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.


Attuned to the rhythm

SpaceThere's a rhythm to the Jewish year. Our major seasons of spiritual work and celebration come in the fall and in the spring, and after each of those seasons comes a lull. It's as though the year were set up to give us spiritual downtime, an opportunity to integrate whatever learning or insight the festivals enabled us to attain. Was that the intention of our sages? Who knows -- but it works well for me.

In late winter I begin counting down the time until Pesach. I love Pesach; I love the coming spring; I love the story of liberation. Then there are the seven weeks of the Omer, a journey of cultivating different qualities within myself as I prepare to open my eyes and my heart to Torah anew at Shavuot. Shavuot will come whether or not I am ready, but I want to feel ready! Then comes Shavuot...

...and after Shavuot comes the downtime. (Thank God!) I'm grateful for this lull. I don't know that I could sustain the pace of the last few months, not just in terms of holiday practices but in terms of spiritual work, too. Fortunately, the summer is relatively quiet on the Jewish calendar. Sure, there are a few things here and there, but nothing of the magnitude of the spiritual journey we've just taken.

In late summer I'll begin counting down the time until the Days of Awe. I love the Days of Awe; I love the coming fall; I love the chance to begin again. There are seven weeks between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah, a journey of repentance and return. Or: there are 40 days between the start of Elul and Yom Kippur, an intense corridor of teshuvah. What needs repair? Who is God calling me to be?...

...and after Sukkot comes the downtime. (Thank God!) I know I will be grateful for that lull when it comes, too. Fortunately, the winter is relatively quiet on the Jewish calendar. Sure, there are a few things here and there, but nothing of the magnitude of the spiritual journey of the High Holidays and Sukkot. The calendar provides time to be "on" and time to be "off." There is an ebb and flow.

Every year is a slow and stately dance. We turn inward and focus on improving ourselves; we turn outward and focus on improving the world. We plant, and we harvest, and we lie fallow, and we prepare to plant again -- if not literal seeds, then metaphysical ones in the soil of the heart. One season leads to the next, one holiday leads to the next, and every period of activity is balanced by stillness.

And the stillness is part of the pattern. The stillness, too, is holy. There are beautiful Hasidic teachings about how the stillness which follows an intensive holiday season is itself part of the season. It's the white space which cradles and contains the letters of the Torah. Without that white space, there would be no Torah. Without these seasons of quiet, we would be unable to experience the holiday cycle.

Whenever I am blessed to visit the ocean I am soothed by the endless rhythms of the waves. Each wave rolls in and flows out. The tides rise and then recede. Those who are attuned to the rhythms and patterns of the sea know when the tides will be high and when they will be low. I want to be as attuned to the rhythms of the Jewish year as sailors and fishermen are attuned to the rhythms of the sea.

 

 

If you enjoyed this post, you might also dig my 2009 post The year as spiritual practice.

The image illustrating this post comes from a multilingual journal called מרחב الفضاء space, published in Tel Aviv.


More light

Icicles

I snapped this photograph out of our bedroom window yesterday morning. The giant mass of ice at the right of the frame is a series of icicles -- some of which are far taller than I am! -- which have begun to merge into a rippling wall of ice since we've had a few slightly warmer days. I love the delicate pink of the icicles washed by the first rays of morning sun. That color only lasts for a moment.

One of my strategies for surviving a long (and this year, both very-cold and very-snowy) winter is trying to find the beauty in the world around me. At this time of year, that might mean admiring the sweep of bare tree branches, or the way those branches are limned with freshly-fallen snow. On clear days, it definitely means admiring the pinks and golds of early morning daylight.

One day recently I picked our son up at preschool to take him to an after-school activity which we hadn't done in a few weeks. "But Mom," he said, "you usually pick me up when it's getting dark!" I explained to him that 4:30 is dark in December and January, but by late February, 4:30 is still daylight. To my great delight, it was still light at 5:30 when his afterschool activity ended, too.

Our son keeps talking about how March will be spring. (I think there is a calendar at his school which features a picture of flowers and green grass, and I keep trying to explain to him that all of this snow is not magically going to disappear on Sunday -- and that it can snow here all the way through March!) But March will feel more like spring, even with the snow. Because in March we get more light.

Next week will bring Purim, which is definitely a sign of spring. And with Purim comes the knowledge that Pesach is only one month away, and that's one of the sweetest signs of spring I know. Someday the snow will melt and the robins will return. For now, I'll keep looking for glimpses of beauty in the wintery world around us, and thanking God for more light -- more light -- more light.

