Shabbat shalom

14305236341_27b5351f2e_zMay the Shabbat that is coming

bring comfort to all who grieve,

sweetness to all who are in need,

and balm for our wounded places.

May it bring us rest

and gentleness

and light.

May Shabbat enable us to shed

our world-weary weekday faces

and to soak in gratitude and wonder.

May we feel connected

with whose whom we love

and with our deepest selves

and with our Source.

May we emerge from Shabbat

nourished and ready

to meet the new week.

For now, may we prepare ourselves

to greet the Shabbat bride

with joy.

 


Sweetness from an extraordinary Shabbaton

Vayakheil-Pkudei-768x1024Many people, upon turning sixty, might choose to celebrate by throwing a party... or taking a trip somewhere... or perhaps trying to pretend the milestone birthday away. Not my friend and Bayit co-founder Rabbi Evan Krame.

What he wanted for his sixtieth birthday was to learn with Rabbi Art Green, one of the Jewish world's shining lights -- and to share that learning with the community he co-founded (The Jewish Studio) and with friends, ranging from elementary school buddies with whom he's still in touch, to more recent rabbinical school friends like me.

So he planned a Shabbaton with Reb Art as the scholar-in-residence. He invited Shir Yaakov to come and share his music. And a group of his (and my) friends and colleagues stepped forward to lead prayer and offer our spiritual, musical, and liturgical gifts.

We spent Shabbes at Rockwood Manor, a house near the Potomac where I saw what were for me the year's first signs of spring -- daffodil shoots poking from the ground, flowering trees just beginning to bloom. 

Reb Art taught several times throughout the weekend. He taught texts from two Hasidic masters (the Sfat Emet and the Me'or Eynayim) about the mishkan (the dwelling-place for God's presence, sometimes translated as "tabernacle") and about the inner light that enlivens Torah. R' Evan interviewed him on Saturday after lunch, and we all got to bask in the learning from that conversation about God and journey and spiritual life.

A rotating group of about a dozen rabbis and musicians co-led prayer four times over the course of our 24 hours together. (I was among them -- I got to share my "Listen Up, Y'all" on Friday night, and to lead part of the service on Shabbat morning.) This group had never led prayer together before in this configuration. I don't know how the davenen felt to the kahal (the community), but for me as one of the leaders it felt both seamless and real. Seamless as though we had been sharing leadership for years, and real because we weren't "performing," we were honest-to-God praying. (Which is as it should be!)

I think the reason it flowed so smoothly was that we were leading lich'vod (in honor of, or for the reason of,) Shabbat, and God, and the friend-and-colleague who had brought us together. None of us was leading in order to shine as an individual gem. We were leading together in order to create something more than the sum of our parts. (As I write these words it occurs to me that that's not unlike the mishkan, the tabernacle, described in the Torah portions we've been reading -- for which each person brought their own gifts as a free will offering.) That was deeply nourishing for me. 

Our Saturday morning davenen was inspired by the last verse in the book of Exodus. When we were in rabbinical school, our friend and colleague Hazzan Daniel Kempin wrote a musical setting for that verse, which we taught at the start of the morning. Five of us each gave over a vort, a short teaching, about that passage over the course of the morning -- each of us shining light on a different facet of what that verse could mean. R' Evan had commissioned sketchnote artist Steve Silbert to illustrate that verse, and Steve's artwork offered a visual accompaniment to our words and our prayer.

On Shabbat afternoon, during the time between one learning session and another, some folks did yoga, while others went for a walk, while others chatted in the sunshine. (I sat in the gazebo with a handful of friends and studied some gemara with another of my Bayit co-founders,  Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, which was delicious.) Reb Art taught one final time, about the red heifer and connecting with the supernal light of Torah. As the day grew dark and Shabbat prepared to depart, we harvested blessings from our time together that we will carry forward into our weekday lives. And then we made havdalah, singing our way into the new week.

I'm grateful to R' Evan for choosing to celebrate his birthday in such an extraordinarily generous way: sharing food and prayer and song and learning with so many (including me!) It was a beautiful weekend, and one I know I will carry with me for a long time. 

 

Image: the Torah sketchnote commissioned from Steve Silbert.


Choose life: what Ki Tisa teaches us about Shabbat


32195101210_e641d2e4fa_zThe Israelite people shall keep Shabbat, observing Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed [or: was ensouled].

That's in this week's Torah portion, Ki Tisa. Many of us know these words because they have become a part of our Shabbat liturgy, as the prayer we call by its first word, V'shamru. We sing these words on Friday nights and on Saturday mornings before kiddush.

Immediately before these familiar verses, there is another instruction to keep Shabbat as a sign between us and God. But this one contains some more challenging language:

You shall keep Shabbat, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin. Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a shabbat of complete rest, holy to God; whoever does work on Shabbat shall be put to death.

Oof.

The medieval commentator Rashi (d. 1105) clarifies that the death sentence only applies if the person does work on Shabbat in the presence of witnesses, AND if the person was warned, immediately before doing the work, what the penalty would be. This is a pretty common rabbinic move: taking something in Torah that startles us with its harshness, and adding qualifying stipulations that make it much harder for the harsh law to be applied.

The Sforno (d. 1550) is less apologetic about the starkness of this command. He writes that anyone who deliberately desecrates Shabbat thereby denies God Who created all things including rest. Someone who performs secular tasks on Shabbat has clearly lost consciousness of what Shabbat means, and therefore deserves execution. You make your choices, you live with the consequences.

I agree with the Sforno that our choices have consequences, but I read these verses a little bit differently. I see them not as prescriptive, but descriptive.

Another way to translate "מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת," usually rendered as "will be put to death," is "he will surely die." This passage comes to teach us that one who doesn't honor Shabbat, who doesn't honor the holiness of resting from workday acts and workday consciousness, will bring themselves closer to death. One who works constantly, and lives in a state of workday consciousness 24/7, will be deadened thereby.

