constriction to expansiveness. We do this to remember that we are free and that with freedom comes responsibility. We do this because it connects us with the generations and with our community around the globe, through all space and time. We do this because it makes you want to ask, and when you ask, then we can tell you this story which we so love.

 

This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.

Last year I wrote a poem in response to this prompt. It's here: Daily April poem for #blogExodus: Ask.


The work

Post_black525This is the work: remembering reasons for gratitude before I even get out of bed. There is always something for which I could be saying thank You.

This is the work: balancing brisk ("c'mon, we've got to get out of the house, I'm going to be late") with gentle ("want me to help you with your sneakers?")

This is the work: laughing at the same jokes again and again, because no one has an appetite for repetition like a five-year-old who's just discovered the "interrupting cow."

Noticing where I've made progress in my inner life, and celebrating myself for that. Noticing where I'm bumping again into things I thought I'd figured out, and forgiving myself for that.

Fixing the same meals, singing the same songs, doing the same bedtime routine. Waking myself up to the sweetness cradled in that routine's familiar contours.

Finding blessings in whatever unfolds. Even when the day is boring or grey or I feel as though I'm walking on a treadmill without getting anywhere. Can I turn the treadmill into a meditation labyrinth, where what matters are my conscious foosteps, not the destination?

This is the day that God has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. It only comes once. Tomorrow will be a new day, filled with new joys and new adventures. Or filled with new sorrows and new challenges. Or all of the above. But whatever it is, it won't be today. I don't want to miss today.

This is the work: setting boundaries even when our son doesn't like them, even when he tells me tearfully "if you say that one more time I won't be your friend!" Letting him know that it's okay to feel what he feels, and that I hear him, and that the rule still stands.

Letting myself know that it's okay to feel what I feel, and that God hears me, even when the world doesn't conform to my every wish any more than it conforms to our son's every wish. Remembering that even on my crankiest days, I am loved unconditionally.

Setting aside expectations so that I can embrace what is, whatever it is. Trying to grow radical acceptance and trust in the sometimes rocky soil of my heart. Watering that soil with prayer. Practicing the mantra of "I love what comes and I love what goes."

Parenthood is -- spiritual life is -- a parade of constant changes. Infancy gives way to toddlerhood, which gives way to childhood. The bitter passes away, and so does the sweet. Maybe for God, every instant of our lives coexists, but we're time-bound. This is the work: this moment, right now.

 

Image: a poetry postcard featuring a quote from Sophie Cabot Black. I learned the phrase slightly differently from my mentor Jason Shinder z"l -- "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work."

 


What we remember

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My maternal grandmother; her two daughters; three of their daughters, including me.


Sometimes I wonder: what stories will our son tell about his growing-up, in years to come? How will he remember his childhood? What memories will he seize onto and hold fast amid the swirl of all the other memories which wash away? Sometimes I can't believe that he won't remember much of these early years. How can it be that he won't remember last night's potluck dinner in the synagogue sukkah, sitting at the kids' table, singing along with the Shabbat blessings, and then whooping and laughing while playing tag with the other kids in the deepening dark outside the sukkah which gleamed with strings of little lights?

And yet I don't remember much about being five, much less the years which came before it. My fifth birthday party was a dress-up party at a fancy restaurant called the University Club, at the top of one of the few tall buildings near our neighborhood. I remember dressing up in one of Mom's blue dresses -- made of crinkled chiffon, I think, or something like it -- and wearing a big strand of her pearls and a floppy sun hat. I remember that she asked if I wanted to pierce my ears to surprise my father, but I wasn't ready to do that, so we got me clip-ons instead. I remember the scratchy gold ribbon which held the high heeled shoes on my feet. Do I remember this because there is a Polaroid picture of it and I've had that photograph to remind me in the interim? Am I remembering a memory of a memory?

