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.

 


Day 8 of the Omer

 

DAY 8: WHAT IT MEANS TO PRAY


The judge sees through you like an X-ray.
Let your heart give up its secrets.
This is what it means to pray:

to discern the subtle workings of
—let's call it soul, although the word
is imprecise, and may evoke

incense and crystals. I gravitate
toward this old-fashioned leather strap
twined ten times around my arm

but use the tools
that help you pry your ribs apart
and offer up what beats inside.

Listen: everyone's reciting
through time and space
Your glory shines, Majestic One.

 


 

Today is the eighth day of the Omer, making one week and one day of the Omer. This is the 8th day of our 49-day journey between Pesach and Shavuot, liberation and revelation.

In working on today's poem, I found myself paying particular attention to rhythm. This is a good one to read aloud.

This second week of the Omer, in the kabbalistic paradigm, is the week of gevurah -- boundaried strength or discipline. That drew me to the image of God as Judge, which in turn reminded me that the Hebrew word which means to pray, להתפלל / l'hitpallel, literally means to judge oneself or to discern oneself.

The final two lines are Reb Zalman z"l's rendering of the Hebrew words which follow the shema, baruch shem k'vod malchuto l'olam va'ed, which we recite aloud only on Yom Kippur. Though we do sing them aloud in the prayer Ana B'Koach, which some have the tradition of reciting after counting the Omer each day.

Re: "I gravitate / toward this old-fashioned leather strap..." -- that's a reference to tefillin, about which I have blogged many times before.


Morning. Prayer.

15656794548_c0c1a53ab5_zThis morning I sat in our sanctuary, put on my tallit and tefillin, and quietly played guitar for a while. This was one of those days when no one showed up for Friday morning meditation -- which was not a surprise to me; the thermometer in my car read -7 when I dropped our son off at preschool -- so I got to spend a quiet 20 minutes there by myself.

I played the cowboy Modah Ani, and sang the words into the silence of the room. It always makes me smile, not only because the "moo" is silly but also because it reminds me of the beloved rabbi friends from whom I learned the melody in the first place. I played Rabbi Shefa Gold's Elohai Neshama -- "my God, the soul which You have placed within me is pure..."

I sang some morning blessings. I sang part of a psalm of gratitude. I sang some of the words to the Yotzer Or blessing which praises God Who creates light -- not only the light of the sun and moon and stars, but also the light of wisdom and insight. I sang some of the words to the Ahavah Rabbah blessing which praises God Who loves us with an unending love.

I picked out the chords which accompany weekday nusach, the minor melodic scale which I have learned to use on weekdays for singing the prayers at the heart of our service. I sang the Shema, declaration of the Unity at the heart of all things. I sang words of gratitude for redemption. And then I sat in silence for a while, words and melodies swirling in my mind and heart.

A moment ago I typed "worlds and melodies" instead of "words and melodies." I think both are true. Daily we bless the One Who speaks the world into being -- and our words too contain worlds. Create worlds. Can destroy worlds. All of these whipped around in my mind like the dry sparkling snow forming dust devils on this morning's cold roads. I spoke silently about these things with God.

I have learned to integrate prayers (and prayer, not just the words of our liturgy but the intention) into my mornings -- to cultivate gratitude on waking with Modah Ani, to bless the One Who revives me with the bracha m'chayyei ha-meitim when I sip the day's first coffee or tea. But I'm also always grateful when I get the chance to sink deeper into prayer at the beginning of my day.

On these days surrounding Tu BiShvat I've been thinking of how each human being is like a tree. How I am like a tree. How much I need light. How much I need soil. How prayer is the water which feeds my roots. When I daven, I send rootlets down to find water. When I can draw it up into my whole being, that's when I am able to bring forth the gifts I want to give to the world.

Shabbat shalom, y'all.


Morning gratitude psalm

 

For my iPad
with its velvety cover.
For bringing forth
a world of praise
with the tap of a finger.

For the crush of my tefillin bag.
For little houses
filled with words.
For places where I am exposed
and where I'm held safe.

For the choir of angels
even the one who sings off-key.
For women in headscarves
bearing witness
there is no god but God.

