Blessed

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

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

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

Rise up
    like a hummingbird
        in prayerful vibration.

There is nectar
    to sustain you
        in all your journeying.

 


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

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

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

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


Fruits: a poem for Shavuot

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


Pantoum for the Seventh Day

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

 


Omer poems

Towardsinai-smallIn 2015 I wrote poems for each day of the Omer -- the 49-day journey between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation. In 2016 those poems were collected and published (sometimes in revised form) in the collection Toward Sinai: Omer Poems.

Here are my 49 Omer poems collected in one place, for ease of navigation. Feel free to bookmark this page and return to it during each day of the Omer (and/or to pick up a copy of the collection and use the book as part of your Omer counting practice -- it's available for $12 on Amazon.)

May the Counting of the Omer be a blessing for you, and may it help you open your heart to revelation!


Untie

Source of Mercy, untie my tangled places.
I'm a fine gold chain so knotted and snarled

I've forgotten how it feels to fall straight,
to let Your abundance cascade through.

Protector of Israel, when someone wounds
my beloveds I turn into an angry lioness.

Forgive me: I don't want to outgrow
this furious yearning to protect those I love.

Eternal Friend, help me relinquish my grudges,
especially those I hold against myself.

You know every hope and every ache.
All I want to want is You, and if I have You

I have all I need. Through time and space
Your glory shines, Majestic One.

 


 

This is a prayer-poem I began writing a couple of years ago to which I returned this morning. It began as a re-visioning and mashup of two pre-existing prayers: Ana B'Choach, which some recite on Friday nights, and the bedtime prayer of forgiveness which appears in the nightly shema liturgy.

My poem borrows some phrases from Reb Zalman z"l's translations of both of those prayers. It also grapples with the piece of the bedtime forgiveness prayer that challenges me most: the articulation of forgiveness not for those who have harmed me, but for those who have harmed those whom I love. 

There are four names of God, or epithets for God, in this prayer-poem. Three of them are names that Reb Zalman z"l used often, and the fourth appears in traditional daily liturgy. The fact that there are four names of God was a conscious choice made in revision; I like how it evokes the four worlds

Shabbat shalom to all!

 


Seven poems for ma'ariv

29507891500_b16a1ea0df_zMany years ago, my friend Teju Cole put together a collection of contemporary poems with the intention of praying them daily as though they were liturgy. I remember printing them out and putting them on my desk in my study, and I remember praying them sometimes.

Alas, I no longer remember which poems he chose, though the fact that he had assembled a liturgy out of contemporary poetry was on my mind when I put together a morning service during National Poetry Month that interwove the Shabbat morning liturgy with the work of a variety of contemporary poets. (That liturgy featured Gerard Manley Hopkins, Norman Fischer, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Adrienne Rich, William Stafford, Marge Piercy, Jane Kenyon -- some of the poets to whom I most often turn when I'm in need of spiritual sustenance.)

I had both of those sheaves of poems in mind -- Teju's, and my own -- when I assembled a collection of my own poems for use in daily prayer. I've written several poems that intentionally riff off of the words, images, and themes of daily Jewish liturgy. One day it occurred to me to see whether I could pull together a handout that follows the matbeah tefilah (structure of prayer -- e.g. the roadmap of themes and ideas that we touch upon in daily Jewish prayer) using my own poems for each of the stops along that daily journey.

What I came up with was this: Seven poems for ma'ariv. [pdf] Ma'ariv is the name we give to evening prayer in Jewish tradition, and these seven poems are intended to follow the themes of our evening prayers.

Why seven? Seven is a symbolic number in Judaism: the seven days of the week, seven colors of the rainbow, the seven "lower" sefirot that we inhabit as we count the Omer, seven wedding blessings (and seven times wedding partners circle one another), seven stops on the way to the grave... to name a few.  

These seven poems are also intended to map to seven specific prayers: 1) the ma'ariv aravim prayer that blesses God Who brings on the evening; 2) the ahavat olam prayer that blesses God Who loves us and expresses that love through Torah; 3) the shema; 4) the ge'ulah blessing for redemption that evokes coming through the Sea; 5) the hashkivenu blessing for God Who spreads a shelter of peace over us as we sleep; 6) the amidah / prayer in which we stand before God and speak the words of our hearts; and 7) the aleinu prayer that closes our evening davenen. 