I must have been attending the Judson Montessori school then, in the old church building just around the corner from the Pontiac dealership. I remember painting at an easel, doing math with sticks which represented tens and hundreds, looking at a timeline made out of felt which depicted the earth's history. (Most of it was black, denoting the time when the earth formed and cooled. Then there was green for the time when plants arose, and yellow for the dinosaurs, and human history was represented by a tiny nubbin of red felt at one end.) I remember eating meals there while listening to Ravel's "Bolero." I remember coming home and throwing tea parties with my miniature set of rose-printed china, filling the tea cups with Bosco-flavored chocolate milk.

A basically happy childhood blurs together in memory. We remember the unusual moments against the backrop of undifferentiated normalcy. (Take the winter of 1985: I remember the "San Antonio blizzard of '85" which dropped thirteen inches of snow on my hometown, and I remember my middle brother's wedding the week of that blizzard, but the rest of the season is lost to me now.) As we age, it seems, our more recent memories are stacked on top of the pile and the oldest memories compress like flakes of soft snow packed over centuries into glacial ice. What would it take to find those memories again?

Continue reading "What we remember" »


A day in the sun

An afternoon at a friend's house. The scent of sunscreen, the feel of water lapping against my body, the excited squeals of several little boys wearing floaties and splashing around the pool clutching pool noodles and kickboards emblazoned with superheroes.

In between swishing our kids through the water in giggly circles, the adults talk about books we've been reading, about the local college (from which many in this circle of friends graduated, and where others among us now teach), about summer memories.

I remember chlorinated swimming pools, and fingers wrinkled pruny from spending all day there. The rub of the diving board beneath my tender toes. Sunwarmed bricks at the edge of the pool. Night swimming, lit by one underwater light.

I remember the warm waters of Lake McQueeney and the gentle Guadalupe which feeds into it. I remember floating in an inner tube down the river, or leaping from the back of a boat in a lifevest and skis, letting rough woven rope play through my hands.

And I remember basking like a contented lizard in the south Texas sun, lying on a woven chaise and listening to Ottmar Liebert or k.d. lang as sweat dripped down my nose, holding out as long as I could before diving into the pool and exulting in the cool splash.

In between swimming this afternoon we pause to eat cold crisp cubes of watermelon and fresh local strawberries warm from the sun. I wonder what this group of little boys will remember about this ordinary, extraordinary summer day when they are grown.

 


Talking to kids about friends, neighbors, and danger

My dear friend Ayesha Mattu tweeted this to me, and my mind started racing. Because on the one hand, I am an incredible admirer of Abraham. I try to take him as a role model. At every Jewish wedding I perform I mention that the chuppah (wedding canopy) is open on all sides, like the tent of Abraham -- a symbol of welcome and openness to the diversity of human experience. I love that Abraham is called the "friend of God," and I love that our tradition teaches he went forth in response to God's call into unknown adventure. I want our son to grow up to emulate Abraham in these ways.

And on the other hand...our son is four-and-a-half. I know that he still inhabits the Eden of believing that everyone in the world is loving and kind and genuinely wants the best for him. Someday I am going to have to teach him that he can't trust everyone, and that breaks my heart -- but that's a heartbreak I infinitely prefer to (God forbid!) the heartbreak of him blithely following someone into harm. How do I navigate that tension?

The Hasidic master known as the Meor Eynayim ("The Light of the Eyes") taught that when Abraham opened his home in hospitality to strangers, he was greeting the face of Shekhinah. In other words: when we open ourselves to those who are different from us, we encounter the presence of God. I believe this deeply, and I aspire to live by its light. After all, the verse most often repeated in Torah the injunction to love the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Being kind to the stranger is central to our tradition.

We've tried to teach our son to be kind to everyone he meets. To treat everyone he meets as a potential friend. To be gracious (okay -- as gracious as a four-year-old can be!) in sharing toys and art supplies and stickers when friends come over. To be open to meeting new people and having new adventures. So far I think it's working. He is one of the most open, sweet, and (age-appropriately) generous kids I know. Once, in an airport, he saw a baby crying and he wanted to give that baby his lovey, because he knew the lovey helped him stop crying when he was sad. I love this about our kid.

