the skies here

All through the long winter, I wait with eager anticipation for the long days of June. I have this in common with my mom, who also loves summertime's long days -- though at her latitude the winter days aren't as short, nor the summer days as long, as those I experience here. One of the things I anticipate most about summer is sitting outside in the late evening, listening to birdsong, watching the sky change color.

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The house where I used to live was on a mountaintop, and it had absolutely spectacular views. When we first went to see it eighteen years ago, the real estate agent who was showing it to us laughed at the look on my face when I got out of the car and looked out at the view and the sky. Leaving that view was one of the hardest things about leaving that house.

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But I am blessed that the place where I live now has a little mirpesset, a little balcony overlooking an expanse of green. (That's where I built my sukkah in the fall.) And here too, there is a patch of horizon and trees and sky. It may not have the over-the-top splendor of the view from the old place, but it has afforded me some beautiful glimpses of the changing sky.

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The sky's transition from afternoon to evening, sunset to nightfall, is predictable. It happens every day (unless there is rain.) It is the very definition of mundane: ordinary, worldly, banal. And yet sometimes it opens my heart to connection with transcendence. In this, it is like other ordinary and banal things: rainbows, or the way my heart dances when I see my child joyful, or what I feel when I marinate in love. 

 

Related:

Who rolls back light before dark and dark before light, 2016

Summer gratitudes, 2015

Looking at the prayer for evening in a new light, 2013 

 

This post borrows its title from the name of my first collection of poems, published by Pecan Grove Press in 1995.


Winter prayer among the trees

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"This is where I like to explore," my son tells me. To an adult eye, this is the smallish band of trees and underbrush between our condo development and the condo development down the road, but to him these are The Woods.

I remember exploring the woods across the street from my house with my friends who lived down the block, when I was a kid, and I am grateful that he has a place like this where his imagination can soar.

"Thank you for showing this to me," I reply, as I follow him.

 

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"This is a place where we can talk to God," he offers.

"Thank You God for the beautiful snow," I say, feeling tickled that this is still something he and I can do. I know that someday he will outgrow the desire to let me overhear his conversations with God, but that hasn't happened yet.

"This is the special place where I feel God's spirit," he tells me. "When you cross through here, you put your hands like this." He brings his hands together in prayer. I'm not sure where he learned that posture, but I am not about to argue with him. Here in his special place, he is the guide and I am the student.

 

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"Thank You God for the woods that you made and for the snow on the trees and for this place where we can talk to You," he says, and then emerges from the sacred grove. "You try," he tells me.

I cross into the place where he was standing and I emulate his posture. "Thank You God for this beautiful snow, and for the trees, and for my wise son who teaches me things every day. Amen."

He beams at me. "Thanks, Mom," he says. "Let's go explore some more."

So we do.


New in The Wisdom Daily: Everything Breaks. It's What We Do With The Pieces That Matters.

31967190051_a22ff3cf91_z...On my scraps of paper, I jotted down phrases like “the sorrow of my divorce” and “tendency to diminish my own needs” and “feeling silenced.” I felt both humbled and hopeful: humbled by the recognition that there’s much I need to shed, and hopeful at the prospect of truly letting those things go.

When we were done writing, we went around the table and took turns reading each scrap of paper aloud and then holding it in the fire until it began to burn. We dropped the flaming bits of paper into the dish that held the tealight. We burned old griefs and bad habits.

When we were done, one of my friends suggested a variation. We each wrote blessings for each of the others,  read those aloud, and lit them on fire too — not because we wanted the blessings to burn up, but because the act of setting them aflame felt like a way of offering the intentions up to God.

As we finished reading and burning our hopes and blessings for each other, we heard a loud crack. We promptly blew out the flame, but it was too late — the ceramic dish holding the tealight had broken in two....

That's from my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily.

Read the whole thing: Everything Breaks. It's What We Do With The Pieces That Matters

 

 


As the year draws toward its close

End-of-the-yearAt the end of the Jewish year, there are practices of introspection designed to help us re-align ourselves. The work of teshuvah (repentance / return / returning to our deepest and truest selves) calls us to look seriously at who we've been and who we want to become. The end of the secular year isn't as much a time of inner work for me as the end of the Jewish year, but it's still a natural time to pause and take stock of who I am and where I'm going.

It's a truism to say that no year is quite like any other, but 2016 was particularly unusual for me because it was the year during which my eighteen year marriage came to its end. Midway through 2016 I moved out of the home I'd lived in since 1999, the home in which I had once thought I might live out the rest of my days. And I began to live on my own for the first time. Not "alone" -- thanks to my seven-year-old -- but on my own.

That's a big transition, and it's one I'm still navigating. Those of you who have lived on your own for a long time may take those rhythms for granted. Those of you who have lived with a partner, or with other family members, for a long time may not realize in how many subtle ways one comes to rely on the patterns that evolve between people who share a household and a life. I knew this would be a big change, and it has been as momentous as I expected.

Spiritually speaking, the latter half of this year has been an exercise in drawing on what sustains me. Sometimes that means meditation and prayer, sometimes singing in harmony with friends, sometimes hot tea and solitude.  It's also been a time of navigating grief. It's also been an exercise in finding small pleasures to savor: the chickadees discovering the bird feeder I hung outside the kitchen window, or my mastering a new recipe in the slow cooker I bought at a tag sale over the summer.

As I look ahead to 2017, I know that I will need to continue being attentive to what nourishes my heart and spirit. I will need to continue learning how to rely on myself and trust my own strength -- and also to lean on community, family, and friends sometimes, and not to isolate myself from the communities of which I am a part. I'll keep working at making a home for myself and my son, brightened by Shabbat candles and by the presence of friends.

2016 has been a difficult year, but has contained gifts that counterbalance its sorrows (on a personal level, at least; I'm not looking in this moment at the traumas of the globe, which have been substantial.) I'm grateful for the old year's gifts, and I know that the secular new year will contain gifts too. Whatever your 2016 has been, I hope that you can find blessings to uplift as the secular year begins to wind down -- and may we all release the sorrows of the old year, and let them float away.