For the currents which carry us.
For the earth which cups my chair
in her compassionate palm.
For the soul
You restore to me.


Last week at the retreat for Jewish and Muslim emerging religious leaders, there was a time slot when the alumna facilitators and spiritual advisors shared different spiritual practices. One of my colleagues led a guided meditation; another, Sufi chanting; a third, gratitude yoga; and I offered a workshop in writing the psalms of our hearts. (This was a tiny taste of the workshop I led recently on City Island, which is in turn a tiny taste of the week-long class I taught at the ALEPH Kallah a few years back.)

I did the writing assignment myself during class time, and here's what unfolded -- a psalm of gratitude for morning prayer. Early that same morning I had gone to pre-dawn zhikr; then some of my Muslim sisters with whom I had davened zhikr joined us for shacharit, Jewish morning prayer. All of these things found their way into my psalm.

All feedback is welcome.

 

Deep thanks to the Henry Luce Foundation for their gracious support of this incredible retreat program.


A cinquain about morning prayer (and after)

 

 

MORNING PRAYER

Leaves
an echo on
my arm, a spiral fading.
I hope the imprint on my heart
stays.

 

 


This little poem is a cinquain, a five-line poem. I've posted this kind of poem here before -- see last year's Daily April poem: a cinquain -- though last year's cinquain was written with both syllabics and stresses in mind, and this one only follows the pattern of stresses. (One stressed syllable in the first line; two stresses in the second; three; four; and then one again.)

The "echo" referenced in the poem -- this is probably obvious to those who wear tefillin, but perhaps less so to those who have never tried the practice -- is the winding mark left on my arm by the tefillin straps, which fades over the course of half an hour or so. Speaking of which, there's a new tefillin category on this blog; if you're interested in posts having to do with tefillin, click on the "tefillin" link in the category cloud in the sidebar, or click here.

Shabbat shalom!

 


Tefillin and manicures

my hand, with painted nails and tefillin

Me, in microcosm.

My mother always has beautiful nails. I'm not sure I've ever seen her without nail polish on. In recent years there are certain colors she favors -- a kind of creamy ivory, a deep maroon -- and I've come to expect one of those rather than anything else in the rainbow of available options. But her nails are always manicured. It's just part of being put-together. I don't remember my first manicure (though I remember the first one I had after my summer of backcountry camping when I was fourteen -- it felt positively sybaritic.) But getting my nails done is an ordinary, and sweet, part of my life.

The manicure I'm wearing now wasn't done by a professional. I painted my nails last night while my son splashed in the bathtub. He had chosen to color his bath water a brilliant turquoise blue (with a dissolving bath tablet which, amazingly enough, doesn't leave our bathtub stained when the water drains away.) He stomped and splashed, rocking his little duckies and boats, while I sat on the floor and painted my fingertips. Then he helped me blow on them to get them dry before I lifted him out of the tub.

I don't think anyone else in my immediate family wears tefillin. Scratch that: I'm pretty certain no one does. If I had to guess, I'd imagine that some of my Dallas cousins do, and possibly some of their sons. But I'd be surprised to discover any other women in my family who put on tefillin in the morning to pray. I became interested in tefillin the first time I went on a Jewish Renewal retreat at Elat Chayyim. Knowing that I'd been yearning for some, my dear friend David gave me my set of tefillin when I turned thirty.

In fairness: I don't always manage to lay tefillin. Life gets in the way. And, for that matter, I don't always manage to have my nails painted. But when I pause to put color on my fingertips, I feel like I'm treating myself to something special, and I remember again some of the many cherished ways in which I am my mother's daughter. And when I pause to lay tefillin, even if I only say one prayer before taking them back off again, I remember again some of the many cherished ways in which I am connected with God and with my tradition, with something bigger than myself.


Ode to my tefillin (for Big Tent Poetry)

Tefillin-ode

 

ODE TO MY TEFILLIN

 

Six years in
you still smell like leather.

I don't touch you
often enough, don't

let my fingers peruse
your velvet nest

but when I manage
to bind my arm

and hang your light
on my forehead

I can almost feel
what spirals through me.

