Yom Kippur and Shabbat: Lightning and Light (A sermon for Kol Nidre)

This summer, for the first time, our son has been afraid of thunder and lightning. I can't blame him for that. Thunder and lightning can be scary. Especially when you are small, and you don't remember ever having experienced them before. At times like those, even the comforting presence of your stuffed animals isn't enough: you need a parent to cuddle you and tell you everything's going to be okay.

So that's what I do. I tell him it's all going to be okay. I tell him it's only thunder, it's only lightning, it's not going to hurt him. When the lightning flashes, I tell him it's the clouds playing with their flashlights, just like he does. When the thunder cracks and rolls, I tell him it's the clouds playing their drums.

This is probably proof, if proof were needed, that I am a poet and not a scientist. I think in metaphors. We have friends who teach their kids about electrical charge building up in the clouds. I make up stories about the clouds having parties with their flashlights and their drums.

I did learn something extraordinary about lightning this summer, though.

And because they say the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else, I'm going to share it with you now. Here is what I learned about lightning, in a class on kabbalah and quantum physics which I took with R' Fern Feldman and Dr. Karen Barad at the ALEPH Kallah:

In a stormcloud, air molecules become polarized. The negatively-charged ions cluster at the bottom of the cloud, and the positively-charged ones cluster at the top.

You know how if you hold two magnets near each other, the ends which have the same charge will push each other away? The same thing happens with the stormcloud and the earth. The negative ions at the bottom of the cloud push the negative ions in the ground further into the ground, because like repels like.

The negative ions in the earth sink down low, moving away from the cloud. So the surface of the earth becomes positively charged. Now the earth and the cloud are charged in opposite directions: positive earth, negative cloud.

Here's the wild part: as the cloud sends electricity down, the earth sends electricity up. Before the lightning ever comes down from the cloud, the cloud is reaching down with its negative ions and the earth is reaching up with its positive ions.

If you look at time-lapse photography of lightning, this is what you see: the cloud sends little rivulets of light downwards, and the earth sends rivulets of light upwards. They are reaching for each other. And when they connect, most of the light goes up.

The moment I learned this, I thought about spiritual life. I thought of the story from Torah about Jacob camping out for a night and dreaming about a ladder with feet planted in the earth and a top stretching into the very heavens, with angels going up and down the ladder in constant motion. One of my favorite teachings asks: it makes sense for angels to be coming down the ladder from heaven to creation, but what's with the angels going up? And the answer is: the angels going up are our prayers. When we pray, our prayers become angels which ascend this cosmic ladder, and in response, blessings come pouring back down.

Continue reading "Yom Kippur and Shabbat: Lightning and Light (A sermon for Kol Nidre)" »

As we approach Yom Kippur

Please_forgive_me_by_geekindisguise-d4rv291This late afternoon / early evening we'll enter into Yom Kippur and into Shabbat.

These aseret y'mei teshuvah (Ten Days of Re/Turning) have been chock-full of preparations in every realm: from the physical (setting up chairs, preparing for tomorrow night's break-the-fast) to the emotional (weathering the emotional rollercoaster of actually making teshuvah), the intellectual (finishing touches on those sermons!) to the spiritual and ineffable.

I wish I had the spaciousness to reach out to each one of you individually to ask your forgiveness for any ways in which I have missed the mark in our relationship in the last year. As it is, this blog post will have to do.

I know that I have missed the mark over the last year. If my words or deeds have caused you pain, I hope that you can forgive me.

Please know that I likewise extend forgiveness to you. If your words or deeds have wounded me, I affirm that I am doing my level best to forgive. I will not carry relationship snarls or tangles from the old year into the new one.

May we all emerge on the far side of Yom Kippur feeling lightened and cleansed. Shabbat shalom and g'mar chatimah tovah -- may you be sealed for good in the year to come.


Image source: geekindisguise on deviantart.

#BlogElul 17: Awaken

Blogelul2013My friend and teacher Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel has an album called Awaken, Arise!. The title track begins, "Awaken, arise to the wholeness of your being / Awaken, arise to the beauty of your soul..."

This is one of the side effects of regular prayer practice, for me. When I dip into davenen I awaken, in Reb Hanna's words, to the wholeness of my being. I remember that there is more to me than whatever's at the top of my to-do list this morning.

Elul is a season of awakening and arising. The great medieval sage Maimonides (also known as Rambam) heard in the shofar's call the words "Wake up, you sleepers from your sleep, you slumberers from your slumber. Search your deeds and return to Me in teshuvah!"

It's traditional to hear the shofar every day during Elul. For some of us that means blowing shofar each day. For others, maybe hearing the shofar on YouTube. And for still others of us, the hearing of the shofar may be more metaphorical than actual.

But even a metaphorical shofar can pack quite a punch. Wake up! The year is waning! Are you the person you intended to be?