 


A crack in everything

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I was walking with my son at MASS MoCA on a recent rainy day. He was collecting Pokémon on my phone, and I was letting my mind wander with our footsteps. The asphalt of the pavement beneath my feet was cracked in several places. As in many places, the cracks had been filled in and repaired.

But then I noticed that these repaired cracks weren't quite like the ones I see everywhere else. They gleamed. They were golden. And then I noticed the small plate on the side of building 11 indicating that this is an art piece by Rachel Sussman, part of an exhibition called The Space Between. Here's how the artist herself describes the piece:

Fracture is investigated by Rachel Sussman, who restores cracks in pavement in the museum parking lot by adapting the Japanese art of kintsukuroi. On the ground in the interior courtyard behind the museum’s main building, resin and gold powder fill the cracks on the ground caused by cars and weather. The tiny streams of gold create fractal patterns recalling aerial topographical photographs. The philosophy of kintsukuroi treats cracks as fundamental parts of an object, noting that value lies in accepting change and underscoring the aesthetic qualities of imperfection and use rather than disguising flaws.

I learned the name of the art as kintsugi, and I've written about it before (see From trauma to healing, a d'var Torah I shared for Shemini a couple of years ago.) I learned about it from a blog reader, who told me about it after I posted the poem Find in April 0f 2015. The art, as I understand it, inheres in repairing broken things with gold so that their brokenness becomes a focal point and a locus of beauty, rather than being a cause for shame. 

We all have broken places. Our bodies break -- I became aware of that in a new way when I had my strokes. And even absent something dramatic like a stroke, our bodies all have flaws, and the older we get, the less our bodies match the supposed ideals of youthful slimness that our current culture so prizes. Our hearts break -- we experience love lost or unrequited, seasons of loneliness and invisibility, the personal griefs that we all come to carry. Our minds break -- over time they lose their elasticity, and remembering things becomes more difficult. And our spirits break -- the world is unfair, children fall ill and do not recover, world news can be horrifying and disheartening. We are all broken, sometimes.

It can be tempting to try to hide the brokenness. To put a bandaid on it, or cover it over with makeup, or put on the proverbial happy face and pretend it away. And there are times when pretending at gratitude can help us actually get there. But there are also times when pretending away our brokenness and our grief is a form of spiritual bypass. I think that often authentic spiritual life demands something different: that we feel what we feel, and that we call it what it is, honestly and openly. Sometimes we feel broken. (Sometimes we are broken.) And that's okay. Granted, it doesn't feel good. Nobody wants to be broken. But pretending that we are otherwise doesn't actually change anything. The art of kintsugi offers a different path: paint our broken places gold.

Paint our broken places gold, and embrace them. Recognize that the more life we have lived, the more scars we are likely to have -- visible or invisible -- and that our scars are not a flaw in us, but an intrinsic part of what makes us human. Beyond that: our broken places can paradoxically be a source of our wholeness. The sages of the Talmud taught that if an earthen vessel becomes tamei ("impure," charged-up with spiritual energy in a dangerous way) the way to make it tahor (pure) is to break it and glue it back together. Torah teaches that we are beings of the earth: we too can become pure and whole not despite our brokenness, but in and through it. Or as the Leonard Cohen z"l wrote, "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

I'm grateful to Rachel Sussman for adding a little bit of beauty and sparkle to the rain-drenched pavement outside of MASS MoCA, and for reminding me to find the beauty in my own broken places.

 


Entering the empty month

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Today and tomorrow are Rosh Chodesh, new moon, the "head of the month" -- the beginning of a new lunar month. On the Jewish calendar, we're entering into the month of Cheshvan. Cheshvan is remarkable because it is empty: aside from Shabbat, which comes every seventh day all year long, Cheshvan contains no holidays. No feast days, no fast days, no special practices, no special liturgy. Nothing at all out of the ordinary. Jewish time is separated into kodesh (holy / set-apart) and chol (ordinary time), and the month of Cheshvan is -- aside from its Shabbatot -- completely chol

I love the Days of Awe. I love the whole rollercoaster: from the low point of Tisha b'Av, through the month of Elul (introspection, inner work, psalm 27), through Rosh Hashanah (day of judgement, birthday of creation), through the Ten Days of Teshuvah, through Yom Kippur (day of atonement, intimacy with God), through the seven days of Sukkot (little harvest house, lulav and etrog, facing impermanence) and Hoshana Rabbah and Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. And by the time we get to the end of all of those special days, with their customs and practices and words, I am wiped out.

Enter Cheshvan, the empty month. On the solar calendar we are moving toward winter in this hemisphere. The days are getting colder, the leaves have largely blown off the trees, the hills are taking on their more sere and muted late-autumn hues of soft purples and browns beneath frequently clouded skies. The outside world feels like a reflection of my internal spiritual landscape. The time for the finery of the Days of Awe is over. Now I cup my hands around a mug of tea, now I sit and breathe deeply, now I let everything that was activated and stirred-up in me by the holidays begin to settle like fallen leaves.

Cheshvan is the beginning of a spiritual fallow season. Just as the earth needs time to rest between harvest and new planting, so too do our hearts and souls. Now we let the ordinary passage of ordinary time work its magic. We trust that the coming season will somehow -- alchemically, mysteriously -- transform the discoveries and emotions of the holiday season into the inner qualities we will most need as we approach the festivals of (northern hemisphere) spring in a few months. We are like fallen leaves not yet ready to serve as mulch for spring's new growth. We are like seeds curled tight, waiting.

We can't know yet what will arise in us after the quiet winter. If we had a telescope to let us look far out to the horizon we could maybe barely glimpse the beacons of Tu BiShvat, Purim, and Pesach in the distance. But there are months between now and then. In the northern hemisphere the days are growing shorter. It's Cheshvan, the empty month. Time to let our hands be empty, let our hearts be open, let the hard work of the holiday season begin to percolate in our hearts and souls. It's Cheshvan, the empty month. Time to hunker down, tend our internal fires, and let ordinary time balm our tender places. 

