Dream

In last night's dream you laughed
about being sick, making light

of our fears. I heard your voice
but I didn't see you: I was caught up

trying to fix a garbage disposal
that wasn't working anymore.

In last night's dream I stood
in front of a room full of strangers

to say kaddish for you. I turned
every page in every book

but couldn't find the words...
Awake now, I remember the story

my chaplaincy supervisor told
about the patient who went on and on

about dysfunctional plumbing.
The punchline was, she was talking

about her own body and didn't know it.
And in my dream I focused

on the pipes, the broken housing
instead of on the laughter

that still flows. As for
my fear of forgetting the words --

you'd say I don't need them anyway.
You said once that all you want us to do

is visit your grave with a roadie in hand,
pour a splash on the thirsty earth.

I'm pouring out poems to water the soil.
We buried a box, but you aren't inside.

 


Happy news

Here's a piece of happy news: Beside Still Waters, the volume for mourners that I edited for Bayit which we published in partnership with Ben Yehuda Press, is the #1 new release in Jewish life on Amazon!

BSW-number-1

I'm endlessly grateful to everyone who contributed poems and prayers and readings. The book is reaching people because of the breadth and richness of the work assembled therein, and I am humbled and honored to have been able to midwife it into being.

You can find the Table of Contents, the introduction, and assorted other excerpts via the Look Inside This Book feature on Amazon, and those same excerpts are mirrored on the book's page at Bayit and on the book's page at Ben Yehuda, where discounts are available for bulk orders of ten or more copies.


Remember and forget: a dvarling for Shabbat Zachor

Amalek-soferetToday is Shabbat Zachor -- the Shabbat of Remembrance. That's the special name given to the Shabbat before Purim.

It's traditional today to read Deuteronomy 25:17-19 (from the end of parashat Ki Teitzei), describing the attack by Amalek. Amalek attacked as we were fleeing from Egypt. Amalek attacked the back of the winding train of footsore refugees. Amalek attacked those who were vulnerable and in most danger. The Talmud recounts a tradition that Haman, the antagonist of the Purim story, was descended from Amalek. As we prepare for Purim, we remember Amalek who attacked from behind. 

Tradition instructs us to blot out the name of Amalek -- to erase the name, the identity, of those who harmed us. I see in this injunction an echo of those who today say that when there are, God forbid, mass shootings and acts of terror we should not publicize the names of those who committed the atrocities, because the perpetrators want to be known. Their twisted egos want fame for their horrendous acts, and therefore we shouldn't talk about them by name, we should deny them the fame they crave.

And tradition also instructs us to remember. Today is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance or Memory. We blot out the names of those who harm (indeed, there's a tradition in sofrut, the scribal arts, of writing the name of Amalek and then crossing it out with a bold stroke of ink)... even as we remember our wounds and our traumas, because those harms are part of what has made us who we are. Because we owe it to the victims to remember their names, and never to let their sacred memories die.

Today we reach Shabbat Zachor in the immediate aftermath of a horrendous terror attack in Christchurch, New Zealand. A white supremacist who proudly called himself a fascist opened fire during Friday prayers at a mosque and at an Islamic center. When I woke to this news yesterday I had no words. I still have no words to wholly encompass my horror or my grief -- or my fury at a person who would attack others in sacred places of prayer and community. I stand today with our grieving Muslim siblings.

The gunman in this horrendous, atrocious, unspeakable attack is Amalek: attacking the vulnerable, attacking those on the margins, attacking innocents at prayer because of their different mode of prayer or dress or connection with the Holy One. 

The gunman in the Pittsburgh shootings at Tree of Life synagogue a few months ago was Amalek. 

The gunman behind the Pulse nightclub shooting of GLBTQ people a few years ago was Amalek.

The gunmen behind every school shooting, every house of worship massacre, every predatory attack on children and worshippers and those who are "different" -- those at the "back of the community," those who are vulnerable -- are Amalek. 

And today we are called to remember and to mourn -- and also to blot out the names of those who would commit such atrocities. Blotting out their names doesn't (only) mean redacting news articles to deny them publicity. It means blotting out the identities of hatred, the self-concept that would lead anyone to pick up a weapon and attack the innocent for any twisted reason. It means blotting out white supremacy and white nationalism, homophobia and hatred, antisemitism and Islamophobia and xenophobia.