And yet I know that not every new person, not every new adventure, is safe.

I remember a few years ago taking our son to the local coffee shop (with which he was already intimately familiar!) and standing at the counter to buy some ground coffee -- and looking down to discover that he was no longer by my side. I panicked and shouted his name. "Oh, he's over there," said the barista, pointing to a table, and I saw our son seated with four perfect strangers, merrily babbling to them as they laughed, clearly enjoying his company. "I figured you knew them...?" I did not know them. Thank God, they were friendly strangers! And in our small college town, that's usually a safe assumption. But that isn't true everywhere.

In the Twitter conversation which arose out of Ayesha's tweet, she mentioned the tension of wanting to keep her son safe and also wanting him to connect with the homeless and with those in need. I know the feeling, though I'm pretty sure our son has never seen a homeless person -- homelessness does exist in our rural county, but not in his orbit. We try to teach him generosity in the small ways that we can (for instance, teaching him that the clothes he's outgrown go to other kids; that toys he's outgrown go to kids who might not have toys of their own) -- but I don't know how he'll respond the first time he sees genuine need. And I hate that we will eventually have to teach him that there are people in the world who seem ordinary but might have hurtful intent.

How can I teach our son to emulate Abraham's openness and hospitality without putting him in danger? Right now his experiences with unfamiliar adults are curated and moderated by we who care for him -- his parents, his grandparents, his schoolteachers. As he gets older, we'll continue teaching him discernment about strangers and safety in different situations. (Here's a good article about how to talk to young children about strangers.) I desperately want to protect him from harm -- and I also don't want him to lose his ability to be open to, to befriend, and to learn from people who may be different from him.

Other parents, teachers, therapists, social workers, anyone reading this who wants to weigh in: how do you balance teaching children about openness to strangers, to the "Other," with age-appropriate awareness of the world and its dangers?


Thank you, God, for the flowers on the trees

Tree-blossoms-pink-spring-flowering-trees-baslee-troutman-baslee-troutman-fine-art-printsOur son has been really excited about the slow unfolding of spring. Never mind that it's been in the forties and raining. Ever the optimist, he asks every morning if today's the day he can wear short sleeves. He literally jumps for joy at the sight of daffodils. And today we glimpsed the year's first blooming tree.

"Look," I said, pointing out the car window, "that tree's starting to bloom!"

"What does bloom mean?" he asked.

"Bloom means flower," I told him. "That tree is going to have flowers." I spotted another one. "And that one, too!"

"Wow! I didn't know that! I thought flowers grow on the ground."

"They do," I agreed, "and also, some kinds of trees have flowers in the spring. Actually, there's a special blessing to say when you first see trees blooming," I told him. "Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam --"

And then I faltered. I haven't said the blessing over blooming trees since last spring; I couldn't remember exactly how it went. "And then you thank God for making the beautiful trees and their flowers and everything in the world," I concluded.

"I can't say all of that," he told me primly. I guess even in English, that's a mouthful.

"You could just say thank you for the trees and their flowers," I suggested.

"Thank you God for the flowers on the trees!" he crowed, satisfied. And then he had an idea. "When it's Friday night we could say 'Shabbat shalom, trees!'"

"We could," I agreed. Thank You, God, for this kid, I thought, as we drove on.

 

(You can find the blessing for blooming trees, along with some commentary, here: The Annual Blessing Over Trees.)


Daily April poem: terza rima

 

GIFT


You stand beside and sing the words with me.
I did the same in Texas years ago.
How is this night different? Come and see.

My childhood seders aren't for you to know.
You draw an orange on your seder plate.
What will you remember as you grow?