 

Related:

Seasonal, 2013

 

[Image source]


The woman who used to live at number 9

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Sometimes I think about the woman who used to live in the condo that now is mine. I bought this condo from the grown children of a woman named Sally, who died at 91. I never knew her, though this is a small town, and I have encountered many people who did know her. "Oh, you bought Sally's place," they say. Usually after that, people say something like "she was quite a character."

I've heard anecdotes about her climbing over fences, playing golf with celebrities, enjoying a scotch before dinner. The house was empty when I moved in, but hidden in corners that her children had missed I found a few of her things. I kept the coffee mug emblazoned with the logo of the Clark Art Institute; I gave the long, wickedly elegant black and white cigarette holder to Goodwill.

I wonder what she would think about the fact that her home is now inhabited by a single mother and a first grader. Did she have kids when she lived here, or did she move here after her kids were grown? I wonder what she would think of the bright red curtains I hung in the living room, or the wine-colored duvet and pillows in the master bedroom once curtained with a print of pink and green.

In the kitchen I've hung photographs I took in Buenos Aires and in Jerusalem: did she like to travel? Had she ever been to either of those places? What would she make of the music that fills these rooms -- sometimes Nava Tehila, sometimes Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, often the theme song to the Pokémon cartoons my son likes to watch? What would she have made of the sukkah I built on the mirpesset?

Sometimes I imagine her keeping company with the people whose furniture I have inherited. My ex-husband's maternal grandmother, for instance: her bedside tables are in my master bedroom now. Or my own maternal grandparents, whose Czech bookcase serves as a dining room sideboard. I imagine them as a friendly chorus of elders watching over me in this new chapter, fondly, from afar.

 


Back to the beginning

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This week we begin again. The cycle of fall holidays is finally over: we have returned to ordinary time. I don't mean by that term precisely what my Christian cousins mean by it -- for them it has a more particular liturgical meaning than it does for us. What I mean is something more like חול / chol, non-sacred time. Usually we speak in terms of שבת וחול / shabbat v'chol, the holiness of Shabbat and the ordinariness of the non-sacred workweek. After the star-studded expanse of the Days of Awe and all that comes before and after them, this first ordinary Shabbat of the new year feels to me almost like a kind of chol. It will be Shabbat, of course, which makes it holy -- but it's a holiness that partakes of the regular rhythms of the year. The smaller ebb-and-flow of Shabbat-and-week, rather than the big peaks from which we have only recently descended. We have returned to normalcy.

As the parent of a first grader, I am conscious of the gifts that come with normalcy and routine. Transitions are hard. Big holidays are disruptions in ordinary time, and they need to be -- we need them to be. We need to be shaken out of our complacency. We need to be confronted with experiences that awaken our sense of awe and majesty, that remind us that we are mortal and today might be our last chance to lead the kind of life of which we can be proud because tomorrow is never guaranteed. Jewish tradition is wise in giving us these things, and in giving us so many of them in a row that our emotional and spiritual defenses weaken and let our true hearts begin to shine through. And after so many of them in a row, now we need the return to ordinary time. Just as my son needs to return to the regular rhythms of schoolnight bedtime, so we need to return to our regular rhythms too. 

And what do we do on this first Shabbat of ordinary time? We begin our great story again. We roll our Torah scrolls back to the very beginning and we read about when God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth, and creation was wild and waste, and the spirit of the Divine hovered like a mother bird over the face of the waters. We return to the moment in our story when all of creation was as-yet untapped potential. At the beginning of the story, anything could happen! Of course, the words of our Torah are already written. We know how that story will go from here. But there's still power, for me, in returning to the narrative moment when everything began. It's a new beginning, a new year. The story in our scroll is already written, but what we will make of that story this year is up to us. What we will make of our lives this year is up to us. What we will revise ourselves into is up to us.


Moving into late January

Late January can be a difficult time. It's cold outside: this morning my car's thermometer registered seven degrees. The world is mostly monochrome: white snow, brown and grey tree trunks, sky which is often clouded in shades of pearl and grey. Midwinter's excitement (whether that means Christmas, or New Year's, or the OHALAH conference of Jewish Renewal clergy) is over and gone, but winter's not going anywhere. Whether or not you put stock in the idea of Blue Monday, this time of year is tough.

I've learned over the years that this is a good time of year for small pleasures. A glass of vibrant, tart, bright-red hibiscus tea. Luxuriating beneath soft blankets. Making the effort to bring in wood and light a fire, even if it's just me in the house, because it feels good -- both the warmth from the burning wood, and the emotional warmth evoked by the crackling flames. This is a good time of year to paint my nails some outrageous bright color, and to wear my insulated purple gloves: anything to gladden the eye.

Some days I manage to pause and sing the the evening service. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of all being, Who with Your word bring on the evening...  The Hebrew suggests that evening is a mixture, a blending of day and night. It's the cusp, and as evening transitions toward night the sky's palette shifts and deepens. One evening last week I sat outside with a friend and as chevrons of geese flew overhead we caught sight of streaky pink clouds of winter sunset -- there and then gone. 

I am a creature of summertime. I love the long days, the warmth, the light, the effusion of greenery, the gloaming of a long summer twilight. I'm happiest in sandals and something sleeveless. At this season I have to work harder to notice what's beautiful: the sparkle of sunlight on crisp snow, or the late afternoons where moon and stars illuminate the sky. My gratitude practices remind me to seek something every day for which I can be thankful. I'm thankful for those practices, at this time of year.


To affix the mezuzah

23278205325_439633ff6b_zMy study at home doesn't have a door. It's part of a bigger room, walled off by standing bookshelves which face in both directions. Because my study doesn't have a door, it doesn't have a doorframe or doorposts. As a result, there's never been a mezuzah at the entrance to my study...until now. 