Every week when Friday night and Saturday roll around, we make choices. Will we disengage from work, and from our worries, and from 24/7 cable news, and from all the things that make us feel trapped like rats in a maze? Will we set aside our burdens and welcome the presence of that extra Shabbat soul enlivening us and enabling us to take a full, deep breath? Will we affirm that connecting with our deepest selves and with our Source matters more than our to-do lists and our deadlines?

That's the choice. We can let Shabbat transform us, or we can stick with the rat race. And if we choose the endless rat race, we're going to wind up feeling dead inside.

Choose rest. Choose Shabbes. Choose life.

 

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

 


The gift of an immersive Shabbat

39754613342_8305a9af90_zWhen I started teaching my Journey Into Judaism class, I knew what experience I most wanted to give my students: an immersive Shabbat. 

The texture of time shifts over the course of the day. There's the anticipatory energy of Friday night (welcoming Shabbat into our midst like an eagerly-anticipated guest), which is different from the settling-in of Shabbat morning, which is different from a leisurely Shabbes afternoon, which is different from the aching, yearning tenor of Shabbat mincha-time, which is different from havdalah as evening falls. 

I wondered: would my students be willing to commit to spending an entire Shabbat together? We could begin with Friday night dinner around my table. Continue with Shabbat morning davenen at the synagogue. And then stay at shul for lunch, and spend the afternoon together, and close the day with havdalah. If we did it during the wintertime, havdalah would come relatively early in the day. The more I thought about it, the more excited I became. 

So I floated the idea to my students, braced for the likelihood that the idea might not go far. We'd read Heschel's The Sabbath, and Heschel writes gloriously about Shabbat as a palace in time -- but it's a far cry between reading his elegant prose, and committing to giving up 25 hours of precious weekend time for an experience no one in the room had ever actually had before. And even if they were potentially interested in the idea, what were the odds of managing to get seven household schedules to align? To my delight, every one of my students agreed that this was worth trying to do.

We met in my condo on a Friday night. I set as beautiful a Shabbes table as I know how, with the embroidered white tablecloth given to me by Russian friends many years ago, and my usual Shabbat candlesticks and kiddush cup and challah cover. I added a vase of tulips, a sign of yearned-for spring. When everyone arrived we sang Shalom Aleichem to welcome the angels of Shabbat. We blessed candles and wine, bread and the children. (To my great delight, my son asked why there were two challot -- usually we have only one, since we're a small household -- so I got to teach about the double portion of manna that fell on Shabbat!) 

The kids ate grilled cheese sandwiches, and watched favorite cartoons, and played games and with the cat. The adults ate soup and quiche, and drank wine, and talked and laughed and enjoyed one another's company. Sometimes our conversation was silly and sometimes it was serious. Over the course of dinner, conversation topics around the table ranged from funny kid stories to talk about God and spiritual practice. We ate ice cream with raspberries. We closed the meal with brich rachamana. I went upstairs to put my son to bed, and by the time I came down my dishwasher was running merrily and my kitchen was clean. 

On Shabbat morning we regrouped for morning services, along with the other folks who came to shul. We feasted on a gorgeous, leisurely potluck lunch, with spacious time for relaxing and even enjoying dessert. I taught a class on God, which began with harvesting the room's questions about God, and continued with conversation about R' Brent Spodek's beautiful sermon I (don't) believe in God, and about different names of / faces of God (which ones resonate for us, and which ones don't, and why), and learning about the four worlds and how the God we think about may be different from the God to whom we yearn to relate. 

Maggid David Arfa taught a beautiful class on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and environmentalist Rachel Carson and wonder. He brought a variety of short texts (from Rabbi Heschel, and from the tradition writ large -- I especially loved the one from R' Moshe Cordovero about how even a stone contains divinity.) And then we looked closely at a Rachel Carson article and an excerpt from Heschel's work and talked about cultivating awe as a core quality of spiritual practice, and whether awe is enough or whether it's meant to call us into action and relationship, and about what brings us closer to feelings of awe and wonder.

Two of my congregants led a session on different forms of Jewish contemplative practice. One of the practices they offered was a guided meditation that began by urging us to give ourselves the gift of this time during which we can release ourselves from the perceived obligations to "do" things, and instead simply be. Afterward we talked about how that, right there, is the essence of Shabbat. The shift from doing to being (and having that be "enough," rather than the constant striving to accomplish and produce) is what makes Shabbat radical, what makes it meaningful, what makes it a transformative spiritual practice in itself.

As the light of the afternoon waned, I led a session on eit ratzon / time of yearning, featuring niggunim and poetry and teachings about the special emotional and spiritual qualities of the end of Shabbat. I shared teachings about how God's yearning for us and for relationship with us preceded the act of creation itself -- and since creation (tradition teaches) began at sundown preceding the first day, Shabbat afternoon is the time when we and God may most deeply feel our yearning for each other. We sang. I read poems. We spoke about the things we wanted to carry with us from this special day. And then we made havdalah.

My students thanked me afterwards for the gift of a full Shabbat. I don't know whether they understand the extent to which their participation was a gift for me. I know what a whole Shabbat can feel like -- the way time liquefies and changes, the way the heart and soul soften and open -- but most of the time I don't get to live into that experience. Most of the time I don't get the luxury of a full Shabbat, a whole Shabbat that stretches mindfully from sundown to sundown. And most of the time I don't get to have the experience of immersing in a full Shabbat with others who are open to how the flow of Shabbes can open the heart.

I'm intensely grateful to my students and my congregants for their willingness to take the plunge and give themselves over to Shabbat from start to finish... and I'm delighted that people are already starting to brainstorm about how we can do it again! Unlike our other holidays, Shabbat is a transformative experience open to us every single week.  I hope this will turn out to be not the only immersive Shabbaton to take place at my shul, but rather merely the first... and that those who so generously gave themselves over to the experience will come back to do it again, and bring others along with them for the ride next time. 


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.


A very special New York City Shabbat

This coming weekend I'll be in New York city for two very different and very special Shabbat experiences.