These days I most often awaken to our son's presence in our doorway. Each day he comes to wake me into relationship, into my role as mother and caregiver. His footfalls on the stairs call me out of sleep. Wake up! It's morning-time! I had a good sleep! Can you put on your robe and make me waffles? His needs are generally pretty prosaic, but they're non-negotiable. When he's hungry, he's hungry -- it doesn't matter if I wanted to sleep another ten minutes.

The presence of our not-quite-four-year-old is a kind of shofar, waking me to the responsibilities of my day.

Everyone I meet can be a kind of shofar. Every voice can call me to awareness and recognition: of wholeness and brokenness, of "the beauty of my soul" (in Rabbi Hanna Tiferet's phrasing), of the ethical realm in which I have obligations to the Other, of the ways in which I've missed the mark and need to do better.

Suddenly you are awakened by a strange noise, a noise that fills the full field of your consciousness and then splits into several jagged strands, shattering that field, shaking you awake. The ram's horn, the shofar, the same instrument that will sound one hundred times on Rosh Hashanah, the same sound that filled the world when the Torah was spoken into being on Mount Sinai, is being blown to call you to wakefulness. You awake to confusion. Where are you? Who are you?

That's Rabbi Alan Lew in his book This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, the chapter on Elul, which is titled "The Horn Blew And I Began To Wake Up." This is the month during which we are called to wake up to all of who we are, to all of who we have been, to all of who we could become.

#BlogElul 13: Forgive

Blogelul2013Please be aware that this post mentions a parent mistreating a child, and makes references to addiction and infidelity. If that's likely to be triggering for you, please read with care.

I have a memory from my chaplaincy training at Albany Medical Center. I was sitting with my colleagues, a mixed group of ten clergy and laypeople from a wide variety of traditions, and we were exploring together the question of how to extend pastoral care to someone who had done something terrible. Is it our job, as clergy, to extend forgiveness? What if the patient is near death; does that change anything for us? What if the person to whom we are ministering has done something we feel is unforgivable?

Hospitals are holy places in part because they bring us into contact with life and death, with sickness and health, and those in turn connect us with fears and anxieties which most of us keep submerged most of the time. I remember a lot of pre-surgical patient visits where the patient wanted to talk with me about regrets, about fears, about broken relationships, about hurts both inflicted and received. In Talmud there is a teaching that one should make teshuvah (repent/return) the night before one's death -- and, of course, since one never knows when one's death may be, one should make teshuvah always. The night before a surgery can awaken a deep need to make teshuvah -- and also to struggle with forgiveness, both given and received.

As a chaplain, I understood my job to be primarily about presence. Being present to whatever was being expressed, and to the unique human being who was expressing it. The phrase I used a lot that year was "Manifesting the listening ear of God." But sometimes what we hear, when we listen to the people we care for, can challenge us. Sometimes it triggers us, pushes our buttons, raises our own mental and emotional stuff.  There are rules about when we, as clergy, have to report something we've learned in a pastoral visit. (For instance, cases of abuse.) But there are also times when we hear things which don't require reporting, but do require some inner work. Often the challenge is simply to sit with something painful, and to figure out how to respond with compassion both to those who have been hurt, and to those who have inflicted hurt on others.

Continue reading "#BlogElul 13: Forgive" »

#BlogElul 4: Accept

Blogelul2013Accepting what is. It sounds so simple, doesn't it? Just -- accept. Experience whatever life gives you.

And when life, or the universe, or God -- however you understand it -- gives you something pleasurable, it's easy to accept. A lunch date with a friend: why yes, that sounds grand! An evening with my family: what a treat! An ice cream cone: sure! 

But sometimes we're handed things we didn't ask for, things we don't want. Difficult diagnoses. Postpartum depression. The loss of a job or a loved one. No one wants to accept those. As though in accepting them, we're acceding to them, agreeing to them somehow.

Does it make a difference if one makes a conscious decision to accept whatever comes? Does that give one any kind of agency in the situation? (Is that feeling of agency enough when what comes is difficult or painful?)

Sometimes I get hung up on my expectations. When I develop a sense for what I think is coming, when I write a "script" for an encounter or an experience, and then life doesn't match those expectations, I can get stuck in the disjunction. Thinking that I know what's coming can be a barrier to accepting what is.

As we move into Elul, into this month of teshuvah leading up to the Days of Awe: can I make a spiritual practice of striving to accept whatever life hands me?

Can I accept whatever each day contains while still working to examine and perfect my heart and my soul? I don't want to accept the places where I miss the mark, the places where my relationships or my actions aren't what they should be. Where's the right line between accepting what life holds, and not accepting the places where I could be doing a better job of being the person I mean to be?