I pray these poems sometimes as my abbreviated evening service. If you use them, I'm curious to know what works for you and what doesn't. (And if you've ever assembled a series of poems or readings intended to follow the flow of liturgical prayer in this way, I'd love to see it!)

 

A note on God-language:

Please note that that document contains the name יהו''ה, one of my tradition's holiest names for the One; if you print those pages, please treat them with the respect you would give a prayerbook.

I chose to include that Name, and not to translate or transliterate it, for a reason. That Name can be understood as a permutation of the verb "to be." Its untranslatability points us beyond all words. Our Creator is beyond language; our words can only approach the Infinite.

When I see the letters יהו׳׳ה, sometimes I render them aloud as Adonai ("My Lord"), sometimes as Shechinah (the immanent, indwelling Divine Feminine), sometimes as Havayah (the One Who Accompanies) -- and sometimes in still other ways. The unpronounceable / untranslatable Name reminds me that all of our names are only substitutes, and that our Source is beyond any words we can speak.


Texts to the Holy: now available for pre-order!

TextsThis is a happy week for publishing news around these parts!

A few days ago I shared with y'all about Beside Still Waters, a volume for mourners to be released this spring by Ben Yehuda Press and Bayit: Your Jewish Home (now available for pre-order). Today I'm writing with more delightful Ben Yehuda news!

My next collection of poems -- Texts to the Holy, a collection of love poems to the (divine) Beloved, or to a lower-case-b human beloved, as you prefer -- is coming out soon from Ben Yehuda Press, and is now available for pre-order at an advance price of $9.95. 

I'm starting to schedule readings for this spring. The book will officially premiere at a reading at the Tarrytown JCC (in Tarrytown, NY) at 1:30pm on March 18, where I will appear alongside two other Ben Yehuda poets, Maxine Silverman (author of Shiva Moon) and Jay Michaelson (the pseudonymous author of Is).

Stay tuned for information on other readings (and if you'd like to explore bringing me to your community for some combination of scholar-in-residence event and poetry reading, let me know!)

Meanwhile, here's some advance praise for the collection: 

From Merle Feld, author of A Spiritual Life and Finding Words:

These poems are remarkable, radiating a love of God that is full bodied, innocent, raw, pulsating, hot, drunk.  I can hardly fathom their faith but am grateful for the vistas they open.  I will sit with them, and invite you to do the same.

From Netanel Miles-Yépez, translator of My Love Stands Behind a Wall: A Translation of the Song of Songs and Other Poems, and co-author (with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) of A Heart Afire: Stories and Teachings of the Early Hasidic Masters.

Rachel Barenblat’s Texts to the Holy bridges the human and Holy, so that we realize the bridge is really just an illusion to get us to realize that the human is itself Holy—“Bless the One Who separates / and bridges. Even at a distance / we aren’t really apart.” And yet, in every honest line, she also comforts us in the uncomfortable knowledge that realization does not exactly bridge the unavoidable separation from That to which we are so close, and that sometimes, “yearning is as close as you get to whole.” The Ba’al Shem Tov or the Aish Kodesh couldn’t have said it better.

(You can see other kind things people have said about the book on my website.)

This collection has a special place in my heart, and I think it's the best work I've put into the world. I hope you'll agree. Pick up a copy now!


A woman of valor

A woman of valor! Worth more than
business class tickets to anywhere.
Every day I pack my son's lunch,
tuck his homework into his backpack.

I pay the mortgage. I ensure
my car is legal and fit to drive.
I fold and put away laundry.
I text beloveds who are far away.

I serve, I write, I create.
I teach and accompany and plan.
Every Friday night I light
twin fires of creation and Sinai,

chant sanctity into my wineglass.
When the co-op runs out of challah
I uplift a sandwich roll.
I make holiness from what I have.

Even on days when depression
whispers cruelty in my ear
I cup my hands around gratitude's spark
and I tell my child he matters.

And at the end of the week
I sing myself this song. I promise
I'm enough (but not too much)
and I am beautiful in God's eyes.



There's a tradition of reading Eshet Chayil ("A Woman of Valor") on Friday nights -- traditionally, a man reads or sings it to his wife. (There's a translation online here. I also love In loco eshes chayil by poet Danny Siegel.)

I was working recently on a poem that became a lament for the fact that there is no one to sing those words to me. 

Then I thought, if there were a variant I could speak to myself, as a single woman and a working parent, what would it say? That's what sparked this poem.


