The kitten on my lap
is as comforting
as Shechina's embrace.
When I bend my head
to seek forgiveness
he kisses my third eye
with raspy tongue.
He takes delight
in my tzitzit.
When I sing, he purrs
God's quietest rumble:
endless, like the waves.
The kitten on my lap
is as comforting
as Shechina's embrace.
When I bend my head
to seek forgiveness
he kisses my third eye
with raspy tongue.
He takes delight
in my tzitzit.
When I sing, he purrs
God's quietest rumble:
endless, like the waves.
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.
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
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!
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
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.
"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.
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.)
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!
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.
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.
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.
Step one: we attuned ourselves to light.
I don't mean the sun, but what came first.
(Heavenly bodies were day four.) The fire
of the burning bush, the glowing cloud
that hovered over the mishkan, the presence
of creation's supernal flame made us lift
our eyes. When the pillar would lift
we set off; when it settled, we'd light
our cookfires. Back then we had presence
of mind to check the celestial forecast first.
Didn't let our desires to move cloud
our judgment. We were on fire
for the One Whose presence gleams. Afire,
we reached step two: learning how to lift
our hearts even when the cloud
didn't move. We can travel light
even if we're not going anywhere. First
we learn how to live with holy presence.
Step three: open to what wholly presents
itself. Strike the iron while the fire
is hot, but paint our doorposts first.
When we left Egypt we knew how to lift
our hearts to the One, how to light
the tinder of prayerful spirit into clouds
of incense. But God was not in the cloud:
only hinted-at in the wordless presence
that filled the tabernacle with light.
"More than God wants the straw fire
God wants the well-cooked heart," so lift
yourself to the altar. Sometimes the first
thing to do is burn. Sometimes first
we bank our internal fires, offer up the cloud
of self that rises. When the lift
comes, when our hearts become our presents --
that's the time to add fuel to the fire.
The One Who rolls back darkness before light
first tunes our internal radio to the presence.
Then we notice when we get cloud, and when fire.
Let our spirits lift, and become light.
I don't mean the sun, but what came first. At the beginning of Bereshit (Genesis) God creates light, but sun and moon and stars don't materialize for another few days. From this our tradition intuits that the light of creation was something other than literal light, and there are many beautiful teachings about the supernal light of creation hidden away for the righteous.
The fire of the burning bush. See Exodus 3. One of my favorite teachings about Shabbat candles holds that when we kindle lights on Shabbat, we are to see in them the supernal light of creation and the light of the bush that burned but was not consumed.
The glowing cloud that hovered over the mishkan... when the pillar would lift. See this week's Torah portion, B'ha'alot'kha, in which a cloud hovered over the mishkan (the tabernacle / dwelling-place-for-God's-presence). When the cloud lifted, we went on our journeys, and when it rested, we stayed put. (For a beautiful d'var Torah on that theme, see Rabbi David's The Reason for Patience.)
Strike the iron while the fire / is hot, but paint our doorposts first. The Exodus story is a paradigmatic narrative of leaping when the opportunity presents itself... but before so doing, the children of Israel painted blood on the doorposts of their houses, an act we now echo in placing a mezuzah on the doorposts of ours. Doors are liminal spaces -- life is full of liminal spaces -- and it's up to us to make them holy.
But God was not in the cloud. See I Kings 19:11-12. God was not in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in the still small voice.
More than God wants the straw fire / God wants the well-cooked heart. A teaching from the Kotzker Rebbe.
The One Who rolls back darkness before light. See maa'ariv aravim, our prayer for evening -- here it is in several variations.
Tunes our internal radio to the presence. This metaphor comes from Reb Zalman z"l, who used to speak about how God broadcasts on all channels and we receive revelation where we are attuned.
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
ואהבת לרעך כמוך: אני הוי׳׳ה
Love your other as yourself: I am God. - Lev. 19:18
Because I am God
to give sweetness
my cup spills over
every time you need
Because I carry
Because you carry my heart
you ache too
in the yearning
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.
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.)
I'm delighted to be able to announce this happy news: Ben Yehuda Press will be publishing my next collection of poems, Texts to the Holy!
Many of the poems from Texts to the Holy have appeared on this blog over the last few years. It is my collection of love poems to the Beloved, and I am so excited that it will see print.
Ben Yehuda published my most recent collection, Open My Lips, in 2016. You can find all of their poetry collections on their website -- celebrate World Poetry Day by supporting independent poetry publishing!
(And while you're at it, please support Phoenicia Publishing, too -- they published my first two collections, and they've published some amazing work since.)
I'm honored to be today's featured poet at The Rise Up Review. The poem of mine that they're featuring today is the first poem I wrote during 2017:
I'm grateful to the editors for choosing to highlight my work, and for their holy work of midwifing more poetry into the world.