I've had this glass mezuzah for as long as I can remember. I think that I bought it from a visiting sofer (scribe) at the Jewish day school I attended in second grade. It's traveled with me from place to place, room to room, always sitting on a shelf or on a table. (From time to time, as needed, it travels with me to my shul so that the local sofer can examine it when he comes to examine our Torah scrolls.) And now it hangs on the edge of one of the bookshelves which acts as a doorframe to this ersatz room.

As I was preparing to hang it, I was struck by the particular phrasing of the blessing for affixing a mezuzah. In English, one way to translate it would be this: "A fountain of blessings are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of the universe! You give us the opportunity to make ourselves holy with these connective-commandments, including the commandment to affix the mezuzah."

The word I'm rendering as "affix" is לקבוע / likbo'a  – the same root as in the phrase מקום קבוע / makom kavua, the "fixed place" one is supposed to make for oneself in prayer. (Here's a nice commentary on that -- I especially like the idea, from Dr. Alan Morinis, that when one chooses a fixed spot for prayer, one frees up the rest of the space in the room for others -- just as when one maintains good ego boundaries, one frees up the rest of the psycho-spiritual space in the room for others.)

Contrary to the Gemara's instructions, I don't have a "fixed place" for my spiritual practices, whether poetry or prayer. I do both wherever I go, including when I am on the go. Sometimes I pray aloud while driving the car. (Sometimes I write poems in my head while driving the car.) This life is one of perennial multitasking. Rabbinate, parenthood, serving ALEPH, writing poetry: all of these roles interpenetrate, and I embody them wherever I go. I'm still mom when I'm at the synagogue. I'm still rabbi when I'm packing a lunch for school. I'm still a poet when I'm writing sermons or making pastoral care calls. I am all of these things wherever I go, and my spiritual practices are portable -- they go with me. 

Still, affixing a mezuzah at the entrance to my study feels like a way of making that room an extra-special place for my spiritual practices. Now when I walk through the "door" into my study, I can pause and kiss my fingers and touch them to the mezuzah -- sanctifying the transition from one space to another, one room to another. I love that our tradition gives us this tool for noticing liminal spaces and making them holy. And I love that when I enter this room where so many of my poems are revised, including this year's many poems of love and longing for the Beloved, I'll be reminded to love the One with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my being (because the prayer which reminds me to do so is written on the mezuzah's parchment.)

Most days, I also wear the words of that same prayer -- the declaration of God's Oneness, and the exhortation to love the One with all that I am -- on a silver amulet designed by artist Jackie Olenick. Maybe that amulet is the portable "mezuzah" on the room of my body, the room of my heart. My glass mezuzah can help me sanctify my home office -- not necessarily my only fixed place for spiritual practice, but one of the places where I practice; and my necklace can help me cultivate holiness as I bring my spiritual practices with me, wherever I go. 

 

Related:

Doorposts, 2010

 


Hidden light

EarthshineAt this time of year where we live, it's dark by the time the students and I pour forth from the synagogue at the end of Monday afternoon Hebrew school. And now that my son is in kindergarten, he comes to Monday Hebrew school just as the older kids do. So the two of us walk out of the shul together into the afternoon dark.

Last night as we approached the car, he looked up at the sky and crowed, "I see the moon!" And then, a moment later, he added -- with wonderment -- "it's a crescent, but I can see the rest of it, look, it's dark grey!" I told him that this is a waxing crescent moon; we are four days into the lunar month of Kislev, so the moon is growing bigger.

The waxing crescent moon is beautiful, of course... and so is the more muted light which my son admired on the remainder of the satellite, the dim but perceptible silhouette of the rest of the moon. That pale glow, it turns out, is earthshine -- light reflected from the earth onto the moon. When the moon is a crescent, if we could stand on its surface we would see a full earth hanging in space. Earthshine is the glow from the full earth, reflected back onto the night side of the moon.

Earthshine isn't visible all night long -- only for a short while after sunset, and a short while before sunrise. But if you catch the crescent moon at those liminal times, you can glimpse the rest of the moon, too. That the moon illuminates the earth is no surprise to me. The full moon is a thing of beauty, and shines so brightly! But that our earth illumines the moon in turn -- I never knew that. I'd seen it before, but didn't know what it was.

In Jewish tradition the moon can represent Shekhinah, divine Presence: sometimes hidden and sometimes revealed, but always with us. If the moon represents divine Presence, then maybe earthshine represents how our yearning for God makes God more present, more "visible," to us. As we gaze upward and yearn for the One, the light of our souls shines forth -- and even though our individual lights are tiny, collectively we shine enough light to illuminate God from afar.

As earthshine illuminates the moon which in turn beams more light upon us, so our souls -- thirsty for connection -- shed light on God Who pours light down on us in turn. Earthshine only manifests when the moon isn't full -- or in Jewish mystical language, it's precisely when God seems most hidden that we are called to yearn and to seek. (The Zohar has a phrase for this: אתערותא דלתתא, "arousal from below." Sometimes connection between us and God comes from "on high;" other times it's sparked by our yearning "from below.")

There are times when God's light is brilliant -- full moon, as it were. And there are times when God's light is scant... and it's precisely at those times when our yearning can most fully call divine light forth, just as earthshine is only possible when the moon is mostly hidden from view. God's hiddenness is an invitation to us to seek and to yearn. And the very act of our seeking makes God more findable -- just as the light of our faraway planet helps the moon herself to shine.

 


Brought to you by diner coffee

I think of myself as pretty good at working with people remotely. I was a relatively early adopter, internet-wise. I've been online for well more than 20 years. I spent three years on the board of directors of a nonprofit organization with no physical address, working with colleagues all over the globe day after day via purely internet-based tools. And yet I can't deny that there is a different energy, a special spark, which arises when I can sit down with someone face to face. Maybe especially if our brainstorming is fueled by a neverending stream of surprisingly decent diner coffee.