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The first is Shabbat By the Sea with Temple Beth-El of City Island. You can read about it in the TBE newsletter. The short version is: 7pm on Friday night at the home of TBE members Ken and Steve Binder, 2 Bay Street on City Island. (If it rains, we'll meet at the shul instead.) I was blessed to be present for Shabbat by the Sea last year (here's their post about it) and it was a highlight of my summer. I can't wait to return and to dance in my Shabbes whites with TBE friends as we welcome Shabbat by the water's edge. There's nothing else like it. 

The second is a Shabbat In The Garden adventure co-sponsored by TBE of City Island and by another Jewish Renewal community called Shtiebl, which will take place starting at 9:45am on Saturday at the New York Botanical Garden (meet inside the main gate, 2900 Southern Blvd). I'll be co-leading a contemplative morning Shabbat service with my friends Rabbi Ben Newman of Shtiebl and Rabbi David Markus of TBE. (Here's the Facebook event where you can RSVP; wear walking shoes and dress for the weather.)

The first time I came to City Island I was delighted and surprised. It feels entirely unlike what I associate with the phrase "New York City" (or "The Bronx"), which just goes to show that New York is vast and contains multitudes and is perennially surprising, maybe especially to outsiders like me. (Though I get the sense even some lifelong denizens of the Five Boroughs don't know City Island either.) I've never been to the New York Botanical Gardens but I'm guessing I will find them equally beautiful. 

The coming Shabbat is a special one. It's called Shabbat Mevarchim Elul, the Shabbat immediately preceding the start of a new lunar month -- in this case, the lunar month of Elul, the month that leads directly to the Days of Awe. The name Elul can be read as an acronym for the phrase "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine" -- a quote from Song of Songs that can be understood as an expression of love between human beloveds, and as an expression of love between us and the Divine.

Join us by the water's edge and in the garden of Shabbat. (And in the garden on Shabbat!) Let intimate encounter with the Divine be the updraft that lifts you into heightened readiness to prepare for the High Holidays. Join us as we savor high summer in two of New York City's most beautiful places. Join us as we seek the Face of the Beloved through song, dance, contemplation, and just plain being. I look forward to seeing you there.


Balancing joy with sorrow: a d'var Torah for Shabbat Shachor

BlackIt's Shabbat Shachor, the "Black Shabbat" that falls right before Tisha b'Av. Today our experience of the sweetness of Shabbat is tempered by awareness of what's broken, from our own ancient stories of destruction and becoming refugees to what we see and hear on the news even now.

Monday night will bring Tisha b'Av, when we'll go deep into this brokenness -- a paradoxical beginning to the uplifting journey toward the Days of Awe. In Hasidic language, that's a descent for the sake of ascent.

But how can we now celebrate Shabbat with awareness of these sorrows?

You might ask the same question of anyone whose loved one has received a fearful diagnosis, or of any mourner, or of anyone who knows the grief of ending a marriage or losing a beloved home or enduring any kind of loss.

In Jewish tradition, we suspend formal mourning on Shabbat and festivals. But someone who is grieving is likely to still feel their grief even on days that are supposed to be joyful -- maybe especially then, because the disjunction between how they are "supposed" to feel and how their hearts naturally flow can be so profound.

Shabbat Shachor offers us an opportunity to sit with that tension between joy and grief. For many of us, that's deeply uncomfortable. It's easier to paper over the sorrow and just be happy, or to keep joy at arm's-length and just sit with sorrow. Today our tradition asks us to resist both of those easy outs, and to sit with the dissonance of a psycho-spiritual chord that's both major and minor.

If you're feeling grief, today invites you to temper your sadness with Shabbat joy. If you're feeling Shabbat joy, today invites you to temper your happiness with an awareness of life's sorrows. This can feel like a grinding of our emotional gears. The heart wants to lurch to one extreme or the other -- sorrow or joy -- not to stretch wide enough to feel them both at the same time. Resist that temptation.

On Monday night we'll be wholly in a minor key. Tisha b'Av is a day of mourning for our communal losses: the destruction of the first Temple by Babylon, which led to our becoming refugees; the destruction of the second Temple by Rome; and a long list of other losses and griefs throughout our history. That day isn't quite here, but we can feel it just around the corner. We can see it coming.

I've learned as a pastoral caregiver that every loss evokes and activates every other loss. Sitting with our historical and communal losses can heighten our sadness around personal losses: the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job or a home, the loss of a relationship, the loss of health, the loss of hope. Maybe you're feeling that way today. If not, you've likely felt that way before... and will feel that way again.

And yet amidst all of that loss, both present and anticipated, today we're still called to open our hearts to the abundance and flow of Shabbat. On Shabbes we're still invited to taste perfection. Even if our ability to rejoice is subdued by circumstance or memory, we still offer thanks today for life's many blessings. We still open ourselves to the experience of feeling accompanied and cradled by divine Presence.

It's not a matter of either / or -- either we savor the sweetness of Shabbes, or we marinate in the bitterness of grief. It's a more nuanced and complicated both / and. On Shabbat Shachor we affirm that our hearts are flexible enough to hold both. And what we affirm today as a community carves pathways in our hearts that will help us affirm this truth in our own ways, on our own time, throughout our lives.

Today is our communal Shabbat Shachor, the day when we sit with this balance between grief and joy as a community. But in every life there are individual Shabbatot that take place in this middle ground, partaking in sweetness and in loss. Today reminds us that even when we grieve, Shabbat can still bring  comfort -- and that even at our times of greatest joy, some of us will still struggle with sorrow.

Today invites us to cultivate compassion for ourselves and for each other, knowing that everyone lives in the balance, the tension, the middle ground between sorrow and joy. This is spiritual life. This is human life. May we recognize that even at times of rejoicing, we and our loved ones may be carrying grief...and may we help each other access gratitude and joy even during life's times of darkness.

 

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.