You're bleary-eyed: we kept you up too late.
I can't regret allowing you your glee
at finding hidden treasure. Now I wait

to see what sticks. What matters most to me
is that you come to love the telling too.
Once we were slaves to Pharaoh; now we're free.

The songs, the story -- they're my gift to you.

 


Today's prompt at NaPoWriMo asks us to try terza rima, a form featuring three-line stanzas with a specific rhyme scheme.

My poem arises out of last night's seder, which was wonderful in so many ways. Chag sameach / happy holiday to all who celebrate!

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#blogExodus 7: Blessing

12242603645_269a76785f_nThis past Shabbat was my first Shabbat home from my trip to Israel and the West Bank, and I settled back into our usual Friday evening traditions.

Step one is a trip to the A-Frame bakery for a challah and a cookie. We go there on our way home from preschool. I have known Sharon, the baker, for many years. (She catered the party after our son's brit milah.) Every week she marvels at how big he's getting, how tall, how chatty, how sweet.

Step two is Shabbat dinner with special guests who join us via videoconference. At the hour when our son habitually eats dinner, we sit around our small kitchen table with Shabbat candles, silver kiddush cups, and an open laptop.

Skyping with my parents for Shabbat has turned out to be a gift for me as much as it is for him and for them. I'm not sure I've ever lit candles with my parents on a weekly basis. Certainly not in the twenty-odd years since I left home. And now it's something I look forward to every week. Our son does, too.

The previous week when I was in Jerusalem, I experienced some really amazing Friday night kabbalat Shabbat prayer. It was a wonderful service, with great music, great kavanah (intention/heart), and terrific company. I adored it. And I also missed my son, and this Skyping-with-my-parents tradition, keenly. I was aware, in that moment, of what a blessing it is that I was able to miss him so. What a blessing to have him in my life. What a blessing to be in Jerusalem seeking a bit of sustenance for my spirit -- and  to have this reason to feel as though a part of my heart were somewhere else. My heart was in the west while I was in the east, as it were.

All of that was in my mind on Friday night as we sat at the table to Skype with my parents. Things started more or less as usual: he excitedly showed them a seascape he had made in preschool this week, they chatted a bit, and then we got down to making Shabbat. We blessed candles. We blessed juice. We blessed challah. And then, I reminded him, my last blessing would be for him. He knows this already; he sings along with the blessings now, and he knows that after candles and juice and challah I bless him.

But this time he surprised me. "And my last blessing is for you!" he told me in return. He used to respond to my blessing of peace with a blessing of "a piece" of challah, but it's been almost a year since the last time that happened.

"Do you want to go first?" I asked, and he said yes. So I sat back and waited, curious to see what would come out of his mouth.

He said, "Baruch atah Adonai -- " and then paused for a second, and finished, "love -- Mommy." He's got the beginning of the standard blessing formula down! After that the syntax admittedly got a little bit confused. Was he thanking God for love and for me? Was he equating Mommy with love? Was he asking God to give love to me? Honestly, I have no idea, and I couldn't care less. I was so tickled that he wanted to give me a blessing, that he's learned how our standard blessings begin, and that the blessing brought me together with God and with love. What could be sweeter?

It was the best blessing ever, and I told him so. He gave me a hug, and we cuddled for a while, and then I offered the priestly blessing, as I do every week, this time with him half-in my lap. And then we returned to chatting with my parents, who were delighted to have witnessed this spontaneous outpouring of Shabbat joy. A blessing for everyone.

 

The photo accompanying this post is a few months old (you can tell because he's wearing a wool sweater, and also it's dark outside at his dinner hour, which is thankfully no longer true), but it gives you the basic idea.

This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.

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Not a sign of defeat, but a sign of engagement

I just shared a post about prayer and parenthood. (Which has garnered some lovely comments, by the way; thanks, y'all!) Next up, I wanted to offer something different. Variety being the spice of life, and all that. But apparently the writing I'm doing this week is either for other sources (and therefore not publishable here), or is on these same themes. As my mentor Jason Shinder used to say, "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work." I guess this intersection is the work in which I'm immersed at this moment in time.