Everready

This is a photograph of my current favorite diner. This diner is on a relatively nondescript Main Street sort of highway in a smallish upstate New York town. We happened on it purely because the town in which it is planted is roughly midway between where I live and where my ALEPH co-chair lives. And besides, its chrome and mirrors gleam so appealingly on a sunny day! (And when you walk inside, you're greeted by a giant statue of a guy holding a gargantuan coffee mug.) Every so often, when we can swing it, we get in our cars and we each drive a couple of hours, and this is where we meet up.

It's enormous, and although there's frequently a healthy crowd, I've never seen it full. Maybe that's why they don't seem to mind when we show up, order breakfast, and then spend hours with laptops thanking the waitstaff when they come to top off our cups. It was at this diner, some months ago, that we first dreamed up a list of hopes for ALEPH six months, a year, three years hence. It was at this diner recently that we opened up that plan again and marveled at how many of those hopes and dreams are (with help from Board, staff, teachers, and the Holy One of Blessing) coming to pass.

Lately we've been joking that when we issue that State of Jewish Renewal report next summer at the ALEPH Kallah, we should indicate on the flyleaf that it is brought to you by this diner's neverending stream of coffee. Most recently it's where we met with Rabbi Andrew Hahn, "the Kirtan Rabbi" (about whose work I have posted before), to talk about next summer's Kallah, innovation space and the integration of serious text study with heart-centered Renewal spiritual technologies, and more. We only make it there every few months, but it's already becoming my diner-office-away-from-home.

I don't mind working remotely. On the contrary: I love the fact that when the ALEPH Board meets, I see friendly faces (on my computer screen) who are in a variety of locations and time zones. I love the fact that I get to work with terrific colleagues around North America and around the world. But there really is no substitute for facing a friend across a formica diner table, warming one's hands on a cup of joe in a satisfyingly chunky diner mug, making to-do lists and riffing off of each other's ideas, and then together -- dual laptops open, shared document cursor blinking -- diving in and getting to work.

 


The specialness of the ordinary

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Those who pay close attention to the Jewish calendar, or who pay close attention to the night sky, may have noticed that the moon has started waxing again -- which means we've entered a new lunar month. After the intense constancy of the month of Tishri -- which contains Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah -- comes the month which contains no holidays other than Shabbat, that holiest day of the year which recurs every seventh day.

Some call this lunar month חשון / Cheshvan. Some call it by the name מרחשון / Marcheshvan, and interpret that name as "bitter Cheshvan" -- mar means bitter -- because there are no holidays this month besides Shabbat. Though Rabba Emily Aviva Kapor-Mater noted recently that "The name of the month derives from the Akkadian waraḥ-šamnu meaning 'eighth month' (think cognate to ירח שמיני). Remember, last month Tishri, though first, is actually seventh, and so Marḥeshvan is eighth."

(What does she mean about Tishri being both first and seventh? Well, it depends on which new year you're counting from. The Talmud lists four different new years. If the new year is at Pesach, then Tishri is the seventh month; if the new year is at Rosh Hashanah, it's the first month. Her point is that Marcheshvan can't mean "bitter Cheshvan" because its etymology clearly implies "eighth month." Still, far be it from me to object to a poetic interpretation, as long as we know that it's poetry.)

Still others call this month רמחשון / Ram-cheshvan, "High Cheshvan," suggesting that this month is high and holy precisely because its holiness is hidden, or suggesting that this month's true holiness will make itself known in a time to come. (I believe that teaching originally came from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach z"l.) I like the inversion. The fact that this month has no overt holidays doesn't make it lesser-than. Quite the opposite, in fact. What appears to be most ordinary is in fact most special.

It makes me think of one of my favorite teachings from the Slonimer rebbe about the holiness of the white space. (This is a Shemini Atzeret teaching; I've posted about it here before.) He talks about how the letters of the Torah are holy, and so is the parchment on which they are written. The black fire is holy, and so is the white fire within which it is contained. The days of our festivals are holy -- and so is the context of chol, of ordinary time, within which our days of kedusha, holiness, are cradled.

I like the idea that this month's specialness is hidden. Like a secret language which only those who care will learn to speak. Like secret music which most people don't bother to make the effort to hear. Who knows what opportunities for connection might lurk beneath this month's overtly ordinary exterior? No festivals, no shindigs, no fancy observances -- just a month during which we can reconnect ourselves with the rhythms of weekday and Shabbat, and rediscover the holy opportunities of ordinary time.

 

Related:

The year as spiritual practice, 2009

The empty month, 2010

Seasonal, 2013

Cheshvan, 2014


Bedtime angels

On Tuesday evening I was blessed with the opportunity to lead our evening meditation at Beyond Walls. I had planned to sing two prayers, with some silent meditation in between, and that's exactly what I did -- first the ma'ariv aravim prayer which blesses God Who brings on the evening, and then the hashkivenu prayer which asks God to spread over us a shelter of peace as we head toward bed. But as I was finishing that second prayer I realized that there was something else I wanted to sing, something I sing to our son nightly: the invocation of the four angels who watch over us as we sleep.

The invocation of the angels is part of the liturgy of the bedtime shema. I grew up reciting the simple one-line shema at bedtime, but didn't learn about the other parts of the traditional liturgy until adulthood. One piece of that liturgy is a beautiful prayer of forgiveness (both seeking it, and granting it) which I have written about before. (See The vidui prayer of Yom Kippur...and of every night.) Another piece is birkat ha-mapil, which asks God to protect the sleeper to lie down in peace and rise up in peace in the morning. And a third piece is an invocation of a quartet of angels.

Here are the words to that invocation, as I learned it at Elat Chayyim many years ago:

בשם ה' אלוהי ישראל
מימיני מיכאל
ושמאלי גבריאל
מלפני אוריאל
ומאחורי רפאל
ועל ראשי ומעל תחתי שכינת אל

B'shem Hashem, elohei Yisrael
B'ymini Michael u-smoli Gavriel
Milfanai Uriel, u-me'acharai Raphael
V'al roshi, u-m'al tachtai, Shechinat-El

In the name of God, the God of Israel
On my right is Michael, on my left is Gavriel
In front of me is Uriel, behind me Raphael
And all above, surrounding me, Shechinat-El.