An Extra Soul - a d'varling for Kabbalat Shabbat at WCJA

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I've been thinking this week about the Torah of new beginnings. It's a new semester, a new beginning for all of you and all of your professors. And tonight marks a new beginning for me, too, the beginning of a new chapter for me at Williams. The poet Jason Shinder teaches, "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work." Whatever's on your mind can be the text you need to delve into, the lived Torah of your own human experience. What's been on my mind is new beginnings.

And hey, speaking of beginnings, every Friday night we sing a reminder of the creation story:

וְשָׁמְרוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת,  לַעֲשׂוֹֹת אֶת הַַשַּׁבָּת לְדֹרֹתָם בְּרִית עוֹֹלָם:  בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹֹת הִיא לְעוֹֹלָם,  כִּי שֵֽׁשֶׁת יָמִים עָשָׂה יְיָ  אֶת הַשָּׁמַֽיִם וְאֶת הָאָֽרֶץ וּבַיּוֹֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שָׁבַת וַיִנָּפַשׁ.

"The children of Israel shall keep Shabbat as an eternal covenant throughout the generations. Between Me and the children of Israel it is an eternal sign, (says God). For in six days, God made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day, God rested and was ensouled."

A lot of translations will say "God rested and was refreshed." But I think "was ensouled" is a better translation. When God rested on the seventh day, something happened to the divine Soul. God got more of a soul. God's soul unfolded more fully. Something about Shabbat increased God's soulfulness.

First there was a new beginning -- the ultimate new beginning, the creation! And then God rested and was ensouled. As exciting as new beginnings are, it's not good for us to keep moving forward at their high energy level and frantic pace. Torah's creation story comes to remind us that it's important to take a break.

One of my favorite teachings says that we too receive an extra helping of soul on Shabbat. On Friday night as we light the Shabbat candles, remembering in their twin flames the light of creation and the light of the burning bush, we too are "ensouled." We get a נשמח יתרה, an extra soul. (And tomorrow night when we make havdalah, we'll inhale spices as spiritual smelling salts, so we don't faint when our extra soul departs for the week.) 

The beginning of the semester holds all kinds of promise, and all kinds of challenges. It's easy to get caught up in thinking about your classes, your papers or lab projects, all the deadlines marching off into the distance between now and the end of the year. But tonight offers us something different: an opportunity to let go of the work of creating -- even the work of planning to create.

Tonight we get to pause in our work of new beginnings, and be re-ensouled.

An invitation to try something. Put your feet on the floor. Take a deep breath, and imagine the breath filling you all the way up, and all the way down -- from the crown of your head to the tips of your toes. Let that breath go, and with it, let go of all of the week's stresses and frustrations. Set aside everything that worries you about the semester now beginning. Take another breath, and let it fill you all the way up again.

That's one way of glimpsing the extra helping of soul Shabbat offers us. Extra breath. Extra breathing room. Room for your heart to expand.

Another way the mystics see that extra soul is that it heightens our ability to yearn and to feel joy. The Hasidic master Reb Nachman of Breslov goes a step further and says the extra soul comes into being through our yearnings. Because we yearn, we get an extra soul during Shabbat. Yearning reveals who we most deeply are. What do you yearn for as this Shabbat begins? Get in touch with your yearnings, and your extra soul will unfurl.

May your Shabbat be soulful and sweet -- and enliven you for all the new beginnings, and all the future yearnings, to come.

 

This is the d'varling that I offered at the Williams College Jewish Association during Kabbalat Shabbat services. (I also offered a longer d'var Torah during dinner.)


How I sustain myself: Shabbat

32195101210_e641d2e4fa_zA congregant asked me recently how I am managing. She meant both the circumstances of my life -- single parent, working one job and about to start a second -- and our national circumstances, as the new administration makes decisions that deeply distress me. What I really understood her to be asking was how I sustain myself during difficult times.

One of my answers is Shabbat.

Every week we retell the creation story: for six days God labored creating the world, and on the seventh day God rested and was ensouled. We too can be ensouled, can experience an enlivening of our deepest selves, when we turn away from the world of work for 25 hours.

In some ways, the most sustaining Shabbatot are those I'm able to spend on retreat and/or with beloved hevre (rabbinic colleague-friends) because at those times I am able to truly set the world aside. There's no laundry or bills to ignore.

At those times I'm usually not leading davenen, and I can relax into the skilled hands of my colleagues, who I can trust to facilitate a spiritual journey through the liturgy. (If I am leading, I'm usually co-leading, which is its own kind of partnered dance and which gives me good "juice.")

At those times I can sink in to the rhythms of Shabbat in community with others who are attuned to those rhythms, from the high-spirited joy of welcoming the Sabbath bride to the full celebration of Shabbat morning to the poignant yearning of Shabbat afternoon as we prepare to bid farewell to our weekly "taste of the world to come."

But even Shabbatot when I am at home, "on duty" as rabbi and as mom, can be sustaining for me.

My Shabbat practices are sometimes idiosyncratic, and have shifted over the years, but here's one on which I am firm: I do not pay bills on Shabbes. If I open a bill on Friday afternoon and don't pay it by sundown, it waits on the desk until Sunday. It will still be there when Shabbat is over, and I need a day of respite from worrying about finances.

I also don't read the news on Shabbes. I give myself the gift of being able to look away from news media and political discourse for a day. This is good for me, maybe especially now. (Others have written about the importance of self-care in these times: see Mirah Curzer's How to stay #outraged without losing your mind.) Taking a day away from my own fury at the brokenness of our world strengthens me for the week to come.

In his book Jewish With Feeling, co-written with Joel Segel, Reb Zalman z"l (of blessed memory) wrote:

Save up for Shabbos those activities that pamper your soul. Here I would take a more lenient approach toward certain activities that traditional halakhah forbids, as long as they are done in the spirit of Shabbos. If you enjoy gardening for its own sake, rather than regard it as a chore you'd just as soon delegate to someone else; if you're enjoying spending time with your plants rather than working on a crop with which to feed your family, then gardening is a Shabbosdik activity for you. If you're a computer programmer by trade but a potter at heart, and if setting aside some Shabbos time each week would allow you to enjoy sitting down at the potter's wheel, then pottery is a Shabbosdik activity for you.