Lately, in fits and starts, I've been reading Verlyn Klinkenborg's Several short sentences about writing. I've dogeared the page where this appears:

But if you accept that writing is hard work,
And that's what it feels like while you're writing,
Then everything is just as it should be.
Your labor isn't a sign of defeat.
It's a sign of engagement.
The difference is all in your mind, but what a difference.

He's talking about the writing life, of course, though (predictably) I've been thinking of this as pertaining to spiritual life, too. Writing life, spiritual life: both will inevitably contain times when "the thrill is gone," when the spark doesn't feel as though it's there; times when one has to work hard just to get the boulder moving up the hill, or when the journey is arduous instead of scintillating. And that's not a sign of failure, as Klinkenborg notes: it's a sign that one is engaged in something that matters.

Or, taking his words in a different direction, try this paraphrase:

But if you accept that parenting is hard work,
And that's what it feels like while you're parenting,
Then everything is just as it should be.
Your labor isn't a sign of defeat.
It's a sign of engagement.
The difference is all in your mind, but what a difference.

Parenting is hard work! And it's supposed to be. Though rearing a four-year-old presents different challenges than caring for an infant, it's still work. I still struggle to maintain the good humor, the equanimity, the right balance of gentleness and firmness to which I aspire. I still fall down on the job, snap at our son when I didn't mean to, drive myself up a tree with fruitless attempts to convince him to try a food which he doesn't already know he enjoys. But if I take Klinkenborg to heart, then the fact that parenting is hard work doesn't mean I'm failing at it -- on the contrary, it means I'm doing it well.

Just so with spiritual life. Sometimes my prayer life and my spiritual consciousness "jut flows," and sometimes it feels as though the channels are blocked, as though God isn't listening -- or maybe as though I can't muster the focus to be listening in return. Sometimes I can't wait to set aside time for daily prayer, and other times I want to skip it all and just go back to sleep. That doesn't mean I'm failing in my spiritual life. If I'm paying enough attention to notice that sometimes it's easy, and sometimes it's hard, then I'm paying attention, period, and that's an essential component of spiritual life.

And just so with writing. Whether I'm writing poetry, or blog posts, or essays, there's work involved in choosing the right words and putting them in the right order -- reading them aloud, winnowing a word here and a phrase there, reading them aloud again -- paying attention to white space, scrapping the boring words and replacing them with words which (ideally) sing. That's the craft of writing. Sometimes it feels like flying, but more often it feels like building a stone wall, testing it for soundness, taking it apart, building it again. (Which is why Stone Work, by John Jerome, manages to be simultaneously about building a stone wall and about the writing life. I miss you, John.)

As Thomas Lux wrote in his poem "An Horatian Notion" (one of the few poems I've ever memorized):

...Inspiration, the donnée

the gift, the bolt of fire
down the arm that makes the art?
Give me, please, a break!
You make the thing because you love the thing
and you love the thing because someone else loved it
enough to make you love it.

(I wrote a kind of d'var Torah on that poem a while back -- What are we here for?) Poetry doesn't come from a bolt of fire. Sustained spiritual practice doesn't either. Though sometimes peak spiritual experiences can involve a kind of ecstatic blaze, the way to cultivate that flame is to tend it carefully, day in and day out, even when you don't feel like keeping the fire burning. The way to cultivate poetry is to keep writing and revising it. And as for parenting -- I don't think one gets a choice, having become a parent, about whether or not to keep doing it on a daily basis! These are long-haul journeys. We enter into them trusting that there will be blessings to balance the labor.

There's something beautiful, to me, in the idea that these lifelong practices take work, and that they're supposed to take work. It's okay if writing is hard -- if spiritual life is hard -- if parenting is hard. "The labor isn't a sign of defeat. / It's a sign of engagement." It's how we know we're actually in the world, doing work that matters.