To-do lists, teshuvah, and whatever gets in the way of the work

I feel this week as though I'm running at a faster clock speed than usual. It's not quite mania, but it's not all that different from it, either. There's a low buzz of anticipation at the base of my spine. When I sit still in silence, a million waves of thought rise up and crash on the rocks of my consciousness. Elul is upon us, and I am vibrating.

Just before Shabbat began last week, I bought a copy of Rae Shagalov's Elul Book as a downloadable pdf, and I showed some of the calligraphy to my congregants on Shabbat morning. Here's the passage which particularly struck me. Here's the text (and a thumbnail which shows part of her calligraphy...)

7824828536_a00586b87f_mWake up from the beautiful dream of the whole year! If you received a court summons in the mail, you would feel a shock of fear. You would call the best lawyers. You would call all your friends and ask for their advice. You would carefully go through all of your accounts to determine the truth of your situation.

It's Elul! Your summons has come in the mail! Feel the shock! Call your lawyers! Call your friends! Go through your accounts today! Determine the truth of your situation! Who are your lawyers? Your mitzvahs. Who are your friends? Your good actions!

Sometimes, a person refuses to wake up. What happens? His friend shakes him awake so he won't be late for an important engagement. We have a choice. We can wake up on our own, early, and prepare ourselves carefully; or we can pull the blanket over our heads, refuse to wake up, and be shaken awake by our greatest friend in the world...

I wish I thought that Elul and its teshuvah work were the only reason I'm feeling a bit busy and buzzy and aswirl. I know this is the month for serious internal work. I know I have only four weeks during which to kick my teshuvah process into gear. But I suspect that another big piece of the reason why I'm feeling so agitated is that there's just so much to do before the Days of Awe begin.

Time to reach out to people who never responded when I offered them honors in our high holiday services. Time to check my high holiday songsheet drafts against the prayerbook to make sure I have the right things on each songsheet. Time to intensify the search for someone willing and able to take ownership of the project of getting our congregational sukkah built. Time to troubleshoot and figure out why the high holiday cds we burned for our entire congregation won't play on a cd player, and only half of the tracks will play in my car. Time to, time to, time to --

And at the same time, there's a part of my brain which whispers: time to wake up. Time to take a good hard look at my life. Time to discern, where do I habitually miss the mark? How can I become a better version of myself? What are the places where I'm spiritually lazy? Only four weeks now to prepare myself to attempt to lead my community in prayer, to stand before the King of Kings in God's own throne room, to make something meaningful for those who join us in prayer, and how can I do any of those things if I haven't also done my own teshuvah?

This is my second year as a congregational rabbi, and I'm still figuring out how to balance all of this. I feel as though my own internal work has to take a backseat until the congregational logistics are under control -- and yet if I don't do my own internal work, I won't be able to lead the congregation in the way that they deserve.

Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work. I learned that from the poet Jason Shinder, of blessed memory. Can I find a way to tackle the congregational pre-high-holiday to-do list which will allow me to live out the teshuvah, the repentance and return, that I know I need? Can I make phone calls, send emails, generate revised to-do lists with prayerful consciousness? I've said for years that my challenge is figuring out how to live out my spiritual aspirations not when I'm on retreat, not when I'm on a break from ordinary life, but precisely in and through my ordinary life. Not separation, but integration. Here's another opportunity to (try to) do just that.

Here it is, Elul again at last, the scant four weeks between now and Rosh Hashanah dwindling by the minute. Can I trust that what I'm doing is what I'm meant to be doing? That everything will get done, somehow, some way? That I can make teshuvah not when I'm done with the work at hand, but even as I do the work which needs to be done?

VR Podcast 4: Elul and Teshuvah


VR Podcast Episode 4: Elul and Teshuvah.

Tomorrow we enter the new lunar month of Elul -- a perfect time for a new VR Podcast!

In this episode of the VR Podcast I talk about the lunar month of Elul, explore some ideas about teshuvah (repentance / return), share Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's translation of Psalm 27, and close with a blessing for you for the month to come.




To listen online or download:

18 minutes, 20 seconds / 17.6 MB MP3 file

If you're so inclined, you can subscribe via iTunes.

All feedback is welcome and appreciated, always.


This is real, and I want to be prepared: beginning the journey

This coming Shabbat at my shul we'll begin discussing one of my favorite books: This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation by Rabbi Alan Lew. I've posted about it several times before. I try to make a practice of rereading it each year as we enter this season.

If you live locally, I hope you'll join us at CBI this Shabbat for a discussion of the first three chapters of this book (come at 11am -- or join us at 9:30 for davenen first!) And for those who don't live nearby, I thought I might share a few favorite passages here.