Sometimes this is called "the angel song." It invokes the presence of four angels. On the right is Michael, which in Hebrew means "Who is Like You, God?" -- in simple words, Wonder. On the left is Gavriel, which means "God's Strength" -- in simple words, Strength. In front is Uriel, which means "God's Light" -- simply, Light. Behind is Raphael, "God's Healing" -- simply, Comfort. And above us, and surrounding us, every present with us, is the Shechinah, the immanent divine Presence. (The idea of naming each angel with a one-word quality comes from the children's book The Bedtime Sh'ma.)

If you can't see the embedded video, above, it's here on YouTube.

The melody I used at Beyond Walls was one by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach z"l, and it's the one I most often sing to our son at bedtime. (Though when I was at Getting It... Together a few weekends ago, I learned a beautiful new melody for these words, written by Shir Yaakov.) I love this little prayer. I love the idea of invoking these four angelic presences to watch over us while we sleep. I love the fact that in our tradition there is an angel of Wonder, an angel of Strength, an angel of Light, an angel of Healing. And I love the use of this lullaby to gentle the transition out of waking and toward dreams.

The Talmud teaches that sleep is 1/60th of death. When we go to sleep, our tradition teaches, we place our souls in God's keeping -- and when we rise and sing the modah ani, we thank God for restoring them to us and for the gift of another day. Sleep means letting go of whatever we've been carrying all day, and letting go of control. When we sleep we have to trust that our hearts will go on beating and that the world will keep on turning. For me, invoking the presence of these four angels is a bolster against anxiety and a comfort. I'm grateful that I was able to share this practice with this community.

 

Related:

Calling all angels, 2010

Bedtime prayers and the alphabet, 2013

Vayechi: a blessing at bedtime, 2015


Watching the river run

19145421875_5c90bc5c48_zIn the summer of 1989, I spent five weeks traveling the American West with a group called Man and His Land. The trip offered opportunities to taste a variety of different wilderness experiences: backpacking and canoeing in Yellowstone, a river-rafting trip in Utah, horseback riding and llama trekking and mountain biking in Wyoming, culminating in learning how to do some technical climbing in the Grand Tetons. We caravaned in a pair of big vans when we had to move from state to state.

In retrospect, I cannot imagine what moved me to do this. I had never been an athletic kid. I always chose books or art or theatre over outdoor activities or sports. What on earth made me think that Man and His Land was a good idea? (Actually, I think I know part of the answer to that -- it was my friend Milly, who went with me. I think it was probably her idea. But I agreed to it all the same.) Of course, it was a great idea. Even bookish kids can fall in love with the great outdoors, and the trip was designed to be a supportive environment for kids to stretch themselves and find their wings. But it was hard.

I grew up in south Texas, and had been to New Mexico, so the vistas of the American West weren't as mindblowing to me as they were for some of the kids who came from more eastern or more urban locales. But I'd never experienced backcountry camping -- the kind of camping where you hike for miles into the wilderness, and carry everything in and out. I was not in good shape (although at least I wasn't struggling to shake a cigarette habit like some of the other teens) and I huffed and puffed my way up every mountain. MHL asked me to do things I didn't think I could do. Somehow, I did them.

1989 was smack in the middle of the era of the mix-tape. And our trip leader -- a woman named Barb, whom I idolized; she seemed to me impossibly wise, at the advanced age of twenty-eight -- made use of a mix tape in a powerful way. Before each segment of the trip, she would gather us around the campfire and play a little bit of the tape. The trip began with a Cat Stevens anthem: "On the Road to Find Out." Before our warm-up hike in the Great Sand Dunes National Park at the edge of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, she played us Carole King's "I Feel The Earth Move Under My Feet."

Before we went backpacking in Yellowstone, we heard Jimmy Cliff's "You Can Get It If You Really Want." Before our river rafting expedition, Loggins and Messina's "Watching the River Run." The songs pervaded and permeated our time in the wilderness in a way that wouldn't be possible now in the era of phones which double as mp3 players. It's probably unimaginable to today's teenagers to be away from their music; music lives on their phones, music lives in the cloud! But none of that was true the summer that I was fourteen. That mix tape was the complete soundtrack of that summer.

I don't consciously think about Man and His Land much. But the songs from that mixtape are still with me. Often I find the melodies and lyrics in my head, and only then do I realize what current emotional or spiritual situation has called them forth. Most of these are songs I haven't heard in decades, but they're inscribed deep in my memory. Probably the one which most frequently arises for me is "Watching the River Run." I'm not especially a fan of Loggins & Messina per se, but that one song still holds meaning. Maybe because I first encountered it at a time when I was doing a lot of emotional growing.

There's something about the metaphor of the running river which speaks to me. Like time, a river flows only in one direction. Like a life, a river may flow past great wonders and also at times great monotony. And when there are sharp rocks along a river bed, the best thing to do may be to let go and trust that the current will carry you safely to your destination. If you try to hold on too tightly to any place along the river's course, the fact of its current can hurt you. Sometimes you have to leave something beautiful behind, trusting that wherever the river is going, new beauty will be there too, waiting to be found.

 

Barb, my trip leader all those years ago, is still leading wilderness expeditions -- now in Alaska.


Summer gratitudes

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Summer twilight, Williamstown, close to 9pm.

I love breathing the air here during the summer. The fresh green scent of cut grass, whether newly-mown lawns or newly-shorn hayfields. From lilac blooms in late May to wisteria blooms in August. Right now the scent of blossoms I can't name, caught in the currents of the breeze.

I love listening to the world here during the summer. Birdsong starts early, and on a good day I get to lie in bed drifting in and out of sleep for a long time after the early dawn, listening. Behind the synagogue, redwinged blackbirds. Come evening the calls of the veery thrush spiral through the air.