 

 


New moon is coming

Haluach-haivri3I awoke recently in the night and saw the enormous icicles hanging down from our bedroom windows limned by moonlight. All I could think in my sleep-muddled state was that we were surrounded by an icicle forest! But the moonlight shining on our icicles has been decreasing. Right now the moon is waning away to nothing. And once it reaches nothing, it will begin its monthly rebirth.

It's been too cold in New England for outdoor stargazing, but if I had been outdoors the last few nights I would have seen increasing numbers of stars. When the moon is big, she drowns out some of the complexity of the night sky. But when the moon wanes, more stars become visible to the naked eye -- tiny pinpricks of light which don't add up to the moon's brilliance, but they're beautiful nevertheless.

In Jewish tradition, every new moon heralds a new month. When the moon begins to grow again in a few days, we'll enter into the month of Adar. "When Adar enters, joy increases," goes the saying -- this is the month which contains Purim, our joyful festival in which we celebrate not only our people's survival in the face of a terrible tyrant (what else is new) but also life's topsy-turviness in general.

I've been thinking about what kind of joy I'd like to see increase as Adar rolls in. I have friends and loved ones who've undergone surgery recently; I hope that Adar will bring them healing. I know that people are grieving recent terror attacks (on Jews in Copenhagen; on Muslims in Chapel Hill); I hope that  Adar will bring them comfort. For me -- I'm hoping that Adar will bring early stirrings of spring.

I'm not expecting warmth, not here -- right now this is a land of giant snowdrifts and six-foot icicles. But every day there is just a little bit more daylight. And in two more weeks when we reach Purim, the secular calendar will flip over to March, and that always feels good too. Meanwhile, the best joy instructor I know is our five-year-old son. Maybe this is a good time of year for me to learn from him.

 

Rosh Chodesh Adar will arrive on Thursday. For more on the meanings of Adar, try my 2013 post Happy Adar!


Morning. Prayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom, y'all.


For the birds

Woodpecker

Woodpecker, snacking.

 

I love our bird feeder. Okay, in fairness, it's not the feeder itself that I love -- that's just a tube of plexiglass with some little bird rests attached. It's the birds who come to the feeder. The juncos and chickadees and sparrows and occasional woodpecker who spend the winter visiting our deck and supping at the repast of mixed birdseed that we provide. I love to watch them from inside.

Often I marvel. They are so tiny, especially the black-capped chickadees. January temperatures here can be arctic. How can something so small sustain itself when the air around it is so cold? It seems as though they ought to just freeze and drop like stones. How can their tiny hearts keep beating? How can their feathers insulate them enough to withstand this level of bitter cold?

But this is their native habitat. (And though I've been here for more than twenty years, it isn't mine; perhaps that's why I still boggle at the profusion of wildlife which flourishes not despite the winter but because this is the climate for which these creatures and plants evolved.) These birds are apparently perfectly content to winter over, and I'm grateful for that, because they cheer me.

When our son and I step outside first thing in the morning to go to preschool, we are often greeted with the sound of a woodpecker, hidden somewhere on the forested hill which abuts the house. "Shhh!" our son will say to me, and we both stand stock-still and wait, and just when it seems as though the sound isn't going to come again, we hear it: rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. And we both beam.

I feel an obligation to the birds. I don't bother to feed them in the summertime; at that time of year, the world is filled with living things for their delectation. But in winter, I feel as though they depend on me. I like being here for them. And when I see them swooping through the air to land on the feeder, and then swooping away to the trees beyond our hillside, my heart swells with gratitude.

What the birds do naturally -- fly, most of all; sing their particular songs, making sounds I can only attempt to imitate; thrive to preen and roost even in the snow, even though they're tiny -- is inconceivable to me. And every time I'm reminded of how amazing the birds are, I remember again that there's more to the world, even the simple world on this hill, than I can understand.

 


Deep winter

Winter in the city is unlovely, all slush and grit. But even here in the country it's not always a picture postcard. Snow which was soft and fluffy when it fell has thawed and refrozen. Driveways are uneven hockey rinks of lumpy ice. Hillsides which had been white are scraped with grey and brown. The small river which runs through Williamstown is jumbled with ice. Cars are gritty and crusted with dirty slush and rock salt. On cloudy days, everything feels frozen and grey.

The twinkling lights of December are well behind us, and the first glimmers of the coming spring are too far ahead to anticipate. The new moon of the lunar month of Shvat has just begun to wax; we're almost two weeks away from the full moon which will herald Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees. And besides, here in the Berkshires Tu BiShvat is still deep winter. The almond trees may be preparing to bloom in the Middle East, but God knows nothing is blooming here.