Sparks

Notice autumn's attenuation of light,
how early night brings stars.
Back to the beginning.

Dark came first. Then God ached
for an other, for face
meeting face, the birth

of I and Thou. Shaped us from earth
and breathed a soul, tender --
creation's first kiss.

Skin touches skin: we seek
sparks scattered across synapses
and lift them up, new constellations

spelling the unsayable name
as fallen leaves melt into sweetness
to nourish the wish of spring.

 


Prayer after the shooting

Prayer-after

I loved and grieved from the day you claimed your free will,
Knowing that you too would open into infinite love and grief,

Knowing how your hearts would bloom with gratitude and hope
With every child’s every first, and lament every child’s every last,

As I do and always will with My children’s every first and every last
In the raw and wild cosmic dance we began together in the garden.

What else could I do? You must become what you must become,
Like Me infinitely becoming, infinitely capable of love and grief,

So I clothed your shimmering lights in skins and hid in plain sight
For you to seek and find Me amidst life’s sweetness and sorrow.

How fast your lights flickered underneath: your second son’s blood
Cried out to Me from the ground, too soon returning earth to earth.

The guilty wandered the land howling, pining for peace and safety
Denied by the very violence that condemned the guilty to wander,

Setting in motion also the vicious whirlwind spinning through
Columbine, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas. Where next?

I did not mean for you to live like this or die like this – in fear and terror,
In trauma’s torrents, in shrapnel showers turning streets into killing fields.

You still can choose life: the free will your ancestors claimed for you
Remains yours even now, and still I gasp with loving pride and worry

With your every first and every last, grieving the countless innocents
Returning to Me in My own image too soon, bloodied and bagged.

But still you choose death. Aimlessly you wander the land howling,
Pining for peace and safety that senseless violence steals from you.

Choose to be My love, My strength, My intuition, My prophets, My beauty,
My healing hands – My living essence in this bloody and weary world.

Only then will this cruelest of your roulette wheels stop spinning red.
Oh, how I long with you for that day when you truly will choose life.

 

Claimed your own free will – Eve’s “defiance” in Eden claimed human agency for all her successors (Genesis 3:6-7).

Knowing … bloom – An allusion to the Tree of Knowledge and humanity’s “opening” into the knowledge of love and loss.

You must become – God describes God’s self to Moses as אהיה אשר אהיה / Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming” (Exodus 3:14). We who are made in the divine image are also called to perennially become.

Clothed your shimmering light in skins - Because the Hebrew words for “skin” (עור) and “light” (אור) both are pronounced or, Zohar teaches that Eden’s first humans were beings of light, before God made us garments of skins. Even so, our skins cover our light, which we still can see if we look carefully.

Your second son’s blood… returning earth to earth. Humanity’s first murder – Cain killing Abel (Genesis 4) – spilled Abel’s blood (דם / dam) to the earth (אדמה / adamah).

Wander - Cain, after murdering his brother, was condemned to wander the land without peace (Genesis 4:14).

Setting in motion also - From Cain comes not only the first murder but also the rhetorical question – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:8) – that continues to reverberate through the generations, and also the first “Why?” (Genesis 4:6), which teaches all future generations the possibility of teshuvah / return and repair (Radak Gen. 4:6).

Whirlwind – An allusion to the סערה (storm) from which God answered Job (Job 38:1). The storm’s circular shape resembles both a roulette wheel and a gun’s rotating cylinder that conveys bullets.

Choose life - “Choose life, if you and your progeny would live’ (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Aimlessly - The indiscriminate shooter, the nation’s inertia.

My love, My strength… – Seven emanations of the divine, corresponding to the seven lower sefirot of Kabbalistic tradition: chesed (love), gevurah (strength / boundaries), tiferet (balance), netzach (endurance / momentum), hod (beauty / gratitude), yesod (foundation / generativity), malchut (indwelling).

Roulette wheels stop spinning red – For the gaming tables of Las Vegas and the ultimate gamble: walking the streets safe and unafraid.

14 stanzas – 14 for יד, the yad (hand) of God: we now are the hand that must act.

332 words - 332 for לבש, lavash (clothed) in divine skins that cover our light.

 

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Evan Markus

(cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi and to R' David's website; feel free to reprint, with attribution.)


Benediction on making the culinary combination

For food dipped
    in honey, say
        "your love leaves

my fingers fragrant."
    Don't rush to wash.
        Let sweetness linger.