It means we must build a world in which those virulent hatreds are no more. Only then will we truly be able to honor the memories of those whom Amalek has taken from us. Y'all know that I am mourning my mother right now, and you have seen me weep -- you will see me weep again! But she died surrounded by family, at 82, after a life that was long and full of blessing. Those whom Amalek attacks do not have that luxury. And those who mourn them experience an entirely different kind of grief.

May we blot out the hatreds that animate Amalek in every generation.

May we stand in solidarity with all who are victimized.

And may our actions bring about the Purim when these hatreds are inconceivable, and when no one ever need mourn again as the Muslim community around the world is mourning today.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

Image source: soferet Jen Taylor Friedman


Second letter: challah

My house smells like challah.
Three weeks ago I went through
these same motions in your kitchen.

You gave me the best gift:
you came down in the wheelchair
you hated to use, tethered

to the oxygen tank, and heard
my son sing kiddush one last time.
When we whisked the napkin

off the spiraling challah loaves
tiny sugar ants were exploring
their swirls and curves. I almost

cried, but we brushed them off
and declared the bread intact
so three generations could bless.

That night, back in bed, you said
"it's been too short, but
it's been sweet." Did you mean

our visit, or your eighty-two years?
We flew home the next morning
not knowing we would return

within a week. For days I kept
marveling, "she ate steak
at Shabbat dinner," as though

that mattered. What I meant was
you were so alive. Shabbes is coming
and I can't FaceTime with you

from the place where you are now.
You'd say "don't be maudlin."
I'm trying, but every minute

takes me farther from the one time
I baked challah for you, deeper
into this world where you are gone.

 


The details: Vayikra

GOD-IS-IN-THE-DETAILS-ARCHITECTURE-POSTER-CINQPOINTS-0-e1468415713734Little meditations on this week's Torah portion.

 

This week we're reading from Vayikra. The name means "And [God] Called" -- it's the first word of this week's Torah portion, and indeed, the first word of a whole new book of Torah, the book known in Hebrew as Vayikra, known in English as Leviticus.

My first Talmud teacher, Rabbi Judy Abrams z"l, used to say that she loved Leviticus most of all. When I was a new rabbinical student, I struggled with that. Why would one love Leviticus? So many details about offerings, ashes, kidneys -- holy barbecue!

But I've come to see Vayikra / Leviticus in a different light. Vayikra is all about details. Those offerings on the altar were how we used to say Thank You, and Please, and I'm Sorry. They're written down in detail because details are how we show what matters.

My mother, of blessed memory, used to say that we show respect for each other by dressing well. For her, that meant always having manicured nails, always choosing nice jewelry, always wearing lipstick, always a spritz of Bal á Versailles perfume.

For the priests, a few thousand years ago, dressing well meant linen garb embroidered with bells and pomegranates. For our Torah scrolls today, dressing well means a woven mantle depicting words from psalms, and our willow tree and our mountain.

Could we store a Torah scroll in a sack? Sure, if we had to. But we show respect for the scroll, and for its contents, and for God, by dressing the Torah in beautiful garb, down to the carved wooden or filligreed silver yad (hand) hanging from one handle.

We used to say Thank You, and Please, and I'm Sorry to God through offering pigeons, or meal offerings, or fat on the altar. Now we use the words of the siddur (prayerbook) and the words of our hearts. And maybe we also use music, or meditation, or tears. 

But the details matter. We show respect for the tradition, and for God, and for each other, with our attentiveness to detail. The details of how we pray, or how we dress the Torah, or how we make a practice of reaching out to each other in community.

After my shiva for my mom had concluded, someone asked me why we need ten for a minyan. Why can't we just say the prayers with however many people we have? And indeed, we do say Mourner's Kaddish at my small shul regardless of numbers.

But the tradition says that ten constitutes a symbolic community. Ten is a community that can bear witness to someone's words, and to someone's grief. And in my time of mourning, it mattered to me to respect that tradition -- to honor that detail together.

Because God is in the details -- or can be, if we take the time to look. That's the message I find in Vayikra this year. God is in the details of how we come together, whether for shiva or for a simcha (joyous occasion). God is in the details of ensuring a minyan.

God is in the details of the casserole brought to a mourner's home so they don't have to worry about cooking. God is in the details of my mother's manicure and her jewelry. God is in the details of the offerings that once helped us draw near to the Holy.

May we seek God in the details, and may we find God there, now and always, every day of our lives.

 


First letter

Your grandson has taken up needlepoint.
I see you rolling your eyes. I remember
when he was five and asked to do ballet:

you demanded, "is it because you wanted
a daughter?" I snapped at you no, Mom,
it's because he wants to try dancing.