We might swear off the telephone during our Shabbos celebration -- nothing can introdude on a Shabbos like a telemarketing call! -- but have a special signal for family and friends (or simply use caller ID). A friend of mine used to have a telephone date on Shabbos aternoon with a woman he was engaged to, who lived in another city, and the first thing they'd discuss was their thoughts on the Torah portion of the week. The telephone becomes a sacred instrument when it allows us to do things like this.

Sometimes on Shabbes I cook a new recipe, something I've been wanting to try but haven't found time for. The traditional interpretations of the categories of "work" in which one does not engage on Shabbat would prohibit cooking on this day when we seek not to create change in the world but to find the gifts in what already is, but I've found that cooking something new can be restorative for me.

Sometimes on Shabbes I immerse in poetry -- whether writing or tinkering with my own poems, or the poems of others in which I can just luxuriate. Polishing the poems in Texts to the Holy, my collection of love poems to the Beloved, feels especially Shabbesdik to me these days -- but the simple fact of engaging with poetry can enliven my Shabbes.

Singing in harmony, when I can manage it, is an extra-special Shabbat treat. I'm an alto and some of my sweetest memories of the last many years of my life are of singing in harmony with others. When we are singing Jewish liturgy or psalms or Hebrew songs, that's even more true, but any singing at all can enrich the sense of connection that I look to Shabbat to help me access.

At the end of Shabbat I make havdalah. Sometimes that's bittersweet -- I can be reluctant to let go of the extra sense of connection with my soul and my Source that Shabbat can provide -- but I know that my Shabbat time will have strengthened my readiness to face the coming week... and I know it will come again, thank God, in six short days.

 


Poetry by the sea

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It's always a joy to visit Temple Beth El of City Island. For years I've been wanting to attend their annual Shabbat by the Sea -- and this year, on August 26, I will! Weather permitting, we'll meet for Kabbalat Shabbat at the seaside home of two members, Ken Binder and Steve Roth, who live at 2 Bay Street on City Island. (In case of rain, we'll meet at the synagogue instead.) 

This year, Shabbat by the Sea will be preceded by a spiritual poetry reading by yours truly. I'm planning to share some poems from my newest published collection, Open My Lips (Ben Yehuda Press 2016) as well as from the as-yet-unpublished manuscript of my next collection, Texts to the Holy, love poems for the Beloved (many of which were shared here in early form.)

All are welcome (though donations will be gratefully accepted before Shabbat begins). If you're near City Island, I hope you'll join us! Plan ahead for traffic and finding parking. Poetry reading at 5:45, outdoor Kabbalat Shabbat services at 7 (join us in the kabbalistic custom of wearing white to greet the Shabbes bride), lavish oneg to follow.

 


Four glimpses of the pre-Kallah Shabbat

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Mincha in the mountains.

1.

Unlike at last Kallah (when we were on a lake -- an easy natural mikvah), no formal mikvah experiences are scheduled for smicha week. But on Friday afternoon of my first week here, two friends and I decide to create our own. We make our way to the campus rec center, where there is a huge pool with a beach-like slope at one end, and a large and spacious hot tub, too. We opt first for the hot tub, and -- immersed in its foaming waters up to our necks -- we talk about what we need to release from our lives in general and from the week now ending in particular. And then we immerse. It's not a kosher mikvah, of course -- it's a swimming pool, with no source of living waters; for that matter, we're wearing swimsuits -- but on a spiritual level when I emerge from the waters after my final immersion I feel lighter. More radiant. More ready to welcome Shabbat.

 

2.

As I make my way back to my dorm after the festive meal that followed Kabbalat Shabbat, I am drawn to the trio of guitarists sitting on one of the semicircles of big stones on the lawn outside the building. (So are a few dozen other people.) I settle happily on one of the big rocks that serves as a bench, and as they play and sing, the assembled group sings with them. They play (and we sing) the birkat hamazon (grace after meals), prayers, folk songs, new melodies, old melodies. In between singing harmony with my friends, I have conversations with current and prospective ALEPH students, with faculty, with other musmachim (alumni / ordinands). We sing and sing and sing. And sing some more. Between the singing and the Shabbat wine, by the time I stagger up to my room (well after midnight, which means it's well after my bedtime!) I am exhausted... but grateful.

 

3.

On the campus where we're staying the grounds are pretty flat. But off to one side there are mountains, and I don't want to spend two weeks at the cusp of the Rockies and never actually see the mountains themselves! So on Shabbat afternoon two friends and I head to Horsetooth Mountain Park, and we walk up into the hills. It's a hot day, and we're at altitude; I huff and puff more than I would prefer. But the hills around us are extraordinarily beautiful. My spirits are lifted by the grasses and piñon pines and wildflowers, by the clouds scudding across the blue sky, by the sound of wind in the grasses. We sing bits of the Shabbat afternoon service to the special nusach (melodic system) used only at that time on that day. "Mincha" means offering or gift. In that moment, singing bits of the ashrei on a trail in the hills in the sunshine, everything feels like a gift.

 

4.

After evening davenen we make our way outside for havdalah. We form a huge circle, arms around each other. Fragrant teabags are passed out for our b'samim, the spices we will bless to prevent ourselves from fainting as the second Shabbat soul departs. Havdalah candles are lit. We sing the words I love so very dearly: hineh El yeshuati, evtach v'lo efchad... (This is the God of my redemption; I trust, I am not afraid...) We sing the blessings sanctifying the One Who makes divisions between Shabbat and the week. When the candles are extinguished a few people sing to Elijah the prophet in Ladino, and then we sing Eliahu HaNavi and Miriam HaNeviah in Hebrew, and then people start dancing as the musicians keep on playing. La-yehudim haita ora -- a prayer for light and joy and honor for us in the week now beginning. We sing, and we dance, and the week begins. 

 

Related: Six jewels from Clergy Camp.