I love the sky here during the summer. Some days it's a dome of infinite eggshell blue. Some days streaked with cloud. (And some days it's overcast, oh well.) At twilight there can be blue at one horizon and pink at the other; it is so beautiful that I have to stop what I'm doing and gape at the sky.

I love the tactile experiences of summer. My feet are happiest in sandals, toes free to wiggle; my arms are happiest in the sunshine and the open air. I love walking barefoot on the patches of our lawn which are shot through with curly patches of wild thyme so that every step releases spice.

I love the tastes of summer. Little local strawberries, just picked, still warm from the sun and the earth. Peaches, romaine hearts, slabs of pineapple streaked with marks from the grill and sweetened by fire. The soft-serve ice cream I enjoy with our son after a game of minigolf, licking every last drop.

It's easy for me to offer praise at this season. I see the sun disappearing behind the hills and the words of ma'ariv, the evening liturgy, flow through me. I wake to a day which has already dawned and words of gratitude are already in my heart. I'm thankful for the summer solstice, and for so much light.


Prayers for the morning, part 2: Soul

PrayConnectionsThis is the second post in a series of short meditations on morning prayers.(See Part 1: Gratitude.)

 

When I asked colleagues for their suggestions of morning prayers which start the day on the right foot, several of them mentioned Elohai Neshama -- "My God, the soul that You have placed within me is pure."

Sometimes I daven the full prayer, and other times I sing Rabbi Shefa Gold's one-sentence chant, but here's the whole thing (the chant is just the first six words):

אלהי נשמה שנתת בי טהורה היא. אתה בראתה אתה יצרתה נפחתה בי, ואתה משמרה בקרבי ואתה עתיד ליטלה ממני ולהחזירה בי לעתיד לבא. כל זמן שהנשמה בקרבי מודה אני לפניך, יי אלהי ולהי אבותי ואמותי, רבון כל המעשים, אדון כל הנשמות. ברוך אתה יי, המחזיר נשמות לפגרים מתים

(Transliteration.)

My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure. You created it, You formed it, and You breathed it into me. You guard it while it is within me; some day it will return to You, and You will restore it to me in a time beyond time. As long as my soul is within me, I will thank You, my God and God of my ancestors, Source of all creation, Sovereign of all souls. Blessed are You, Adonai, Who restores the soul to the body.

(The version of this prayer which appears in Mishkan Tfilah, the Reform movement's siddur, leaves out the line about the soul returning to God and being restored to me in a time beyond time. You can see their version on a beautiful two-page spread here: Elohai Neshama in Mishkan Tfilah [pdf].)

I like Elohai Neshama. It reminds me that no matter what mistakes I made yesterday, I wake today to a soul which is pure. It reminds me that my soul is created anew each day by God and breathed into me for the duration of this lifetime, and that someday my soul will return to its ineffable Source.

But it's not a prayer that's become integral to my daily practice, unlike the blessing for gratitude and the blessing for my body. Maybe that's because I've never needed it in the same way that I need the other two. I've never struggled to believe that my soul is pure, whole, and holy -- at least, not yet.

That said, I gladly sing this prayer when I reach its place in the morning service. I think there is something radical about asserting that the soul is pure every day: no matter what our mistakes, no matter what burdens we are carrying, something within us is always pure and clean and clear.

Several years ago I spent some time working on a cycle of poems arising out of our daily morning prayer, some of which -- including the one I'm about to share here -- will appear in my next book of poetry, Open My Lips, due later this year from Ben Yehuda Press. Let me know if it speaks to you.

 

ELOHAI NESHAMA

 

My God, my
own: my soul
that You have given me
is pure, clear
like mikveh waters

the spark
which makes me more
than automated clay,
than cells sprouting cells
is holy

neshama: feminine
no matter whose,
women and men
and those blessed
in-between

what's gendered
female is what
creates: this
drop of divine
breath that breathes in us

let what I create
in the world, my God,
be as pure
as Your breath
in me

 

Related:

Morning blessing poem cycle, 2012 (a reprint from 2004)

Morning blessings for body and soul, 2007

 

Image source: ArtKetubah.com.


Prayers for the morning, part 1: Gratitude

Modeh AniAfter I posted about afternoon prayer recently, my mom wrote back to tell me that she liked the post and the prayer, and to ask whether I could share a brief morning prayer, too. It seemed likely to me that if she were interested, someone else might be too. My very favorite prayer is a morning prayer:

 

מודה אני לפניך
מלך חי וקים
שהחזרת בי נשמתי בחמלה,
רבה אמונתך.

Modah ani l'fanecha,
melech chai v'kayam,
shehchezarta bi nishmati b'chemla,
rabbah emunatecha!

I am grateful before You,
Living and enduring God --
With mercy You have restored my soul to me.
Great is Your faithfulness!

 

It's only one sentence, but it holds so much. "I am grateful" -- I begin the day with gratitude. "Before You" -- the reminder that even if I am feeling isolated, I am not alone. "Living and enduring God" -- I assert that I am speaking to the force which enlivens all things, and which endures forever.

"You have mercifully restored my soul to me" -- that phrase depends on the assumption that while we sleep, our souls are in God's keeping. While we sleep, our souls are sheltered and cared-for by God. When we wake, our souls return to our bodies. This prayer reminds me to notice that I am alive!

"Great is Your faithfulness"-- sometimes the last clause is my favorite part. One might imagine that emunah, faith, is something we are meant to have in God. But this prayer asserts exactly the opposite. God has faith in us. I begin my day by reminding myself that someone -- some One -- believes in me.

I put out this question to a handful of rabbi friends on Twitter, curious to know what short morning prayer they would highlight. They suggested elohai neshama, which reminds us that we wake each day with pure souls, and asher yatzar, which reminds us that our bodies are miracles.

Stay tuned for a little bit more about each of those. Meanwhile, I'd love to know (via comments on this post, or via Twitter conversation -- I'm @velveteenrabbi) your favorite morning prayer(s) and/or gratitude practice(s). What have you found to work for you, as the best way to begin your day?