Winter's novelty has worn off, well before winter itself is even thinking about unclenching. For a lot of us, this can be a difficult season. I'm not talking about seasonal affective disorder per se, though I know plenty of people who struggle with that to one degree or another. But there's a general sense of malaise which can set in during late January and into February, especially in places like New England where the days are still short and our movements are circumscribed by ice and snow.

Over the years I've tried a lot of different remedies. Eating clementines by the box, as though warding off scurvy with their bright sweetness. Hot baths. Endless pots of tea. Making the effort to light a fire in the fireplace, because even though it takes some time to get it going, there's a kind of primal comfort in sitting beside a warm, bright blaze. These days I try to retrain my eye to see the beauty even in the low grey skies and the dirt-streaked ice. To notice subtle gradations of winter light.

 The work of hashpa'ah, spiritual direction, teaches me to ask the question "where is God in this?" So where can I find God in this wintery world leached of color? Where can I find God in my reaction to the low-ceilinged clouds and the early sundown? Where is God for me in ice and snow, dirt and road salt, the work of mitigating winter's isolation? Where is God for me in the work of maintaining my own even keel at this season? And where is God for you, in whatever your struggles may be?


Midwinter means

Midwinter means a world of white outside my window. Fine lines of white limn every branch and twig. The distant hills vanish beneath a scrim of snow.

Midwinter means fragrant clementines like tiny hand-held suns. When I puncture the peel with my thumbnail, the cat gives me a reproachful look and leaps off of my desk.

Midwinter means listening to Värttinä in the car. I don't speak a word of Finnish but their music comes from long nights and crisp snow.

Midwinter means the decadent pleasure of hand lotion and lip balm softening my thirsty skin.

Midwinter means the pleasure of watching juncos and chickadees flitting to and from the birdfeeder on the deck. From feeder to railing to roof and back again.

Midwinter means a dozen kinds of hot tea, usually with milk. Black tea with apricot. Earl Grey in all of its variations. Chai. But green tea with toasted rice, I drink plain.

Midwinter means the eye takes a keen pleasure in vivid colors against the white and brown and grey of snow and trunk and slush. Red boots, purple coat.

Midwinter means I scatter crumpled tissues like misshapen snowballs everywhere I go.

Midwinter means the repetitive rhythm of wrapping paper, fold and crease and tape in place.

Midwinter means last summer's wood burning bright, a stand-in for the sun which will always return.


The work

Post_black525This is the work: remembering reasons for gratitude before I even get out of bed. There is always something for which I could be saying thank You.

This is the work: balancing brisk ("c'mon, we've got to get out of the house, I'm going to be late") with gentle ("want me to help you with your sneakers?")

This is the work: laughing at the same jokes again and again, because no one has an appetite for repetition like a five-year-old who's just discovered the "interrupting cow."

Noticing where I've made progress in my inner life, and celebrating myself for that. Noticing where I'm bumping again into things I thought I'd figured out, and forgiving myself for that.

Fixing the same meals, singing the same songs, doing the same bedtime routine. Waking myself up to the sweetness cradled in that routine's familiar contours.

Finding blessings in whatever unfolds. Even when the day is boring or grey or I feel as though I'm walking on a treadmill without getting anywhere. Can I turn the treadmill into a meditation labyrinth, where what matters are my conscious foosteps, not the destination?

This is the day that God has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. It only comes once. Tomorrow will be a new day, filled with new joys and new adventures. Or filled with new sorrows and new challenges. Or all of the above. But whatever it is, it won't be today. I don't want to miss today.

This is the work: setting boundaries even when our son doesn't like them, even when he tells me tearfully "if you say that one more time I won't be your friend!" Letting him know that it's okay to feel what he feels, and that I hear him, and that the rule still stands.

Letting myself know that it's okay to feel what I feel, and that God hears me, even when the world doesn't conform to my every wish any more than it conforms to our son's every wish. Remembering that even on my crankiest days, I am loved unconditionally.

Setting aside expectations so that I can embrace what is, whatever it is. Trying to grow radical acceptance and trust in the sometimes rocky soil of my heart. Watering that soil with prayer. Practicing the mantra of "I love what comes and I love what goes."

Parenthood is -- spiritual life is -- a parade of constant changes. Infancy gives way to toddlerhood, which gives way to childhood. The bitter passes away, and so does the sweet. Maybe for God, every instant of our lives coexists, but we're time-bound. This is the work: this moment, right now.

 

Image: a poetry postcard featuring a quote from Sophie Cabot Black. I learned the phrase slightly differently from my mentor Jason Shinder z"l -- "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work."