And when he asked me to paint his nails
blue and purple and green you averted your eyes.
My fervent hope today is that wherever

you are -- the World to Come, the afterlife,
getting fabulous manicures with Shechinah
or simply resting, pain-free, in God's embrace --

all of the old life's pre-judgements
about "boys" and "girls" and what we can be
have fallen away. Look, Mom, he's taking up

needle and thread to be like me, and I'm
taking them up to be like you, to finish
the canvas you started. Isn't that what

we all do, in the end: add clumsy stitches
to the unfinished tapestry of generations?
He's trying to make something beautiful

from hard work and yarn. I told him
I'm proud of him. I told him
wherever you are, you're proud of him too.

 


By the numbers

Miles I moved
in order to define myself

not as anyone's daughter
but as the center

of my own story: two thousand,
more or less.

Years she lived
with a diagnosis: eight.

Weeks since she died: two.
Number of times

I've reached for my phone
to show her something

(look, Mom, I'm finishing
the needlepoint you started)

-- without limit.

 


Beside Still Waters: now in print

Bsw postcard v2 4.5x6.5 in_Page_1Now available!

 

Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal

New from Ben Yehuda Press and Bayit

$18 

 

Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal is a book for mourners, for those who will someday become mourners, and for those anticipating their own journey out of this life.  It offers liturgy both classical and contemporary for different stages along the mourner’s path, from prayers for healing (even when “cure” may be out of reach) and prayers to recite before dying, to prayers for every stage of mourning: from aninut (the time between death and burial), to shiva (the first week of mourning), to shloshim (the first month), the culmination of the first year, yahrzeit (death-anniversary) and yizkor (times of remembrance).

This volume features  traditional words alongside renewed and renewing interpretations and variations.  It contains complete liturgies for shiva accompanied by resonant new translations, evocative readings, and complete transliteration.  It also contains prayers for a variety of spiritually difficult circumstances (miscarriage, stillbirth, suicide, when there is no grave to visit, mourning an abusive relationship, and more.)

In the trans-denominational spirit of Jewish renewal, Beside Still Waters is for individuals and communities across the Jewish spiritual spectrum.

Beside Still Waters is a treasury of loving, comforting Jewish wisdom offered to support us in times of loss and grief. It is like having a wise, warm friend when you need that most. In my own time of loss, it became that for me. — Rabbi Marcia Prager, author of The Path of Blessing and dean of the ALEPH Ordination Programs

This is a wisely constructed and genuinely beautiful book. Beside Still Waters weaves ancient practice and new traditions into a totally approachable and readily usable companion that will help carry people through each phase of illness, death, mourning and healing, with honesty, compassion, wisdom and love. May those who turn to this book in time of need discover that they are not as alone as they likely feel, are more supported than they may know, and that a place of genuine comfort is there for them no matter what. — Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, Co-president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership

Beside Still Waters is a sensitive, beautiful and contemporary re-invention of Jewish liturgy, ritual, and wisdom surrounding the end of life.  Many talented poets and liturgists have contributed to this companion to those who are grieving, healing, and accepting. Their words offer a variety of practices and beliefs, addressing a multitude of human circumstances — some that are traditionally marked and others once overlooked.  Facing into the dilemmas and mysteries of our existence, Beside Still Waters is a friend to those who mourn, those who face their own death, and those who ask questions about the meaning of life and its end. Whether you are facing a dying, a funeral, a shiva, a yahrtzeit, or the lack of a mourning structure to hold your grief, there is something for you here.  — Rabbi Jill Hammer, Author of The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons and co-founder of Kohenet: The Hebrew Priestess Institute

It's been an honor and a privilege to midwife this book into being. My deepest gratitude to Rabbi Jonah Rank for his help with Hebrew proofreading and transliteration, to Larry Yudelson at Ben Yehuda Press for his enthusiasm for this project, and to the book's 40+ contributors:

Includes work by: Trisha Arlin, Helene Armet, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, Alla Renée Bozarth, Debra Cash, Rabbi Eli Cohen, Rabbi David J. Cooper, Cate Denial, Rabbi Lewis Eron, Shir Yaakov Feit, Lev Friedman, Rabbi Chaya Gusfield, Rabbi Jill Hammer, Rabbi Cynthia Hoffman, Rabbi Burt Jacobson, Alison Jordan, Rodger Kamenetz, Anna Belle Kaufman, Irwin Keller, Rabbi Evan Krame, Rabbi Janet Madden, Rabbi David Markus, Rabbi Jay Michaelson, Mark Nazimova, Amy Grossblatt Pessach, Faith Rogow, Rabbi Brant Rosen, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Kohenet Taya Shere, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l, Soferet Julie Seltzer, Rabbi Jennifer Singer, Maxine Silverman, Devon Spier, Jacqui Shine, Elliott bat Tzedek, Rabbi Shohama Harris Wiener, Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank z”l.