26ac228348a01076986d3110-lThe journey I will describe in these pages is one of self-discovery, spiritual discpline, self-forgiveness, and spiritual evolution. It is the snapshot the Jewish people pull out every autumn of the journey all human beings must make across this world: the journey from Tisha b'Av to Sukkot, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, from birth to death and back to renewal again. Seeing yourself in this snapshot will help you chart the course of your own spiritual evolution. Every soul needs to express itself. Every heart needs to crack itself open. Every one of us needs to move from anger to healing, from denial to consciousness, from boredom to renewal. These needs did not arise yesterday. They are among the most ancient of human yearnings, and they are fully expressed in the pageantry and ritual of the Days of Awe, in the great journey we make between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

I love this way of describing the journey of this season. And I love Rabbi Lew's assertion that every soul needs to express itself, every heart needs to crack itself open, every one of us needs to move from denial to consciousness...and that the meaningful dates on the Jewish calendar over the next few months, from Tisha b'Av all the way to Sukkot, are designed to be our spiritual touchstones on this recurring journey.

Continue reading "This is real, and I want to be prepared: beginning the journey" »

Three poems of teshuvah (a sermon for Yom Kippur morning)

August Rain, After Haying

Through sere trees and beheaded
grasses the slow rain falls.
Hay fills the barn; only the rake
and one empty wagon are left
in the field. In the ditches
goldenrod bends to the ground.

Even at noon the house is dark.
In my room under the eaves
I hear the steady benevolence
of water washing dust
raised by the haying
from porch and car and garden
chair. We are shorn
and purified, as if tonsured.

The grass resolves to grow again,
receiving the rain to that end,
but my disordered soul thirsts
after something it cannot name.

Those are the words of the poet Jane Kenyon, of blessed memory. August may feel like a long time ago now, but try to remember it. Close your eyes if you have to. Can you recall the scent of hay, the sound of summer rain? I love this poem; I love its imagery, “the steady benevolence / of water washing dust,” the grass “receiving” the rain in order to grow again. The grass knows what it is doing. But the soul…the soul may be another matter.

“My disordered soul thirsts / after something it cannot name.”What do you yearn for? Not water, not coffee, not whatever your bellies are already beginning to crave: what are you really thirsty for? Is there something you cannot name which pulls you forward, which leaves you wondering, for which you cannot help but hope?

Kenyon named her soul as “disordered.” I suspect that each of us has a disordered soul. Our spiritual lives are like kitchen tables which become piled with unopened mail. After a while we don’t even want to face the sliding stack of envelopes: there are probably bills in there, requests for things we don’t want to give. It becomes easier to just look the other way. But not today. Today is the day to sit down at that table, take a deep breath, and take inventory of what’s there. Today we put our souls in order at last.

Kenyon’s poem is set at the end of the summer, on the cusp of the transition to fall. The trees are sere; the barn is full. The harvest has been brought in, and though the grasses intend to grow, they are headed for their fallow time, their sleeping-time. In just a few days, at Sukkot, we will celebrate our harvest: and for those of us who no longer farm, who most likely don’t even make hay, the harvest must be metaphorical. What emotional and spiritual riches can we gather to salt away for the winter which is coming? What might we be able to harvest today, on Yom Kippur, from our time together?

“We are shorn / and purified,” Kenyon writes: the grass is shorn and somehow we come away feeling that our excess too has been trimmed away, that the falling rain has made us pure. What is shorn away from us on this day of atonement? What would it take for us to feel pure?

Continue reading "Three poems of teshuvah (a sermon for Yom Kippur morning)" »


I hope all who are reading this had a wonderful Rosh Hashanah! We're cradled now in the embrace of the Days of Awe: Rosh Hashanah on one side, Yom Kippur on the other. These are the aseret y'mei teshuvah, the ten days of repentance and return.

There's so much I want to write. About my first Rosh Hashanah as a "real rabbi;" about reaping the harvest of the sacred storytelling class I took last summer at the ALEPH Kallah; about watching my parents discover my son anew at this wonderful moment in his life. Maybe next week I'll have time to share some of those stories and reflections.

For now, I just want to say -- and I mean this, honestly -- if I have hurt or offended you in the year which just ended, I ask your forgiveness. Jewish tradition recognizes a distinction between sins which impact the relationship between a person and God, and sins which impact the relationship between people. As we read in Talmud:

את זו דרש רבי אלעזר בן עזריה, (ויקרא טז) מכל חטאתיכם לפני יי תטהרו, עברות שביןאדם למקום, יום הכפורים מכפר. עברות שבין אדם לחברו, אין יום הכפורים מכפר, עד שירצה את חברו

R. Elazar b. Azariah taught this interpretation of the verse "From all your sins you shall be made pure before God." (Lev. 16:30) For transgressions between a person and the Everpresent One, the Day of Atonement atones, but for transgressions between a person and one's fellow, the Day of Atonement atones only if the person regains the other's goodwill."

I ask for your goodwill and your forgiveness for any places where I may have missed the mark in our relationship in the past year.