Stay

 

The instant you depart
I'm counting the days.

When I'm wholly with you
everything is sweeter.

A simple swallow of wine
reveals new flavors.

My soul is doubled
like manna in the desert.

My laugh lines deepen.
I am radiant as a bride.

If only I could stop time
and stay in your embrace.

 


Counting the days. In Hebrew, days of the week are named by their distance from Shabbat. (So Sunday is "First Day," and Monday is "Second Day," and so on, until Friday is "Sixth Day" -- the last day before Shabbat.) My soul is doubled. On Shabbat, says the tradition, we receive a neshama yeteirah, an additional soulLike manna in the desert. We read in Torah that when the children of Israel were sustained by manna during their forty years' wandering, they collected twice as much manna on Fridays -- a double portion for Shabbat. (This is why today many follow the custom of having two challot on the Shabbat table.) I am radiant as a bride. Jewish mystics compared the Sabbath to a bride.

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.


You who love my soul

HEBREWFONTOne of my very favorite pieces of Friday night liturgy is a medieval love poem by R' Eliezer Azkiri called Yedid Nefesh. (There's a gorgeous setting of this poem on Nava Tehila's second album Libi Er / Waking Heart.) Our mystics imagined God as the cosmic Beloved, yearning for connection with creation even as we yearn for connection with divinity. Shabbat is when we and God meet in love.

At my shul we sometimes sing Yedid Nefesh in English, using Reb Zalman z"l's singable translation which captures much of the poetry of the Hebrew. "You who love my soul," the song begins, "sweet source of tenderness..." I am always moved by that way of describing the Holy One of Blessing: not as Lord, not as King (nor as Queen), but as the One Who loves us with infinite tenderness.

This love song imagines that as we welcome Shabbat, our tired souls can bathe in divine light and find comfort. By the end of the week we are worn out -- maybe in practical terms; maybe in heart or spirit. When we usher in Shabbat, we open ourselves to being healed. This song imagines us basking in divine light as one might bask in the presence of a beloved, deriving joy from the fact of that presence.

"My heart's desire is to harmonize with yours," writes R' Eliezer Azkiri (as rendered by R' Zalman z"l.) I love that line. I love the idea of singing in harmony with God, of having a heart which beats in harmony with God's. (The fact that I used to be a choral singer, and that I still derive tremendous joy from singing in harmony, probably contributes to how deeply that metaphor speaks to me.)

"As a deer thirsts for water, so my soul thirsts for you," writes the Psalmist. I know that feeling -- the feeling of a soul thirsty for sustenance, for connection. The feeling of a soul which yearns for God. I remember ten years ago, early in my rabbinic school journey, hearing one of my teachers describe me as "thirsty for connection with God." It was true then; it continues to be true now. It is core to who I am.

At its best, Shabbat offers me an opportunity to drink from that well of living waters, to satiate my thirst. No, that's not quite right. At my best, I'm able to take advantage of what Shabbat offers. The offer is always there; I'm the one who isn't always able to access it. Rabbi David Wolpe has written:

Friday night arrives. I know what my task is at this moment. I am to stop affecting the world and live in harmony with it. Even though I am a tangle of yearnings, on this day everything is to be perfect. I am to be satisfied with the many blessings that I have in my life. For once, I am to be at peace with the universe.

I find that idea incredibly compelling... and also often challenging. And I don't want to shame myself (or anyone else) for times when yearning, or mourning, or grief gets in the way of being able to experience the perfection which Shabbat is meant to encapsulate. But I take comfort in calling God "Beloved" -- whether or not I feel connected; whether or not I'm able to fully feel that "extra soul" of Shabbat; whether or not I can set aside my weekday strivings and be present with the perfection of what is.


 


The gift of another Listening Tour Shabbat

22492482020_0a22a8a39b_zIf you've been reading this blog lately you know that my ALEPH co-chair Rabbi David Evan Markus and I are traveling around North America on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour. We're visiting congregations and communities, visiting rabbinic schools (both trans-denominational, e.g. Hebrew College -- and denominational, e.g. the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College), holding big open mic sessions and small curated conversations, and learning as much as we can about the landscape of Jewish Renewal and about people's hopes and dreams for the future of Judaism writ large.

Celebrating Shabbat on these trips is turning out to be really special for me. One reason for that is that everywhere we go, I am reconnecting with friends who I don't see often enough. My ALEPH hevre (colleagues and friends) live all over the globe, and while it's wonderful to study and daven with them via zoom or Skype, it's far sweeter to be together in person. Another reason is that that everywhere we go, I get to relax into the capable hands of someone else's service leadership and let the liturgy and the melodies carry me. (That's a real treat for a working pulpit rabbi. Usually it's my job to help create that experience for others.)

22627246571_14423cc8d9_zEverywhere we go, I get the opportunity to see some of my Jewish Renewal friends and teachers in the places where they live and serve, which offers me subtly different glimpses of them than I typically see on retreat. I love getting to see my hevre in their home contexts!

And everywhere we go, I know I'm with other people who invest in Shabbat in the same ways that I do. That's spiritually nourishing for me in ways which are difficult to verbalize. All weekend long, I get to daven surrounded by some dear voices, and faces, and neshamas (souls.) In Philadelphia, that was extra-sweet for me because I was davening in the shuls of some of the very people who most taught me how to enter the flow of the liturgy and really pray.

On Friday night at Mishkan Shalom, Rabbi Shawn Zevit led a beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat. At the start of that service, the experience of singing Yedid Nefesh -- that gorgeous poem of love and yearning -- cracked my heart right open and let the balm of Shabbat flow in. I had the opportunity to share a few poems during Friday night's service -- including "Texts to the Holy," (a poem I posted here in slightly earlier form as "Missing You") which I had never read aloud to others before. Friday night's davenen opened me up in beautiful ways.

