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."

 


Once the leaves fall

I always forget that once the leaves fall, the trees reveal their elegant bones. So do the mountains. With branches bare, the contours of every hillside come clear. I can see houses, hills, horizon through what used to be a solid wall of leaves.

The hills take on their late-fall garb. Now they're turning a faded purplish-brown with patches of evergreen -- starting from the tops of the mountains, where the leaves are all already down. These colors are comforting and gentle on the eyes.

The skies here have been overcast lately. I tell myself that they are pearlescent and dove-grey rather than gloomy. I think of how beautifully Dale writes about diffuse light, about light during rain, and resolve to savor these variegated clouds.

We're on the last week before the time change. Next Saturday night, while we are sleeping, our nation's clocks will shift backwards an hour. In early mornings, the time change is a mercy; our wakeup time won't be pitch-black anymore. (Not until midwinter, anyway.)

And early evenings...? That's the trade-off. We're heading toward the time of the year when it will be dark by the time we finish Hebrew school on Monday afternoons. Every summer I remember that fall and winter are like this, and I can't quite remember how it's bearable.

But this time of year has its beauty, too. There's one house on Route 7 which I pass on the way home from work every day which is already lighting an electric candle in every window at nightfall. Some mornings now when our son wakes me I get to see the sunrise.

And after twenty-odd years in New England I find that there's comfort in the turn of the seasons, the inevitable change in the mountains' everyday dress, the way that month leads on to month and the year unfolds exactly the way it always does, the way it should.

Sunrise


Cheshvan

Tonight at sundown, when we enter into Shabbat, we will also enter into a new lunar month. On the Jewish calendar, we're about to begin the month of Cheshvan.

Rosh-chodesh

Cheshvan is an empty month. A blank slate. An open expanse. It is the only month which contains no Jewish holidays (aside from Shabbat) and no special mitzvot. Some people have the custom of calling this month Mar-Cheshvan, "Bitter Cheshvan," because after so many weeks of feeling ourselves to be in God's presence, we enter into a whole month with no festival opportunities to feel that closeness.

Some rabbis (me included) joke that Mar-Cheshvan is short for "Marvelous Cheshvan," and that Cheshvan is our favorite month precisely because there is nothing in it. After the hard work and the emotional-spiritual rollercoaster of the Days of Awe and Sukkot, a month containing nothing but weekdays and Shabbat feels like a gift. A time to embrace emptiness and quiet. Thank God for Cheshvan; I can't keep up this work-pace anymore!

But I think there's a deeper truth hidden in the "I ♥ Cheshvan" jokes. Our festival cycle has a rhythm, a natural ebb and flow. Times of extroversion and times of introversion; times of intense spiritual work and times of quiet when the aftereffects of that work can reverberate in our hearts and souls. After the spring journey of Pesach and the Omer, we get a quiet period before the summer's fasts and Tisha b'Av and the ramp-up to the Days of Awe. After the fall journey of the Days of Awe and Sukkot, we get a quiet period before the small holidays which stud the wintertime lead us toward spring and Pesach.

(These are northern-hemisphere interpretations; if you live in the global South, the seasonal rhythm is inverted, but the holidays still lead one to the next, and the spiritually-fallow periods are still built-in.)

The quiet time matters too. It's like the silence after the chant, writ large. When a long-anticipated event is over, there can be a let-down. All that time preparing and getting excited, and now it's over; now what? But Cheshvan offers the opportunity to experience the quiet time after the feasts and festivals as a necessary part of the rhythm.

Reb Zalman (may his memory be a blessing) used to speak about the importance of "domesticating" the peak experience -- taking the spiritual highs we can experience on retreat, and using their energy to fuel spiritual practice when we're home again. Coming down from the big fall holiday season is a little bit like coming home from a retreat. We return our focus to all the details of ordinary life. But that doesn't mean that we're no longer in the radiant Presence. We just have to remember how to access that Presence through ordinary living. Avodah b'gashmiut, in Hasidic parlance.

We couldn't live at the intense pace of the Days of Awe and Sukkot all the time. From the practical work of preparing services and sermons and setting up chairs and building sukkahs, to the intellectual work of studying the holidays' texts and liturgies and themes, to the emotional work of noticing what arises in us during the holiday season, to the spiritual work of teshuvah and inner transformation -- there's no way to sustain that level of activity and experience all the time. And that's okay.

The downtime helps us integrate the experience we've just had. Try this metaphor on: the quiet month which comes after all of the festivals is like the morning after a grand and elaborate wedding. The planning and preparation all culminated in a beautiful ceremony and a fabulous party -- and now it's the next day; the first day of the rest of the couple's life; time to integrate the memories and carry them into whatever comes next. Tishri was the wedding. Now it's the morning-after.