Privilege, prayer, parenthood

Mudra_000There's a teaching from the Maggid of Mezritch about morning prayer. I love this teaching -- and I also struggle with it. Here it is:

Take special care to guard your tongue
   before the morning prayer.
Even greeting your fellow, we are told,
    can be harmful at that hour.
A person who wakes up in the morning is
    like a new creation.
Begin your day with unkind words
    or even trivial matters --
    even though you may later turn to prayer,
    you have not been true to your creation.
All of your words each day
    are related to one another.
All of them are rooted
    in the first words that you speak.

(That's as cited in Your Word is Fire: The Hasidic Masters on Contemplative Prayer.)

It's a beautiful teaching. I love the idea of taking special care to guard what comes out of my mouth, especially first thing in the morning. I love the idea that when one wakes up in the morning one is like a new creation. I love the idea that all of the words I will speak in a day are rooted, somehow, in the first words I uttered upon waking. What a beautiful idea, to keep silence until it's time for morning prayer, and to begin the day with praise and song. I've done that on retreat, and it's a joy.

Here's the thing, though: most of us don't live on retreat. Most of us don't have the luxury of beginning the day in perfect silence and contemplation, gliding into a joyful morning service, and only then engaging in trivial or ordinary speech. Most of the people I know wake up to someone's needs: the needs of children, the needs of parents, the needs of a sick or disabled partner, the needs of animals. Who has the luxury of avoiding "trivial matters" until after morning prayer? Certainly not me.

I think it's possible that the holy Maggid, may his memory be a blessing, was speaking out of a kind of privilege. Something tells me he wasn't waking up to care for a child who chatters and expects answers -- presumably that was his wife's job.

Continue reading "Privilege, prayer, parenthood" »


Back at Pearlstone

The last time I was at Pearlstone, I was still a rabbinic student, and I was here for two weeks of ALEPH rabbinic program intensive study. It was my first rabbinic school residency as a mom, and our son was less than a year old -- which meant that first Ethan (for a few days before he went to TED Global and gave the TED talk which led to Rewire), and then my mother, stayed with me and took care of the baby while I was in class.

Then Now

Then, and now. What a difference 3.5 years makes.

I had some extraordinary experiences here. It was here that I wrote the mother psalm which begins "Don't chew on your mama's tefillin," which to this day is one of my favorite poems in Waiting to Unfold! And it was here that I first got the chance to introduce my mom to my rabbinic school community and vice versa -- a nice prelude to my entire mishpacha attending my rabbinic smicha the following winter.

Last time I came to Pearlstone, we drove down, encumbered by all of the gear required for a two-week trip with a baby: pack-n-play, quilts, stuffed animals, you name it. (And then had to purchase one item we hadn't thought of -- with no bathtub in the room, we resorted to giving baths in an inflatable rubber duckie which Ethan found at a local store.) Last time, I had to ensure that our preferred brand of baby food had the right hechsher to enter the dining hall. 

This morning I watched cartoons and played board games with our son, ate a delicious breakfast cooked by my spouse, and then traveled solo to Albany, on my flight, and through the Baltimore airport where I met up with three other Rabbis Without Borders. Together we drove to Pearlstone. And in about half an hour, this year's RWB Alumni Retreat will begin.

I'm looking really forward to a few days of learning, (re)connecting, strengthening friendships, and being lovingly challenged to think outside of my usual boxes. It feels a little bit strange to be here without the loved ones who surrounded me last time I was here. But I'm really excited to see members of my RWB fellows cohort, and to meet rabbis from the previous cohorts who I have until now only known online. I'm really grateful to be part of this hevre (community of friends.)


New essay about motherhood and spiritual life in the Huffington Post

HeadlineEveryone says that motherhood changes you. That you see things differently once you become a mom. You relate to your own parents differently. You understand things differently. That made sense to me; I expected motherhood to change my outlook. But I didn't expect it to change my brain chemistry -- or my sense of God.