Wishing all who live by the Jewish festival calendar a g'mar chatimah tovah -- may you be sealed for a good year to come.

As Elul draws to its close

Tomorrow night, at the closing cusp of Shabbat, we'll hold Selichot services -- the formal beginning of our high holiday season. The Days of Awe are almost here! Here are a few of my favorite posts from this moment in previous years:

  • Release, 2010

    Hatarat nedarim means "releasing of vows." It's a ceremony in which one person assembles three others to serve as a beit din, a court of law... The idea is that these friends serve as representatives of the court on high, and that if each of us can honestly say to these friends that we made vows in the last year in error and wish to be released from them, as our friends hear and accept our regrets, the heavenly court does the same.

  • Looking forward to selichot, 2010

    "Ana B'Koach" is the prayer I turn to when I'm asking for help in letting go of something that has me all worked up in guilt and recriminations. I'll be singing Hanna Tiferet's melody for the prayer, which features just the first line... So often we tie ourselves in knots over things we've done or haven't done. This season of teshuvah (repentance / return) is a perfect time to work on untangling what's become tense and knotted in our spiritual lives.

  • Petition: a prayer for selichot, 2009

    Compassionate One, remember / we are your children // help us to know again / that we are cradled...

  • The Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, 2005

    Buying groceries, and learning Torah. Making a pot of Joe (because my grandmother Rachel's honeycake recipe requires a cup of cold coffee) and practicing the last section of Tuesday's Torah portion, in which God hears Ishmael’s soundless cries...

Shabbat shalom to all; may this Shabbat bring a heightened sense of how near we are to these majestic Days of Awe!

How do I want to be remembered?

This morning I wrote my own obituary. It was homework for the Sage-ing class I'm taking during this final semester of the ALEPH Hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) program. And wow, was it a fascinating experience.

Writing the story of my life to date, in condensed but meaningful form, was thought-provoking. What are the details I would want to share about my growing-up, about my formative relationships, about my childhood and my college years and my journey into poetry and the rabbinate?

Then, of course, the obit became more of a "here's what I hope the rest of my life might look like." I hope to live for many more decades; I'm only 36. So I spun out a fantasy of what the next fifty or sixty years might hold for me, and then wrote about it in the past tense, as though it had happened exactly the way I'm imagining.

If, God willing, I live into my nineties, how would I want to be able to describe my life? How would I want to be able to describe my relationships, my work, my impact on the world? How do I want to be remembered?

It's an amazing spiritual exercise. And, not for the first time, I'm struck by the additional power this class has for me because I'm taking it during a fall semester, as the Days of Awe approach. We're well into the month of Elul, the month which offers the opportunity for reflection and discernment before the New Year comes.

This obituary exercise is a powerful thing to do just before the Days of Awe. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer which we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (see Everyday I write the book) teaches us that God opens the book of memory, which reads from itself, as each of us has signed our name through our deeds. What are the actions which I've recorded in the book of memory this year? Who am I, and what do I want my time on this earth to be?

Before you ask: sorry, but I'm not going to share that obituary here! The part which describes the life I haven't yet had feels too personal and revelatory. (Besides, I don't want my advance obituary to show up as a google search result.) I am saving it on my computer, though. Maybe I'll take the time to revise it over the years to come as my life unfolds. If nothing else, someday it will give my descendants a glimpse of how I saw myself while I was still here.

Alicia Ostriker's Psalm 27

Psalm 27 is traditionally read / studied / sung every day during the month of Elul. Here's one way to interact with the psalm today: by reading this contemporary poem which plays with the psalm's language and themes.


elul: psalm 27

we are told to say the following
every day for a month
in preparation for the days of awe:

you are my light my help
when I'm with you I'm not afraid
I want to live in your house

the enemies that chew my heart
the enemies that break my spine
I'm not afraid of them when I’m with you

all my life I have truly trusted you
save me from the liars
let me live in your house   

-- Alicia Ostriker (from her three-part poem Days of Awe.)


Thanks for this rendition of psalm 27, Alicia. What a beautiful distillation of what's at the psalm's heart.

(Here's Reb Zalman's translation of the full psalm; here's a wonderful Nava Tehila melody for one verse from this psalm; here's a round up of various links, essays, poems, and artworks arising out of the psalm; here's Achat Sha'alti, a musical setting of part of the psalm.)


Sufficient. "Enough to meet the needs of a situation or a proposed end," says Merriam-Webster. "Adequate for the purpose; enough," says Dictionary.com. On the surface the term speaks of having what one needs, but underneath there's often a hint of perceived lack. Don't we want more than mere sufficiency?

Just "enough" sounds like it might imply scarcity. We want more than enough. More food on our plates, more shiny toys in our possession, more clothing in our closets. In the way we see ourselves, too, there can be the drive for more-than-enough. We hold ourselves to impossible standards, afraid that if we are just "enough," we're not doing all that we can or all that we should. There's a way in which "enough" doesn't feel like -- well, enough.