On Saturday morning at P'nai Or davenen was led by Rabbi Marcia Prager and Hazzan Jack Kessler. We began with an opening niggun which I know like the back of my own hand but hadn't heard in a long time. The simple experience of singing harmony for those familiar notes was sweet. By the time we got to the lines in Nishmat Kol Chai which assert that everything within me sings praise, those words were entirely true. Shabbat morning's davenen filled my cup to the brim. And then, after a potluck lunch, we held an open mic session for more than 50 people who shared with us their hopes and dreams for the future of Jewish Renewal -- holy wow.

22492480910_3eb7303f97_zPart of what's fun for me is that each of the services we've attended thus far on the Listening Tour has been entirely different from the others. Each has featured a different siddur (prayerbook). Each has been led by people who were ordained in different places. (Of this weekend's davenen leaders, two hold dual ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and from Reb Zalman z"l whose work inspired and grew into the ALEPH Ordinations Program; one was ordained by the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary.) Each has featured different melodies, choices of instrumentation, and styles of prayer. And each has been an authentic expression of Jewish Renewal, because there's no single way to "do" Renewal.

People keep asking how we're managing to do this listening tour on top of jobs and other commitments. This year of traveling and active listening poses a lot of challenges -- from the emotional and intellectual effort to be receptive listeners, to ordinary logistics, to grasping the awesome scope of all people hold Renewal to be (and want Renewal to be).  But the work is its own reward: I can't imagine a better way to spend these weekends.

Not only because it's amazing to get to hear from so many people about the Jewish future they yearn for (though it is) -- not only because we get to have these incredible conversations about ALEPH and Jewish Renewal and the future of heart-centered innovative Judaism (though we do, and how cool is that?) -- but also because we get to experience Jewish Renewal Shabbatot in all of these different places. Each Shabbat on this tour has its own ta'am, its own flavor. Each one comes with different melodies, and harmonies, and insights, and sweetness. And each one is a gift.

 


To Shabbes


I want to plead "don't go!"
    though I know you'll return.
        I trust the future I can't see.

My strength is in your song
    even when I'm not certain
        how to play all the chords.

When you're with me
    every channel opens,
        sweetness courses through.

My unlovely thin skin
    becomes a cloak of light.
        I breathe the air of Eden.

Return quickly, beloved!
    I'm counting the days.
        I carry you in my heart.


This is another poem in the series of poems of yearning and longing which I think will probably become part of the chapbook which currently has the working title of Texts to the Holy.

There are a lot of references here to the prayers of havdalah, the ritual which sanctifies separation between Shabbat and week -- especially to the opening prayers which precede the blessings. Also to a teaching which riffs off of the fact that the Hebrew words for "skin" and for "light" are homonyms. (Find it at the end of this post.) There's also a hint at Yedid Nefesh, which I think is one of our tradition's most beautiful songs of yearning for the Beloved.

 


Mincha with Mary

12119191_875461919196358_4945788954738252986_nIf you had been among the leaf-peepers in a particular small town in southern Berkshire county on Saturday afternoon, you might have seen two rabbis wearing peacoats and kippot, sitting on a stone bench beside a shrine to Mary.

You might have caught snatches of Shabbat afternoon nusach (the melodic mode for that particular time of day on that particular day of the week) on the wind, along with the falling yellow leaves and the (unseasonal! too early!) snow flurries.

You might have seen those two people stand, and take three steps toward the east (not toward the statue), and bend and bow. You might have seen them rocking gently in prayer. You might have seen them laugh upon reaching the blessing which references winter weather.

And you might have seen them return to the bench, shoulder to shoulder, visibly amused at the sweet absurdity of davening Shabbat mincha prayers together alongside (not praying to, but praying beside) a statue of a nice Jewish girl, a spiritual ancestor from a couple of millennia ago.

And then you might have seen them say farewell to Mary and depart down the sidewalk, admiring the late afternoon light gilding the far-away tops of the hills, off to whatever adventure awaited them next.


Coming home into Shabbat

Kabbalat Shabbat feels like coming home. Or it can -- and this past Friday night, it did. I was in Boston for the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour (note the spiffy new webpage!) and was blessed to daven with a shtibl (home-based minyan) which met in Rabbi Art Green's living room. He greeted us, handed out siddurim (prayerbooks), and we began to daven. As others arrived, they joined in.

The siddur was one I had never used before. It featured beautiful Hebrew typesetting, and some nifty nusach Sfard changes from what I usually daven with. I didn't know most of the people in the room -- though of course there were a few souls there (including an ALEPH board member, and of course David, my co-chair) who are already very dear to me; my Renewal hevre (friends) are chosen-family.

But what really felt like a homecoming was diving into the words in a room full of people who were also diving deep. When I am with people who are welcoming Shabbat with heart and intention, I am home. No matter what melodies we're using, no matter what siddur, no matter where I am -- when we're singing to welcome the Shabbat bride, ushering in Shabbat consciousness, my soul comes home.

We davened. We dined. And then after Shabbat dinner there was a lull in the conversation, and Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel offered a new niggun she had recently written. Not surprisingly, it is beautiful. We sang it and sang it. Harmonies arose, and we kept time gently on the table. And then came the sweet, satisfied pause after the song, and Rabbi Art reached for a Hasidic text to give over some Torah.

He taught about how each of us writes a Torah with our own deeds, and how collectively we all fulfill all of the mitzvot which none of us could fulfill alone. As we sang the niggun again to seal the learning in our hearts, I felt as though I were sitting at a Shabbes table on high with the angels. What a gift it was to welcome Shabbat together into our midst, and to welcome ourselves home into Shabbat.

I'm grateful to be doing the Listening Tour for a lot of reasons. One reason is that I'm already learning a lot about the depth and breadth of Jewish Renewal's impact in the world. Another is that it's giving me the opportunity to have meaningful conversations about the future of Judaism. And a third reason is Shabbat evenings like that one, where I get to be in community in a way that nourishes my soul.


The Shabbat of Return

Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul...

The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah, "the Shabbat of Return." This Shabbat invites us to come home to our deepest selves. To join together in that existential move of teshuvah: turning ourselves around, returning to who we most deeply yearn to be.