I have to trust
God remembers our vows

even when I don't make time
to slip you on, string

around my finger
ring around my heart.


There's another week's worth of poetry prompts at Big Tent Poetry this week, one of which is Write an ode to a prized physical object. As soon as I saw that prompt, I knew what I wanted to write about... and as soon as I put the object in question on, the poem flowed.

(If you're here via Big Tent Poetry and are perhaps unfamiliar with tefillin, here are a few posts which might be helpful: Connections and Surprises -- about my impulse to buy myself tefillin, and about the surprise of being gifted with a pair -- and, while I'm at it, here's my Mother psalm 7, written in sumer 2010, which begins "Don't chew on your mama's tefillin...")

Here's a link to this week's Come One, Come All post so you can see how others responded to this week's Big Tent Poetry prompts.

[tefillin-ode.mp3]


Time-bound

Lately I've been wrestling with time-bound mitzvot.

Back up a step: I should define my terms. Although in the American vernacular the Hebrew word מצוה (mitzvah) is often translated as "good deed" (as in: "holding the door open for that guy on crutches was a real mitzvah"), it means "commandment." Jewish tradition speaks in terms of positive and negative mitzvot, things we are commanded to do and not to do. Some of these are considered time-bound, which means that there's a span of time during which we're supposed to do them. And in the most traditional understanding, men are obligated to perform time-bound mitzvot and women are not. (For more, read the Wikipedia page on positive time-bound mitzvot.)

As a feminist and a liberal Jew who is committed to religious egalitarianism, there's much that's problematic for me about this set of ideas. I don't like the gender essentialism implicit in the notion that men do one thing and women do another. I don't believe that women should be exempt from full participation in normative Jewish life. Beyond that, the Orthodox paradigm presumes an understanding of commandedness which is different from what I'm used to. In my experience, both men and women choose Jewish practice not so much because we understand ourselves to be "commanded," but because we trust that taking on these practices will have spiritual benefit or will bring us closer to our community and to God.

Since Drew was born, though, I haven't been able to fulfill some of the positive time-bound mitzvot which had been an important part of my pre-motherhood life. One of these is laying tefillin -- I love laying tefillin, and yet I haven't taken my set out of their velvet bag since the baby was born. Counting the Omer is another one -- I blogged about that a while back. And this pains me, because during my pregnancy I promised myself that I wouldn't let my spiritual practices lapse, and yet here I am doing pretty much just that.

Continue reading "Time-bound" »


A tefillin meditation

This morning I opened the מטא–סדור / Meta-Siddur created by R' David Wolfe-Blank, of blessed memory. The name is something of a pun. In English, the name "Meta-Siddur" suggests that this text transcends the prayerbook, offering commentary on it. The Aramaic word meta means "to reach towards," and this loose collection of teachings, arranged according to a four-worlds understanding of the journey of Jewish prayer, "is intended as a 'reaching' toward a more evolved siddur." This isn't a siddur one can use to pray with; it's an amazing collection of resources to dip into, which will inform how I engage with more traditional siddurim over time. Anyway, I was looking for inspiration, something to carry with me into my morning practice.

The page that drew me was page 82.1, which has two columns of text. In the right-hand column are the words from Hosea which we recite as we wind the straps of tefillin around the hand: "I betroth you to me forever, I betroth you to me with righteousness and with justice, with lovingkindness and compassion; I betroth you to me with faith, and you shall know God." (I wrote recently about how the Hebrew is unclear: are we speaking to God? Is God speaking to us? The words can mean both at once.) The left-hand column of text contains a series of assertions, which R' Wolfe-Blank calls "Partnership Vows:"

I will defend you, in private and in public.
I will not speak ill of you behind your back.
I will champion you.
I will cheerlead you.
I will struggle to achieve physical well-being to ensure that I spend my maximum lifespan with you.
I will struggle to achieve emotional well-being to ensure that I spend my maximum happiness with you.
If I find myself becoming judgmental I will speak with you honestly and clearly so that we can sort out what is yours and what is mine to own so that together we can learn and grow.
I will watch my withdrawals.
I will never cut you off from me abruptly or absolutely.
I will never suddenly walk away from you.
I will walk with you...