That's the beginning of a new essay (interwoven with bits of poetry from Waiting to Unfold) which appeared this week in the Huffington Post. (It wound up in the Religion section; I wasn't sure whether it belonged in Religion or in Parents! Story of my current life, really.)

Here's another glimpse, from later in the piece:

Elizabeth Stone famously wrote that "Making the decision to have a child... is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body." Not only because I wish I could protect my own child from sorrow and pain, but because I wish I could protect everyone's children. And I can't.

For a congregational rabbi, this sharp and impossible yearning seems at first blush not necessarily helpful. This doesn't help me hold it together when I'm preparing for a funeral -- or when I'm getting ready for Hebrew school. But in my first year of rabbinic school, when I learned hospital chaplaincy for nine months, one of my older colleagues told me that becoming a parent someday would be the greatest theological education I would ever know. I think this yearning is part of what he was talking about...

I hope you'll click through the read the whole thing: How Motherhood Gives Me A Glimpse of the Tender Heart of God.


New essay in Zeek: on Tu BiShvat, parenthood, climate change

It’s fun to teach a 4-year-old about Tu B’Shvat. We’ll probably sing happy birthday to the trees in the backyard, and bless and eat a variety of tree fruits and nuts at a kiddie Tu B’Shvat seder at the synagogue. Maybe we’ll try to connect trees with taking care of the earth, the way Kai-Lan cleans up garbage in the back yard for the sake of the snails.

For adults, Tu B’Shvat offers opportunities for more meaningful reflection.

Tu B’Shvat reminds us to go outside and encounter the natural world where we are. Here in the Diaspora, Tu B’Shvat posters and food traditions remind us of the foodways of our Mediterranean ancestors, including Israel’s blooming almond trees. Where I live, Tu B’Shvat usually means bare trees rising out of snow.

Usually Tu B’Shvat falls during sugaring season in western Massachusetts. The maple sap rises when the days are above freezing and the nights are still cold. All around my region, plastic tubing sprouts like new growth, funneling sap drop by drop into collection buckets and tanks for boiling.

Well: that’s what usually happens. I don’t know how this year’s fifty-degree temperature fluctuations and arctic blasts will impact the syrup harvest. Does that kind of oscillation confuse the maple trees? How about the fifty-below-zero temperatures they’ve been registering in the heartland: how does that impact the food we grow?

That's a taste of Tu BiShvat Reflections on Parenthood, Extreme Weather, & the Human Family Tree, my latest essay for Zeek magazine. I hope you'll click through to read the whole thing.


Comfort

I'm reading in bed when I hear a cry from your room. I put down my book, tilt my head, and hold perfectly still -- as though any of those would help me hear. When the cry comes again, I head toward it. "Hey, hey, honey, I'm here, what's the matter?"

You are sitting up in your bed, face tear-streaked, worried that it's too late at night and we've missed our chance to do something you really want to do tomorrow. I reassure you that it's okay, we haven't missed anything, it's time to sleep now, we'll do that thing after we wake up. "After this day," you confirm. "Then it will be Wednesday?" I tell you you've got it exactly right, and with a sigh you burrow into my shoulder.

We rock a while in the gliding rocker. You are heavy and warm against my chest and across my lap. I can feel your breathing.

We don't do this very often anymore. My arms don't fit snugly around you the way they used to. You're folded over me like a blanket. To think that you were once the newborn with whom I rocked so many endless hours -- it seems almost impossible, except that I've seen your transformation from then to now.

I am grateful that rocking in my arms still brings you comfort.

I know that someday you will have worries I can't solve with a kiss and a cuddle.

Or -- I hope that you will have those worries. Does that sound strange? What I mean is, I hope and pray that I will have the gift and privilege of supporting you as you navigate growing up, even though growing up will mean that you'll have problems I can't fix. I know there's no guarantee that anyone gets as much time as they dream of. I can't hold you, kiss you, stroke your hair this week without remembering that I have friends who are right now grieving the loss of a child only a few years older than you.