On one level this season -- especially these Ten Days of Teshuvah -- is a time for taking stock of who we are and repenting for our missteps. We ask forgiveness from those whom we've wronged. We try to learn how to forgive ourselves for the places where we've fallen short or missed the mark.

On a deeper level this season -- especially these Ten Days -- is a time for making teshuvah for our distance from God, our distance from our own souls, our distance from love and from holiness and from our deepest yearnings. Shabbat Shuvah is a time to re/turn to God. To re/turn to ourselves.

What do you yearn for? From what wholeness do you feel exiled? What part of yourself have you been denying? This Shabbat is time to come home. Come home to the Source of All. Come home to your own soul. No matter how far away you feel, you can always return. You can always come home.


Three moments of Shabbat morning gratitude

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1.

We have set up a circle of chairs behind the synagogue, surrounded by mountains and wetland and field. At the beginning of morning prayer the air is chill, but by the time we reach the bar'chu, the formal call to prayer, some of our folks have scooted their chairs into the patch of shade beside the small cement wall. When they turn east, they turn to face the wall -- and suddenly our little cement wall becomes the Kotel, the Western Wall, in Jerusalem. (It even has little finger-sized holes in it where one could place kvitlach, petitionary prayers!) I will never see that wall the same way again.

 

2.

During the Amidah, the standing prayer which is central to every Jewish service, there is a place (called the Kedusha) where the prayer calls us to imitate the choirs of angels singing "Holy, holy, holy." There is a custom of rising on our tiptoes with every repetition of the word kadosh, holy. As I am singing the Kedusha, a wee plane begins to take off from the tiny North Adams airport in the meadow behind the shul, rising into the sky precisely as we are lifting up onto our tiptoes. It is as though the plane is an angel, being buoyed by our prayers. It is as though we are angels, singing praise up into the sky.

 

3.

We sing Mi Chamocha -- the prayer which our ancestors sang after crossing the Sea of Reeds -- to the melody of "The Water Is Wide," and we intersperse the Hebrew with the words of that folk song. This is a tradition which Rabbi David brings from his synagogue on City Island, and it has become my favorite way to sing that prayer, especially when we're together and can sing it in harmony. The water is wide; I cannot get o'er. But when I know that God is with me -- when I know that I am loved by an unending love -- then whatever comes, whatever life brings, I know I won't have to cross the waters alone.

 


When we are mindful

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Judaism believes in the particularity of time, that certain times have special spiritual properties: that Shabbat has an extra degree of holiness; that Pesach (Passover) is the time of our liberation; that Shavuot is a time unusually conducive to revelation. But they have these special properties only when we are mindful. If we consciously observe Shabbat, Shabbat has this holy quality. If we don't, it is merely Friday night, merely Saturday afternoon...

That's Rabbi Alan Lew z"l in the book I reread slowly each year at this season, This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. Every year I start rereading the book around Tisha b'Av, the day of deep brokenness which launches us in to the season of teshuvah, repentance or return. Every year I find myself drawn to some of the same passages I underlined last year or the year before -- and every year some new passages jump out at me, too.

This year the first new thing I underlined was the quote which appears at the top of this post. I've been thinking a lot lately about sacred time, and about how being aware of where we are in the rhythm of the day and week and the round of the year can help us attune ourselves to spiritual life... and also how being unaware of where we are, or ignoring where we are, can damage that attunement. It's as though lack of mindfulness were a radio scrambler which keeps us from hearing the divine broadcast.

One of the things I love most about my Jewish Renewal hevre (my dear colleague-friends) is that we are jointly committed to seeking mindfulness. To living with prayerful consciousness, as my friends and teachers Rabbi Shawn Zevit and Marcia Prager taught us during DLTI. Knowing others who care about this stuff as much as I do is restorative. It lifts a weight of loneliness off of my shoulders. My hevre inspire me to try to be the kind of person, the kind of Jew, the kind of rabbi, I want to be.

There's much in ordinary life which pulls me away from the awareness I want to maintain. Away from consciousness of Shabbat as holy time, and of its internal flow from greeting the Bride to rejoicing in the Torah to yearning for the divine Presence not to depart. Away from consciousness of the moon and the seasons, and from the process of teshuvah (repentance / return.) Ordinary life is full of obligations, frustrations, distractions, and a whole world of people who don't care about the things I love so deeply.

Sometimes it's a little bit alienating -- carrying this tradition around with me like an extra pair of glasses, an extra lens which shapes the way I see everything in my world, all the while knowing that most of the people around me don't have this lens and probably don't want it, either. Sometimes it feels like an exquisite gift -- as though I had the capacity to see a layer of beautiful magic which overlays all things, because I'm willing to open myself to this way of seeing and this way of being in the world.

Without mindfulness, Shabbat becomes plain old Friday night and Saturday. Without mindfulness, the new moon of Elul coming up at the end of next week is just a night when we'll be able to see a surprising number of stars. Without mindfulness, Yom Kippur doesn't atone -- it's just a long day, maybe one we're spending with grumbly stomachs saying strange words in a language we don't understand. I don't want it to be like that. Not for me, not for you who are reading this, not for anyone.

There's nothing wrong with plain old Friday night and Saturday. (And so on: plain old new moon, September days instead of the High Holidays...) But because I've tasted the transformation that's possible when consciousness of holy time enlivens those hours and makes them new, I want to make these holy times more than "just ordinary." I want to sip that nectar again, and to come away with my spirit renewed. Because I know that diving deep into Jewish sacred time sustains me like nothing else.

What our tradition is affirming is that when we reach the point of awareness, everything in time -- everything in the year, everything in our life -- conspires to help us. Everything becomes the instrument of our redemption.... The passage of time brings awareness, and the two together, time and consciousness, heal... This is precisely the journey we take every year during the High Holidays -- a journey of transformation and healing, a time which together with consciousness heals and transforms us.

Here's hoping. May it be so.

 

Elul begins in one week. Rosh Hashanah begins five weeks from Sunday.

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.