During this month of Elul, as the Days of Awe come hurtling toward us at light speed, I'm working on cultivating my sense that what I am, what I bring, is enough. Even if I'm not living up to some imagined super-mom ideal, the love and attention I bring to my son are enough. Even if our high holiday services aren't exactly perfect for everyone who attends, the love and attention I bring to the community are enough.

Enough doesn't have to imply "just barely." What if we embraced the sense that we're living up to everything we need to be? What if we replaced the word "enough" with "plenty:" what I'm doing is plenty; what we have is plenty; there's plenty to go around? What if "enough" connoted abundance, all our needs met and our wants fulfilled?

I found my way this morning to I Am Enough: a self-kindness collaborative. Here's the first post, from Tracey Clark, which explains how the collaborative came to be (and which also features a truly stunning image by Brene Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.) The stories posted there are simple, direct, and moving. They're also all written by women, which makes sense to me; women often swallow a lifelong diet of subtle pressure to be more, to do more, to see ourselves as perennially not-enough. I know that men struggle with this too. And we don't have to.

Seeing ourselves as enough is a radical act. During this season of teshuvah, as we aspire to repair our broken relationships with ourselves, with others, with the world, with God, this is one place we might choose to begin. What would it feel like to know that we are enough?

On compassion (inspired by Dr. Dan Gottlieb)

I'd never read anything by Dr. Dan Gottlieb when one of my friends pointed me to his essay Lessons From a Wheelchair: Treat Your Body With Compassion this morning.

Gottlieb has been in a wheelchair for thirty years, paralyzed from the waist down. Several months ago, a recent accident on a ramp (which ended in an invisible stair) led him to fall, landing on his neck. Since that accident, he's lost more functionality and he's been in great pain. This essay chronicles the accident, his responses to it (including despair), and eventually his shift into a place of feeling compassion for his body and its suffering.

It's a remarkable essay, not because it chronicles such a riveting story but because of the simple acceptance and kindness it shows. My own health struggles have been infinitely less dramatic than Gottlieb's, but even so, my relationship with my body isn't always what I wish it were. My body isn't always what I wish it were! And it's so easy to get hung up on feeling frustrated by my body's limitations, or to fall into the habit of running my body ragged and not taking good enough care of myself.

Gottlieb's essay inspires me. Faced with physical trauma I can't begin to imagine, he finds his way to a place of feeling blessed by love and relating to his own body with compassion. This is the kind of profound existential shift which I hope that my prayer life (including my meditation practice) can help me achieve. This is, I think, a kind of teshuvah, a turning or re-turning to orient oneself in the direction of holiness and connection with God. When I can relate to my body, mind, and spirit with compassion, I am more able to experience God's presence in my life.

(Two other essays by Dan Gottlieb which I just read which have moved me profoundly: How I Know That Listening Is an Act of Love, about his accident and the act of listening which helped him move toward recovery, and Life Lessons We Learn From Our Children, about the sense of wonder that he's learned from his autistic grandson.)

In Jewish tradition God is often depicted as containing the paired qualities of judgement and compassion, din and rachamim. These are big themes during the upcoming Days of Awe. We understand God as the One Who judges us, and also as the One Who is compassionate toward us. We're created, Torah teaches, in the image and likeness of the divine; maybe it's not surprising that we relate to ourselves, and to each other, with judgement and with compassion, too.

It's easy to judge, and to find others -- and our own selves -- lacking. How might our lives change if we made a conscious effort, this month and every month, to relate to ourselves and to others with compassion instead? Try going a whole day without judging your body: don't knock yourself, don't look in the mirror and criticize what you see, don't get angry with your body if something hurts or if something isn't working; just cultivate compassion for your body.

The body is a good place to start. It's the physical house in which we each live, and I'm not sure I've ever known anyone who had an entirely uncomplicated relationship with their body. But once you can feel compassion for your body, how about cultivating compassion for your heart, and for your mind, and for your soul? What would that even feel like, replacing the constant mental narrative of judgement with deep compassion for ourselves and for others?

If we understand God as the source of both compassion and judgement, maybe cultivating our own compassion is a way to cultivate God's compassion. It could be what the kabbalists call "arousal from below" -- when we arouse our compassion here in the world where we live, we awaken and enflame God's compassion from on high. Or, maybe when we ourselves are more judgemental, we experience God as a harsh judge, but when we are more compassionate, we experience God as more compassionate too.

Powerful stuff for this moment in the Jewish spiritual year. Thanks, Dr. Dan.

New Year's Card 5772 / 2011

Each year I write a new poem which relates somehow to the Days of Awe, and share it as a new year's card with friends and family during Elul. (All of my new year's poems, from 2003-2011, are available here.)