I love the way these vows preserve the ambiguity I like so much in the original Hebrew. I can speak these words to my partner, and I can speak them to God -- and I can imagine God speaking them to me. Each of these options challenges me in a different way. Speaking them to my partner would be the easiest of the three; speaking them to God honestly is harder. What would it mean to defend God? To speak with God honestly and clearly about my judgments and my baggage so that I can discern my own issues and move them out of the way of our relationship?

I'm not looking for another daily practice to add to my list -- I have enough trouble maintaining the ones I've already committed to doing! -- but I can imagine reading this list of vows some mornings as I lay tefillin. I'm curious to see whether and how doing that would change my relationship with the words, or with the act of putting on my tefillin, over time. Thanks, R' Wolfe-Blank.

 

Technorati tags: , , .


Tefillin davening

I went this morning to an incredibly sweet service led by my friend Simcha. The service was designed to highlight the mitzvah of tefillin, which I first took on when I turned thirty.

We entered the little chapel on the third floor of the student center (big windows painted with stained-glass patterns) to the sound of Simcha and her husband Reb Shawn singing "Kamti ani liftoach l'dodi / I will open to You, my Beloved / Will you open, open to me?" in a beautiful two-part round. Then Simcha spoke briefly about tefillin. She talked about how the line we recite while wrapping around the hand (from Hosea: "I betroth you to me forever, I betroth you to me with righteousness, justice, kindness, and mercy...") is sometimes written in English with a capital-Y You (so: it's us speaking to God) and sometimes written in English with a capital-M Me (so: it's God speaking to us.) The Hebrew, of course, connotes both at once. There's a reciprocity, Simcha said; tefillin call us to awareness of the reciprocal relationship of love between us and the universe.

We looked at some of the traditional texts related to donning tefillin (which you can find in the Artscroll siddur on pp 6-7.) Simcha talked about the texts in the box of the arm-tefillin and the head-tefillin, which remind us of God's unity, of the relationship of love between us, and also of how God brought us out from slavery in order to be in relationship with God. The arm-tefillin are next to the heart to remind us of the centrality of our loving relationship with God. We bind them on the hand to sanctify the work of our hands, and we bind them on our foreheads, near the seat of our consciousness, in order that the soul which is within our consciousness might be aligned with divine will. And after telling a few stories about her own relationship with the practice (and acknowledging that this, like every spiritual practice, ebbs and flows in our lives -- but, Simcha said, tefillin is a practice which calls us back to relationship) we returned to song.

I helped two women put on tefillin for the first time, showing them how I learned to wrap the binding around my arm and hand. Together we recited the blessing. All over the room were little clusters of people like us, gesturing and wrapping amid the buzz of low conversation. And then we davened a short morning service. After modah ani (the blessing for gratitude) we sang a line from psalm 42: "K'ayal ta'arog al afikay mayim, ken nafshi ta'arog elecha elohim (As the deer longs for water, so my soul longs for You)," which is a beautiful expression of longing for the relationship which the tefillin represent. The service itself was lovely; I was especially moved by the chanting of the ahavah rabbah blessing, which speaks of God's love for us. Most of the room chanted one line over and over in impromptu harmony while Simcha chanted the English translation over the top.

After the service I had the chance to chat briefly with a few people, and then came to class, where I spent 15 minutes or so doing "spirit buddy" time (one-on-one connection, talking about where we are and how we're doing) with a friend, and then it was time to begin Eco-Judaism class! From one gem in the setting of the morning to the next.

 

Technorati tags: , , , , .


Tefillin in winter

Laying tefillin is simpler in summertime. When I'm wearing some light sleeveless linen thing, my arms are already bare; wrapping my left arm with the leather retzuah is a tactile experience, but it doesn't take any preparation. Now, though -- now I have to tug at two layers of thick winter wear, a turtleneck and a heavy wool sweater, to scrunch them up my arm far enough that the bayit, the little box containing the words, rests at the strongest part of my bicep. (That I haven't worked out lately also makes the supposed bulge of bicep harder to find, but that's another issue entirely.)