Those who are interested can find the Table of Contents, the introduction, and assorted other excerpts via the Look Inside This Book feature on Amazon. I hope you'll take a look, and consider buying a copy (or several). Order Beside Still Waters at Ben Yehuda Press now. The book retails for $18.00.

May comfort come to all who mourn.


At Builders Blog: Build for Loving Balance: Fire and Water, Justice and Repair

IMG_0459

...Like fire, justice is a flame that heats and illuminates, but without proper insulation fire can do harm. Like water, love wants to flow where it’s needed, but without proper channels flow can become a flood. Fire and water need to be tempered, balanced, channeled. That’s the first building lesson I find here. In God’s image, we must ensure that as we build we balance judgment and love, fixity and flexibility, container and flow.

This is the first building lesson in the first Torah portion of the book of Leviticus, which is where traditionally observant children begin learning Torah. It’s traditional to start not with the Genesis story of creating heaven and earth, not with the Exodus story of liberation, but with this.

Why does traditional Jewish pedagogy begin here? Maybe to signal from the very start the need to balance justice and repair, strong container and free flow. This balance is the energetic foundation of the spirit-infused society that Jewish tradition asks each generation to build...

That's from my latest post for Bayit's Builders Blog, with sketchnotes by Steve Silbert. Read the whole thing here: Build for Loving Balance: Fire and Water, Justice and Repair.


Things I didn't know

That morphine is pale blue
sickly-sweet baby blue
like every cutesy sleeper
I didn't want for my infant son.

That I would feel
like a mother bird
tenderly tucking the drops
under her waiting tongue.

That the gasp and hiss
of the oxygen pump
would be both comforting
and terrible.

That when I closed my eyes
by her bedside, trying
to envision her
enrobed in light

the vision would morph
to a white Chanel suit
and I would see her
wearing her life's mitzvot

woven into a white pillbox hat
and a smart white suit
and white heels with open toes
and a cream-colored pedicure

vivacious and flirty
as a 1940s movie star
taking God's hand,
ready for the honeymoon to begin.

 


 

[W]earing her life's mitzvot. There's a teaching in the Zohar, that germinal work of Jewish mysticism, that says that in the world to come each soul will wear a garment of light, woven out of the mitzvot one fulfilled while living in this world.

 

Written after my mother entered hospice care. May her memory be a blessing. 


Experiencing shiva from the inside

Faces-of-mom

For years, presiding over funerals and shiva minyanim, I have thought: someday this will be me. I suspect that every rabbi with living parents has had those thoughts. Someday this will be me burying my parent. Someday I will be the one at the center of this emotional and spiritual whirlwind. Someday I will say kaddish for my parent.

I didn't know how different it would feel to say the words of mourner's kaddish for the first time as a mourner for my mom, standing at the lip of the hole in the earth into which we had just shoveled dirt atop her casket. I didn't know how different the words would feel, or how I would cling to them like a lifeline of meaning.

I didn't know how it would feel to stand at the bimah of Temple Beth El to offer a eulogy, looking out at a room full of people who'd known her. I didn't know that she would request the singing of Taps to close her memorial service, in honor of the summer camp bugler with whom she fell in love at fourteen, who is now a widower.

I didn't know how it would feel to sit shiva in the home that was hers, without her in it anymore, surrounded by family and by their friends. I didn't know how it would feel to return home and finish shiva here. To sit in my condo with mirrors covered and door open. To tell stories about her, and show photographs, when friends come sit with me.

I didn't know how it would feel to reread the letters she wrote me at camp when I was twelve, which I'd saved in one of my dad's cigar boxes. To reread years' worth of emails, most of them banal but significant now because they came from her. To discover that recordings of her playing piano make me weep as though the world were ending.

I keep remembering that I can't email her daily photographs of her youngest grandson anymore. What does it mean to document my life now for my own sake, and not for the sake of sharing it from afar with her? I will never hear her play the piano again. For how long will the sound of piano keys played expertly and with heart bring me to tears?