 

Related:

Melodies for gratitude , 2011;

On gratitude and thanks, 2013;

Privilege, prayer, parenthood, 2014.

 

Image source: Esther Zibell.


Afternoon offering

I've trained myself to begin and end each day with what my ALEPH teachers would call prayerful consciousness. I begin the day with modah ani, sung silently in my head if not aloud; I end the day with the shema and blessing those who are dear to me. Even though I often don't manage to make the time to daven (pray) the whole morning and evening liturgy, I feel good that I have inculcated these practices deeply enough that they persist without me having to remind myself to do them.

What I don't have is any kind of consistent practice for afternoon's mincha time. (This is not new.) Lately I've been spending time with a one-paragraph meditation written by Rabbi Edward Feld, which I long ago copied from Kol HaNeshamah, the Reconstructionist siddur. It's an abridged version of the middle of the weekday amidah, the standing prayer which is central to every service. The amidah is our time to stand before God, whatever we understand that to mean -- God far above or deep within.

On Shabbat we offer seven amidah blessings; the weekday version contains 19 blessings. (Why longer on weekdays? Because traditionally one doesn't ask for anything on Shabbat, which is meant to be a special time out of time. On weekdays, we can make requests.) The weekday amidah has some heft to it, but the tradition makes allowances for those who are traveling and can't manage the whole thing. This abridging, replacing the middle 13 blessings with one, is one of our traditional "workarounds."

Anyway, here's the abbreviation of those middle 13 requests with which I've been spending time lately:

 

פקח עיני לראות בטוב יצרך
והפך דעתי לדעתך ורצוני לרצונך.
יהיו כל מעשי כקרבן רצוי לפניך
ותסלח לכל פשעי.
תנ לי לראות אורך בכל פגישותי
ורפא נא מכאובות לבי.
כי אתה שומע תפלת כל פה.
ברוך אתה יה שומע תפלה.

Open my eye, that it may look upon the goodness of Your plan,
 and turn my knowledge into knowledge of your ways, my will into Your will.
May all that I do be like an offering received into Your presence,
and may You forgive me all I have done wrong.
Enable me to see Your light in all whom I encounter,
and please heal the pain within my heart.
For You are one Who listens to the prayer of all who speak.
Blessed are You, Eternal One, Who hears all prayer.

 

I know that Rabbi Feld did not intend for this blessing to replace the weekday amidah altogether, but on days when my time is tight, sometimes this is my whole afternoon amidah. (I keep it printed out beside my desk so I can grab it as needed in the pause between meetings.) Even when it's all I manage to do, it does shift the tenor of my heart a little bit. I think it helps me to bring more awareness and spaciousness to whatever meetings or obligations or teaching might be coming next.

I love how this blessing presumes that if my eyes are open, they will see God's goodness. There is goodness in the world; I need only to open myself to it, and I will recognize that it is there. I love the line about wanting my actions to be an an offering -- to me, that hints at the name of the afternoon service, mincha, which means offering, as in the afternoon offering once made at the Temple in Jerusalem. I love the intention of seeing God's light in all whom I meet as I go about my day.

And I love that there is a request for healing. Sometimes there is an ache sitting heavy on my heart.  Sometimes I am sad about something, or worried about someone, or wishing I could make life sweeter for someone I love. And sometimes it feels as though my sorrow, or my worry, or my yearning is a block to my ability to daven. But this prayer reminds me otherwise. My yearnings themselves can feed my prayer; can become my prayer. They are the holiest thing I can offer up on the altar of my heart.


You make the seasons change...

New-elm-leavesAt this time of year, one of the things I most love about where we live is watching the shifting shades of green. This year the trees leafed out while we were in Texas visiting family. When we left the branches were still bare. When we returned, everything was that extraordinary chartreuse of brand-new chlorophyll, so bright it's almost fluorescent. Baby green with a hint of neon behind it.

Only a few weeks have passed since that trip, but already the landscape has shifted. Most of the trees are wreathed in mature green now, a green that feels more substantial. Often the leaves are larger, too; they've reached what I think of as their summer size. I forget, every winter, what it looks like when trees explode with leaves. They go from sticks to puffballs, from stark lines to rustling softness.

I catch my thoughts snagging on thorns: these leaves are so beautiful, I'm going to miss them when they're gone. Or I notice the long low light of early-summer evening, and even as I'm reveling in this moment the whisper comes: someday the light will wane and the days will be short. Where did that come from? Why can't I be in this moment, instead of worrying about losses I might someday feel?

The leaves have only just grown; the summer's barely begun; the light is still increasing. Why am I already thinking about what it will be like to lose them? But this is what the mind does: it tells stories about things which haven't yet come to pass. Sometimes they are sweet stories, as when I anticipate seeing a loved one. Sometimes they are stories marinated in old fear: what you have will go away.

When I notice my mind spiraling down those old fearful pathways, I try to pause and take a deep breath, and on the exhale, to let those thoughts go. The thoughts happen. It's okay; there's nothing wrong with having them; and I don't need to become attached to them. I can notice them, name them, and then let them slip away like goldfish darting beneath the surface of a pond.

One of my favorite evening prayers is the ma'ariv aravim, the prayer which blesses God Who "evens out the evenings." The word comes from a root which means to mix; in this context it seems to hint at mixing afternoon with night. "You roll back light before dark, and dark before light," the prayer says (in translation). Light and dark take turns, and our task is to notice and sanctify the changes.

"You make the seasons change and order the stars in their appointed paths across heaven's dome," that prayer reminds us. The changes in season are part of the divine design; they are built into the world as we know it. In order for the season to hold still the earth would have to stop spinning -- catastrophe. God is the One Who cycles us through change, and change doesn't have to mean loss.

The Hebrew word for year, shanah, relates to the word for change, shinui. The year is made up of change, and God is the very process of change -- God Who describes God's-self, at the burning bush, as Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, "I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming." The trick is to trust the hand of God at work. Change is how the world is renewed. Our task is to embrace that, and not to be afraid.