This morning I was hyper-conscious of my tefillin, in part because of the sensation of the leather and in part because my left arm was cold! It didn't distract me badly, but I was definitely aware of it, and when I was finished there was a certain pleasure in yanking my sleeves back down.

The cold shouldn't be a surprise, since I started laying tefillin last spring when there was still snow on the ground. But acclimatization matters -- the same snowy day that feels chill at the start of winter (compared with the warmth that preceded it) can feel almost balmy at winter's end. It's written in the Shulkhan Arukh that one who is suffering from the cold is exempt from the obligation to lay tefillin, but I don't really have any desire to invoke that clause -- I'm not really suffering, just kvetching. And I regard tefillin as an informed choice, not an obligation per se. (Besides, I really like tefillin. I'd miss the experience if I gave it up until the snow melts.)

Incidentally, snow and tefillin have interesting symbolic resonance, at least according to The Mystical White Snow, an article by Rabbi Boruch Leff. Rabbi Leff draws a fascinating connection between white snow and the Zoharic teaching that God wears all-white tefillin. (Ours, he says, are black, representing how we absorb revelation; God's, in contrast, are white, because God reflects all wisdom and guidance.) Wacky.

Anyway. Having all of this on my mind made it especially entertaining to find the following image in my blog aggregator today:

(Image via Jerusalem Syndrome.) Does this make her Rosie the Davvener?


Technorati tags: , , .


Surprises

So I have this friend named David. We went to college together. He and I met during the fall of my freshman year, during the period of time when I was going to the Jewish Center every Friday night. He encouraged me to sing; along with a dozen other friends, we founded the Elizabethans together. In those years we welcomed many a Shabbat by lighting illicit candles and blessing whatever "bread" and "wine" were in my dorm room (often as not, Triscuits and a bottle of Sam Smith's oatmeal stout). This is the same David who gave me my first copy of The Jew in the Lotus (and my second one, after I lent the first one to somebody who decided to keep it). We've been singing together, and discussing theology together, pretty much since we met.

David came to visit on Monday, because it was my thirtieth birthday. I'd already had the shock of a lifetime the previous day, when my wonderful sweetie threw me a surprise "erev birthday" brunch which turned out to include my parents, here from Texas to surprise me! But by Monday evening they were gone again, and I expected a quiet birthday evening featuring friends, cheesecake, and sparkly beverages.

Those expectations were happily met. But before the other friends came by, and before we broke out the champagne flutes, David handed me a bright turquoise gift bag with two birthday cards in it. After I read the cards (one of which noted that a hypothetical baby born when we first became friends would be long past the age of b'nai mitzvah now -- an alarming fact if there ever was one), I withdrew the package inside the bag...unwrapped the tissue paper...and stared at the blue velvet tefillin pouch inside. "You didn't," I said. He laughed at me. "I don't believe you. You didn't!" I said again, though in retrospect I can't imagine why, since obviously he had done.

As you may remember, I've been contemplating buying myself tefillin for a while now, and I very nearly bought myself some that day. But I can't help thinking that, delightful as it would have been to lay my own claim to the tradition, there's something especially auspicious about having them given to me. Maybe I've read too many fairy tales, but it seems like there might be extra oomph in a set of tefillin that come as a gift. Certainly there will be extra joy in putting them on, which I intend to do for the first time tomorrow morning. I'm working from home tomorrow, so could theoretically sleep in...but I think I may set the alarm,  instead. I have a date with my new tefillin, and I don't want to be late.

Technorati tags: ,


First impressions

I woke this morning to the hush of falling snow. I was going to lie in bed until the alarm, as is my wont, until I remembered: borrowed tefillin! Last Friday after meditation I initiated a conversation with Jeff about tefillin; by the end of the conversation he had shown me how to lay them, and had lent me his spare set so I could try the practice before taking the leap of purchasing them.