Two years ago, my poem arose in part out of the experience of pregnancy; last year's new year's card featured a poem arising in part out of the experiene of breastfeeding. (If you click on that link, you can also find my poem translated into Hebrew by my friend Rabbi Simcha Daniel Burstyn.)

This year's poem/photo card -- which continues the trend of drawing on parenting metaphors! -- appears below. I wish all who read this a happy and healthy new year!


Right here, right now: a poem of preparation



Early evening, the rains
finally over and gone
I take my son outside
and point out the rising moon
almost full, the lunar month
halfway past. From his vantage
the best part
is our fluffy white cat
perched on the railing
close enough to touch.
I'm thinking about
the Days of Awe: who's
our shofar-blower this year,
what have I forgotten to print,
gotta get that suit from the cleaners
but he's my Buddha, always
right here, right now.
My son knows how to let go
and laugh, wholly lifted.
I don't need to roll up my sleeves
and scrub my soul with a toothbrush.
Return happens in an instant
as soon as I release myself
and climb back
into God's arms.

This morning at meditation I offered our group the mantra I learned from Lorianne of Hoarded Ordinaries years ago: right here, right now. It's a powerful exercise for me in these hectic weeks at the start of the school year as the Days of Awe approach. Breathing in: right here. Breathing out: right now. Whatever arises in my mind from yesterday or last year or ten minutes ago, whatever comes bubbling up in anticipation of tomorrow or next week or ten years from now, just let it float away. Right here, right now. That's where teshuvah happens.

The idea of teshuvah as something which happens in an instant was raised for me by a recent post from Reb Jeff. I feel like my son is reminding me of the same deep truth. For all that I resonate with the notion of teshuvah as a practice of the internal work of discernment which is the appropriate focus for these weeks in our calendar year, there's also value in the notion of teshuvah as an instant existential leap.

I was feeling guilty earlier today that I haven't made more time lately for poetry, and then this poem came knocking at the interior of my consciousness. It's an early draft; I imagine it will change eventually. But I'm sharing it here in hopes of spurring myself to keep creating, and in hopes that it might speak to some of you.

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.

The vidui prayer of Yom Kippur...and of every night.

During a conversation in my Sage-ing class about our responses to the Heschel piece that I wrote about last week, I had a realization that I think might deepen my experience of Yom Kippur. One of the repeated elements of our Yom Kippur liturgy is the vidui, the confessional prayer. We say it in each of the services on that day; it takes the form of an alphabetical acrostic of sins, recited in the plural. (Here's a good translation, with classical commentary, courtesy of Jonathan Baker.)

There's also a deathbed vidui, a confessional prayer said when one is dying. (The text of this traditional prayer is more personal than the vidui we recite on Yom Kippur, but both prayers are called a vidui, and they have themes in common.) Some who have encountered the experience of being with a loved one at the moment of death might link that vidui mentally and spiritually with the one we recite on Yom Kippur.

But Reb Nadya reminded us, in class, that the vidui is also part of the daily liturgy of the bedtime shema. (It's also part of the daily liturgy of penitential prayers called tachanun.) I wrote a little bit about the bedtime shema in a post about the angel song I sing sometimes to Drew; here's a solid introduction to the bedtime Shema at Chabad, and here's the text of the bedtime shema in English.

I think the vidui of Yom Kippur -- and for that matter the vidui before death -- would take on a different tone if we were accustomed to praying it (or something very like it) each night before going to sleep. If each night we tried to make teshuvah, to recognize where we've missed the mark and to release the karmic baggage of our own misdeeds and the misdeeds of others, then the work of making teshuvah during Elul and the Days of Awe would be an entirely different thing.

Here's the bedtime prayer of forgiveness which I keep at my bedside.

Bedtime Prayer of Forgiveness

You, My Eternal Friend,
Witness that I forgive anyone
who hurt or upset me or offended me -
damaging my body, my property,
my reputation or people that I love;
whether by accident or willfully,
carelessly or purposely,
with words, deeds, thought, or attitudes;
in this lifetime or another incarnation -
I forgive every person,
May no one be punished because of me.
Help me, Eternal Friend,
to keep from offending You and others.
Help me to be thoughtful
and not commit outrage,
by doing what is evil in Your eyes.
Whatever sins I have committed,
blot out please, in Your abundant kindness
and spare me suffering or harmful illnesses.
Hear the words of my mouth and
may the meditations of my heart
find acceptance before You, Eternal Friend
Who protects and frees me. Amen.

(Rendered from the Hebrew by R' Zalman Schachter-Shalomi; reprinted with permission of the Spiritual Eldering Institute.)

How might our experience of the Days of Awe (and our experience of going to sleep and waking each night and morning, for that matter) change if we tried to take on the practice of saying this prayer -- or something like it -- every night before sleep?