I wish I could bottle up the comfort you find now in my arms, and save it to give to you later in life when a hug from Mom won't have this same magic. I wish I could bottle up the comfort you find in my arms and share it with everyone who needs comfort tonight, including -- especially -- my friends who mourn.

I ask if you're ready for bed, and you nod. "Will you carry me?" I promise you that nothing would make me happier. You're giggling as I deposit you on your bed and tuck your Thomas blanket around your shoulders.

I am so glad to be able to carry you. I will always be carrying you.


Susan Katz Miller's Being Both

BeingbothI've just finished Susan Katz Miller's Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. This is a book which pushed some of my buttons, nudged against some of my boundaries, and left me with a lot to ponder. Miller writes:

"[T]he majority of American children with Jewish heritage now have Christian heritage as well. In other words, children are now more likely to be born into interfaith families than into families with two Jewish parents. And Jewish institutions are just beginning to grapple with that fact. // Some Jewish leaders still call intermarriage the 'silent Holocaust.'... [But] many now call for greater acceptance of Jewish intermarriage in the face of this demographic reality."

Given the flurry of communal response to the recent Pew study A Portrait of Jewish Americans (my response, in brief, is Opportunity Knocks in Pew Results; I also recommend Rabbi Art Green's From Pew Will Come Forth Torah) this book could hardly be more timely.

It's no surprise that an increasing number of Jewish children have dual-heritage backgrounds. What is surprising in this book is right upfront in the title: this book articulates the perspective that all paths open to interfaith families are legitimate ones, including rearing children "as both." Here's Miller again:

"Some of us are audacious enough to believe that raising children with both religions is actually good for the Jews (and good for the Christians[.]) ...The children in these pages have grown up to be Christians who are uncommonly knowledgeable about and comfortable with Jews, or Jews who are adept at working with and understanding Christians. Or they continue to claim both religions and serve as bridges between the two. I see all of those possible outcomes as positive."

Conventional wisdom in the American Jewish community has long been that rearing children as "both" will inevitably lead to confused or rootless children, and to assimilation and to the disappearance of the Jewish people as a whole. My anecdotal sense is that American Christian responses to intermarriage have been different from Jewish ones, though there are asymmetries which shape those different responses.

Christianity has roots in Judaism, so it's fairly easy for Christians to consider Jews as spiritual "family." For Jews, relationships with Christianity are often fraught. I joke that the Christian scriptures are the "unauthorized sequel" to our holy text, which usually gets a laugh from Jewish audiences, though there's truth to the quip; there are times when Christian reinterpretation of Jewish text and practice can feel like cultural appropriation. It's also easier for a majority culture to welcome minority outsiders than for a minority culture to welcome members of the powerful majority. For those of us in minority religious traditions, there's historically been an instinct to stay insular -- for reasons I wholly understand, although I don't always like the results.

What this means in practice is often that the Christian side of the family, or the Christian community writ large, is welcoming of an intermarried couple; the Jewish side of the family, or the Jewish community writ large, can be less so. (Though that's changing, which I applaud. For instance, the congregation which I serve openly seeks to welcome interfaith families.) Regardless, when children are born to an interfaith couple there tends to be an insistence that they choose one tradition in which to rear those kids. This book offers a different perspective. Miller writes:

The vast majority of books on intermarriage have focused on the challenges of interfaith life. While I am well aware of these challenges, in this book I set out to tell a different side of the story: how celebrating two religions can enrich and strengthen families, and how dual-faith education can benefit children.... I think being both may contribute to what the mystical Jewish tradition of Kabbalah calls tikkun olam -- healing the world.

Being both might contribute to tikkun olam: now there's a chutzpahdik assertion.

Continue reading "Susan Katz Miller's Being Both" »