So today, after performing my morning ablutions, I seated myself crosslegged on the floor cushions in my study. I put on my tallit, and then pushed up the sleeve of my sweater, and unzipped the little velvet bag. I fumbled a moment with the first winding of the shel yad (the one that goes on the hand/arm), and then again with the shel rosh (the one that goes on the head) which needed to be manipulated so the circlet part of the strap would be the right diameter for my head. But I said the blessing as I fastened the leather around my forearm and my head, and then I sat there a moment, drinking in the sensation.

The strap working its way up my arm felt like adornment, and every time I moved to reach for a prayerbook or to shift position I felt the leather creaking on my arm and hand. The little box on my third eye forehead was just at the edge of my peripheral vision (as Jeff taught me it should be), which gave sh'viti YHVH l'negdi tamid ("I place God before me always") particular resonance.

I said the morning blessings (some of the traditional ones; some using the words of my own heart) and chanted several of the morning prayer chants I learned at Elat Chayyim. I said a few things to God that I'd been wanting to say. And then I did the whole process in reverse: shel rosh off first, then unwrapping my arm, then removing my tallit, folding everything back in the appropriate bag.

As I type this, my left forearm still shows stripes from the wound leather, though I imagine they'll fade by the time I finish my first cup of tea. The real question, of course, is whether I can hold on to the beatific feeling of having started my morning this way once my workday gets underway.

In that conversation with Jeff last Friday, we talked about regular (and irregular) practice, and he said something that intrigued me. He argued that there's a spiritual danger in getting too attached to doing liturgical things "the right way." Getting too hung up on that can lead to a kind of idolatry, in which liturgical or ritual-praxis "perfection" becomes the goal, displacing the real goal of the practice: connection with God.

That makes sense to me. (The Buddhist in me points out that any attachment to externals -- even modes of prayer or names of God -- clouds our ability to be conscious of what's real.) So I nodded when he cautioned me not to let some ideal of what the practice "ought" to be get too important. Still, I was itching to find out what the practice would feel like; today was the first chance I had to find out.

Having tried tefillin precisely once, I'm about as far from expert as one can get. Consider this my "beginner's mind" perspective on the experience:

Wrapping myself in tefillin is a physical act, and I had wondered whether it might feel like giving into literalism. (Nu, it's not enough to pray about connecting ourselves with God; we have to physically wrap ourselves to grok the connection?) Would I feel limited, too-physical? Oddly enough, the sensation was just the opposite, maybe because I knew going in that the straps are just a mnemonic device. They're there to make me mindful of a metaphysical connection that the leather can't begin to genuinely represent.

Tefillin serve as a temporary manifestation of attachment to the ground of being. That connection transcends physicality, and transcends any practice I might use to approach it. I'm just reminding myself of it with a very stylized string around my finger.



Technorati tags: ,


Connections

For a while now I've been toying with the idea of piercing my nose when I turn thirty. I like the glint of little nose-studs. I think they're cute. And after spending a couple of weeks in Rajasthan, where every woman we saw had her nose pierced, I've come to think of noserings as delightfully common ornamentation, like earrings or bangles. (Rachel Kranson wrote a great essay about noserings in Biblical days, "A Nose Ring Of Her Own: Our Foremother Rebekah was Given One at the Well," published in the summer 2002 issue of Lilith.)

My thirtieth birthday is imminent, though, and I have to admit I'm probably not going to pierce anything to celebrate it. (My mother is probably heaving a sigh of relief even now; facial piercings make her queasy.) What's far likelier is that I'll give myself the other present I've been contemplating: a set of tefillin.

To many of the people in my life, a nosering would be a lot less strange. At my Reform shul, tefillin are uncommon (they're not worn on Shabbat, and we're too small a community to maintain a regular weekday minyan, though a few of us meet for a meditation service most Fridays). My friends won't get it -- though by now they're accustomed to my (peculiar, but harmless) effervescence about Judaism, so they'll be glad to see my enthusiasm even if they don't share it. I'll bet even my family will be surprised: some see tefillin as an anachronistic holdover from our grandparents' time, while others place tefillin squarely in the purview of men. Why on earth, I can imagine these assembled throngs chorusing, would I want tefillin?

Continue reading "Connections" »