Pulped tomatoes; peaches under vodka.

My fingers are slightly scalded. I was too eager to pulp the blanched tomatoes; once their skins split in the cold water, I wanted to squeeze their gushy insides into the pot too fast. I should have let them rest. I'm nursing a cold drink now not only because I'm thirsty, but because it feels good on my fingertips.

Sunday night of Labor Day Weekend. Drew is, thankfully, asleep. I have two tasks at hand. First a bag of local peaches, bright and rosy, goes into the boiling water to blanch; now the skinned fruits, cut into dice, are adding their color and their flavor to an infuser of vodka. When we sip it in deep midwinter, we'll marvel at the way it brings back late summer's sticky heat.

And the tomatoes! Ethan brought home a bucket of heirloom tomatoes from Caretaker Farm on Friday. We spread the tomatoes out on our dining room table to ripen for a few more days, and tonight after Drew's bedtime I blanch and skin and pulp them. Five quarts of tomato pulp grace our chest freezer now, waiting.

I've lived in New England for 19 years now, but I'm not a native. I was born and reared in south Texas, where summer won't end for a long time yet. My parents are still enduring near-100-degree days -- while here, even on a relatively hot and sticky early September night, my son needs long-sleeved pyjamas. Part of what makes northern summer so sweet is that it is so brief. We love it because we know it isn't going to last forever. Having just read R' Heschel on death, with two funerals in recent memory, I'm conscious right now that it isn't just summer which inevitably ends.

Being who I am, I can't help linking all of this with this moment in the Jewish seasonal calendar. Elul: the month of walking in the fields with the divine Beloved. Elul: the month of intensifying the inner work of teshuvah, turning and re/turning toward God. Tonight I processed some of the season's literal harvest; what metaphorical and spiritual harvest will I gather in when we reach Sukkot at the end of this festival season? A few of my fingertips are tight and painful because my desire to dive in to the work at hand was too ardent; I didn't want to wait for the fruits to cool. Is my ardor for teshuvah, my ardor for connecting with God, that strong?

Where I live, everything is lush now. The goldenrod is bright and blooming. The trees are full, majestic in their dark green summer robes. Farmstands are practically giving away corn, peaches, tomatoes -- the fruits of our land at this time of year. But this morning I saw apples at a farmstand, too: apples which speak to me of autumn, of the turning year, of dipping in honey for Rosh Hashanah. The first early red and yellow leaves are beginning to turn.

We, too, are beginning to turn. Toward God; toward harvesting the fruits of the year now ending; toward the horizon where the darkening sky begins to draw autumn's cloak up and over creation. What of this summer will we preserve, in our spirits and in our hearts? With what memories will we feed ourselves when winter lashes at the windows? What is the spiritual harvest of this season for you?

How to return: Heschel on death (in the season of teshuvah)

I've just read the most remarkable essay. It was assigned for my Issues of Sage-ing in Hashpa'ah class, but it feels to me like the perfect reading for the beginning of Elul, the beginning of the journey toward the Days of Awe when our liturgy will call us to consider life and death.

The essay is by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, and it's called "Death as Homecoming." (The essay is published in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.) Just think about that title for a moment. Death as homecoming. What does that evoke for you? Can you imagine your own death this way, not as an ending but as a coming-home? Heschel writes:

The Hebrew Bible calls for concern for the problem of living rather than the problem of dying. Its central concern is not, as in the Gilgamesh epic, how to escape death, but rather how to sanctify life.

That's such an important distinction, for me. Of course I can understand the inclination to try to escape death. I can understand the feeling that life is too short, that one wants more. It's a great mythic narrative, the attempt to escape or cheat death. But that's not the Hebrew Bible's way, and it's not Judaism's way. Let death be what it is; what really matters is whether and how we sanctify our time in life.

Our existence carries eternity within itself. "He planted life eternal within us." Because we can do the eternal at any moment, the will of God, dying too is doing the will of God. Just as being is obedience to the Creator, so dying is returning to the Source.

Death may be a supreme spiritual act, turning oneself over to eternity... Death is not sensed as a defeat but as a summation, an arrival, a conclusion.

(The quote about life eternal is from the blessing we recite when we are called up to the Torah. After the Torah has been read, we say "Blessed are You, Adonai, Who has given us a Torah of truth and planted eternal life within us; blessed are You, Adonai, giver of the Torah.") I keep turning Heschel's words over in my mind like a pebble between my fingers: our existence carries eternity within itself. Being is obedience, and dying is return.

Death as homecoming. Of course, it's a homecoming we can't begin to understand. I've been thinking about this lately -- between one holy opportunity to participate in taharah (preparing for burial the body of someone who has died) and two holy opportunities for funerals -- and ultimately I bump up against the mystery of what can't be known.

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