Shiva is a foreign country for which I don't have a reliable map. And next time I visit it will be different. Sometimes I feel like I'm getting the hang of it. Other times I am bewildered, fragile, red-eyed from crying. Just as I'm getting accustomed to sitting with these memories, it will be time to exit this stage of mourning and move to what's next.

Sometimes I think: it will be good to return to normal life when shiva is done. Other times I can't imagine how I will re-enter the world of working life, and the news, and life's million assorted obligations, when my skin feels so thin and my heart feels so bruised and so exposed and so tender. Time distorts: was that a week or an hour?

I've learned this week (again) that I can feel bereft and grateful at the same time. I've learned that my sense of fragility, of what death means, of what loss means, has shifted. I've learned that ordinary acts, like putting my child to bed and singing his usual bedtime lullabies, feel both the same and not-at-all the same as they did before.

I've learned that I can still talk to her, though I haven't heard an answer. When I speak aloud with God (talking with Shechinah in blue jeans in the front seat of my car) I can speak now with Mom, too -- hoping, imagining, that part of her is still with me, freed now from all of life's constrictions of body and spirit, freed from all misunderstanding.

Because we did misunderstand each other, sometimes. This week I've been learning how to begin letting that go. During my mother's last week of life, I thanked her for my life and told her how glad I am that I got to be her daughter. I will always be glad that I got to be -- that I get to be, that I will always get to be -- my mother's daughter.

 


About Mom

This is the hesped (eulogy) that I offered at my mother's funeral today. May her memory be a blessing. For those who are interested, her obituary is here.

 

Liana Ljuba Epstein Barenblat was a force of nature. My mother was born in Prague, and emigrated with her parents when she was three. She grew up in small towns all over the south because her father was a thoracic surgeon who worked for the VA. One year they lived in an empty wing of a hospital, and Mom, David, and Vicki roller-skated in the hospital halls.

At fourteen, Mom attended a Zionist summer camp in Louisiana, where she fell in love with the bugler. She told her parents she had met the man she intended to marry. (We used to sing “Someday I’m going to marry the bugler…”) Mom wrote in her high school yearbook that she hoped to marry Marvin and have six children. 65 years of marriage and 5 kids: pretty close.

I remember Mom reminiscing about the very first time she ate Chinese food -- egg foo yung, on a date with Dad -- and how exotic it seemed. She couldn’t have imagined then that they woud someday visit China. And also Kenya, Turkey, Israel, Greece, Italy, India, Hong Kong, Russia, Egypt, Eastern Europe… Mom was an adventurer, always ready to experience new things.

Mom was the life of every party. She loved to entertain. I have countless childhood memories of my parents throwing fabulous parties -- I would sneak out of bed and crouch by the banister of the stairs and listen to her playing piano while all of their friends stood around with drinks and sang. Mom used to say one could never be too rich or too thin or own too many shoes.

Mom was strong-willed, like her father, our grandfather Eppie. She told me once that she had written him a letter before she married, saying that she thought they reason they had “butted heads” so often was that they were so very alike. She was deeply devoted to family, and until she got sick she kept in touch with everyone, and kept us all in touch with each other, too.

Mom used to say she was glad to be ordinary. Which is comical, because she was no such thing. I wish that if I came up with enough facts or stories, I could combine those pointillist dots and capture the essential Liana-ness of her. Her perfume was Bal á Versailles. She played the piano with rolling arpeggiated chords. She was a fabulous cook. She had so very many friends.

Mom taught all of her kids songs from her growing-up years. (As a result, even her youngest grandson knows “I love you a bushel and a peck.”) Mom used to sing "Grey skies are gonna clear up, put on a happy face!" I don’t think she knew that some of her kids hated that song -- we didn’t want to be told to cheer up! Sorry, Mom: I’m not putting on a happy face today.

But the upside of Mom’s relentless optimism was that she taught us to “make hay while the sun shines.” Mom urged us to enjoy every moment. She wanted us to lighten up, to seek out adventures, and to be gracious hosts. Mom taught me to set a beautiful table. She taught me to use the silver and the fancy china every day because nice things are meant to be enjoyed.

Mom never kept kosher, but she took pains to ensure that her kosher family could eat in her home. That was part of the gracious hospitality that seemed to come so naturally to her. Mom taught me to give tzedakah; to enjoy cocktail hour; to savor every manicure; that we show respect for others by dressing well; and that one can wear diamond studs with anything.