The party is finally over. The last guests have gone home. Awaken to your quiet house, a sweet sunrise, coffee filling the room with fragrance. Cup your hands around your mug and look around you. Something new is beginning, right here in this quiet place. Welcome to Cheshvan.

 

Related: The year as a spiritual practice, 2009


Letter from the sukkah

SukkahOn the festival's first night I carried a tray out to the sukkah bearing dinner, kiddush cups, wine and juice, a lighter for the candle I encased in a many-pointed glass star so that the wind wouldn't blow it out. Our son complained that he couldn't see the moon, but we came back outside later when it had just risen -- huge and yellow over the dark horizon of the hills -- and he jumped up and down with joy.

I spent much of the first day of Sukkot bundled up in the sukkah: jeans, socks, fuzzy slippers, a shirt, a sweater, a jacket, a knitted hat and scarf, and fingerless gloves. Above me the cornstalks rustled in the breeze. Occasionally yellow maple leaves drifted down from one of the trees overhead and made their way through the schach of the roof to land on my laptop. I was chilly, but I stayed out for a long time.

Being in a sukkah feels like being indoors and outdoors at the same time. The fresh air says "outdoors;" the feel of roof and walls says "indoors." But not too indoors. I can see sky through the roof. The usual views of our backyard and the valley are broken into squares by the sukkah's wooden lattice. All around me, decorations and our son's apple-themed art hang as though in midair.

Sukkot is so short, in the grand scheme of things. Seven days. I didn't want to miss it; I didn't want to waste it sitting indoors at the desk where I sit the whole rest of the year. The commandment is leishev ba-sukkah, "to dwell in the sukkah" -- literally, "to sit in the sukkah," which always makes me think of sitting zazen. The point of sitting in the sukkah is just sitting in the sukkah. Gloves and all.

PomegranateI try repeatedly to photograph our sukkah in a way which would show you what it looks like, what it feels like. But as with the panorama of the autumnal Berkshire hills, the pictures of the sukkah don't capture its reality. Autumn light streaming past golden tinsel garlands and shiny glitter pumpkins, the endless soft rustle of the roof, the little lights which gleam at nightfall. All I can capture are glimpses.

The sukkah has to be experienced in four dimensions, including time. The sukkah only exists for a short window of time. And yet the sukkah is also a portal in time, a door to every other year when I have sat in a sukkah. The ghosts of ten sukkot are imprinted on this back yard. Surely God, Who inhabits all of space and time simultaneously, can see next year's sukkah, and the next, and the next...

In the sukkah I can hear crickets chirping. Soon hard frosts will quiet the hillsides. Soon -- but not yet. On the first evening of the festival, as we ate dinner in the sukkah, we listened to an invisible neighbor playing "Auld Lang Syne" on clarinet. Our own private Sukkot serenade. The soundscape of the week also includes chipmunks rustling in the hillside's fallen leaves, and Canada geese calling overhead.

The sukkah, some say, represents the cloud of glory which followed the Israelites in their 40-year wilderness wandering. This is a house of divine presence. The walls and roof may be barely-there, but Shekhinah surrounds me with her embrace. I think of the angel song, that prayer for surrounding our son with wonder, strength, light, comfort, and the presence of Shekhinah all through the night.

Weather will blow in. Eventually the sukkah will come down. Temporariness is an inextricable part of the design. And yet this is where we're supposed to rejoice. Not despite the leaky roof, short lifespan, short-term design -- but with them, in them, through them. Go outside in order to go inside. Through this parody of a roof, recognize the sheltering Presence which curls protectively over us all.


Fall's beauty

At this time of year I want to take photographs all the time. Everywhere I look, fall colors blaze. The hillsides are a slowly-shifting tweed of late-summer green, orange, yellow, rust, and bright flares of pure red. Every day the color balance is different. Every day the color balance is beautiful.

Bailey

When light shines through the trees everything looks golden. Against the backdrop of dark clouds, the colors pop. And I know that at any moment the winds or the rain could knock the leaves off the trees and reveal bare branches beneath. Part of what makes it so gorgeous is that we know it can't last.

Noppet

Fall highlights the reality that everything in the world is always changing. I want to capture the beauty as though I could keep it, hold on to it, save it for another day. And I can -- to an extent. I can photograph it and write about it and remember it. But I can only inhabit the now right now.

Cemetery

This is one of the lessons of Sukkot for me each year. The beauty around me is always changing. We build the sukkah and it is beautiful. We decorate it, and it is beautiful. And as soon as it's built, it starts to come apart, and that's beautiful too. The trick is learning how to see the beauty in its changes.

Field

The challenge is finding the beauty in what is -- whatever is. Saying thank-you to God for the radiant splendor of a northern Berkshire autumn -- and for the muted colors which will follow it. This moment is all there is, and it is always passing. And it is always right now. And it is always beautiful.