For savory dishes
    with stone fruits
        say "may the year

balance my sweet
    with your salt."
        Let your mouth water.

For nubbled citrus
    steeped in vodka,
        recite the verse

"as a deer thirsts."
    Close your eyes.
        Savor every drop.

 


 

I ran across a machzor (high holiday prayerbook) from 1931 recently. The first thing in the table of contents is "Benediction on making the culinary combination." The thing itself is pretty prosaic -- it's just a prayer for the practice of eruv tavshilin. (Click on the link to learn more about that.) But it sparked my poetic imagination. 

[A]s a deer thirsts. See Psalm 42, verse 2

[N]ubbled citrus / steeped in vodka. See Etrogcello.

 

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate!


Yahrzeit

36220207754_df4ff286eb_z

When should I light a mourner's candle
in remembrance of my marriage:
the date he proposed, or the date
we were wed, or the date we agreed
we were through? I choose the date

when we sat before witnesses
and poured wine from the silver goblet
into separate cups, the date when we wrote
"I release you," when we took scissors
and cut deep, severing.

My year of mourning is ending, but
what will be different tomorrow? The world
continues, ordinary and real:
call the electrician, don't forget milk,
watch another hurricane slam the coast.

And relationships persist. I carry
eighteen years of marriage in my bones.
How I shaped myself to his contours.
How we failed each other.
The candle flickers in its glass.

We pinched the flame of the marriage.
What burns now is memory: this first year
unpartnered, unwitnessed, unaccompanied
transformed into a thin, wavering light.
The candle goes out. I still shine.

 

 

Related: A ritual for ending a marriage, 2016

 


Elul Poem 5777 / New Year's Card 5778

New Years Photos 5778God says: face facts. The old year
is ending. You’ve outgrown it.

The flowerpot that used to be home
isn’t big enough anymore. Once

it was spacious. Now your roots
push uncomfortably against the walls.

It's time to stop contorting yourself
to fit inside a story that's too small

for who you can become. God whacks
the bottom of your pot, sends you flying.

Once you're pried from the old year
your roots will ache, shocked

by open air. You'll wonder whether
you could have stopped growing.

But one morning you'll wake, realize
you've stretched in ways you never knew

you hadn't done before. The sun
will feel like a benediction, like

grace. You can't help turning
and re-turning toward the light,

toward becoming. And wait 'til you see
what dazzling flowers you'll discover

springing from your fingertips:
your life renewed, beginning again.

 

 

שנה טובה תכתבו ותחתמו 

May you be written & sealed for a good year to come!


For those who are so inclined: here are my annual Elul / High Holiday card poems from 2003 until now.


#NOTALLWOMEN

"Not all women, trees, or ovens are identical." -- Mishna Pesachim 3:4, in the name of R' Akiva

 

Some women like winter. Some incubate babies
and some have no uterus. Some wear eyeliner.

Some are happiest in Israeli sandals
flaunting our pedicured toes.

Some are stronger than the steel cables
that hold up a suspension bridge.

Some of us are notorious.
Some of us write love poems.

Some of us have roots that go deep
into the earth and will not be shaken.

Some give our fruit and branches
and trunk until we are nothing but stumps.

Some grow thorns to protect ourselves
even if we're vilified for it.

Some women are more like trees
than like ovens: constantly changing.

Some women are nourishing and warm.
Some women burn with holy fire.

Some of us are irreducible, incomparable
like the Holy One of Blessing Herself.

Some women balance justice and mercy.
Some are mirrors: we'll give kindness

as we receive, but injustice causes
our eyes to blaze the world into ash.

 


This poem arose out of a wonderful line from mishna that I encountered in Heschel's book Torah from Heaven, which I've been slowly reading on Wednesday mornings with my coffee shop hevruta group for well over a year.

Some give our fruit and branches / and trunk until we are nothing but stumps. See Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree. (Wow, is that one messed-up parable about the damage of boundary-less love.)

[I]njustice causes / our eyes to blaze the world into ash. See the Talmudic story of R' Shimon bar Yochai, who spent twelve years in a cave, and when he emerged, was so outraged by what he saw as people's poor priorities and choices that his very gaze set the world on fire.


So much (Ahavah Rabbah)

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

 


Good (Yotzer Or)

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

and every single day
in Your goodness
and with Your goodness

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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


Change

1.

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

 

2.

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

Continue reading "Change" »


Holding my hand


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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