Maybe most of all, Mom taught me gratitude. Five years ago, Mom wrote to her children:

Although I never danced on a table (which I regret) my life has been more interesting than you can ever imagine. I have been amazing places, done awesome things, and have had the support and love of a special family and wonderful friends. I have had a great ride!

I am so thankful that she was able to feel gratitude for a life well-lived. I am so grateful that her life was so well-lived. I miss her terribly already, and I can’t imagine the world without her. There’s a song from her own childhood that she used to sing to me at bedtime. I sang it to her the night before she died. I want to try to sing it to her now, one last time.

Good night, sweetheart
Tomorrow’s another day
Good night, sweetheart, good night.


A time for silence, a time to speak

SpeakMaybe this is part of why I'm a poet: I'm an external processor. "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" wrote EM Forster. Me too. I write my way to understanding the flow of my emotional life. I write my way out of the hurricane. 

When I had my strokes, I wrote about them here, and about the journey of exploration that followed -- the medical journey (we never did figure out what caused them) and the spiritual journey of seeking equanimity in the face of that enormous unknown. 

When I had my miscarriage, I wrote a cycle of ten poems -- and rewrote, and revised, and polished -- as my path toward healing. And then I shared them here, because I hoped they would help someone else who was navigating those same waters.

When the body involved is my own, when the story involved is my own, I can share openly when the spirit moves me. Because living an authentic spiritual life in the open is a core part of my spiritual practice, and because my words may help others.

And I know, from emails and comments over the 15+ years of this blog, that what I write does help others. That many of you have found comfort and strength here. That when I am willing to be real, that can call forth a mirroring authenticity in you.

But sometimes the story isn't mine to tell. I remember conversations about this when I was getting my MFA at Bennington (20 years ago) -- how do we chart a responsible path through telling the stories of our lives when those lives intersect with others?

I'm not talking about maintaining silence to protect someone who abuses power or causes harm. I'm talking about -- for instance, stories I don't share here because they're about my son. He wants to tell his own stories, and that's as it should be.

I make a practice of wearing my heart on my sleeve. I try not to hide my sorrows or my joys. For me that's part of the spiritual work of being real, which in turn allows me to be a clear channel for the poetry and the other work that comes through me.

But there are some stories that need to stay behind drawn curtains, for the sake of others' privacy. Maybe they will emerge in poems, some years hence. Or in essays, written with the distance of time. Or in a eulogy offered someday in a shaking voice. 

What we see of each other is only ever a partial revelation. As Kate Inglis writes, "Heartbreak, no matter its source, is the most universal tax on the human experience." Be kind: you never know the story that someone is choosing not to tell.


Tetzaveh: becoming mitzvot, bringing light

One-candleThis week we’re in parashat Tetzaveh. The Torah portion takes its name from its first word, which means "You shall command." (It comes from the same root as mitzvah, commandment.) God is telling Moses to command us to kindle an eternal light in the mishkan, the portable sanctuary. That's a mitzvah that we still fulfill, with the eternal light in every sanctuary.

The Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet reads this verse in a beautiful way. First he notes the verse from Proverbs, "The candle of God is the soul of a human being." When we are in dark places, we light a candle to help us see. And God’s response to dark places is us -- we are the candles that God lights in order to bring light into the world. It’s our job to bring light.

I want to say that again, because it's so beautiful to me. We are God's candles. There's a ner tamid (eternal light) in every synagogue sanctuary, but the point of that lamp isn't just to be a lamp: it's there to remind us that it's our job to be sources of light in the darkness. The darkness of grief, the darkness of cruelty, the darkness of fear. We can dispel those with our light.

That word tetzaveh, "you shall command" -- the Sfat Emet reads it creatively to mean, "you shall bring mitzvot into the souls of the children of Israel, so that they themselves become mitzvot." Bring mitzvot into our souls, and we ourselves will become mitzvot -- holy acts, connected at our root to the Source of all goodness. That’s what it means to be a light in the world.

The blessing for a mitzvah -- lighting Shabbat candles, or affixing a mezuzah -- contains the words אשר קדשנו במצוותיו / asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav, "Who makes us holy in connecting-command." The Sfat Emet is saying that this goes deeper than just blessing God Who gives us mitzvot. When we bring mitzvot into our hearts, we ourselves become connections with God. 

Rabbi Art Green writes in his commentary on the Sfat Emet that this is actually the purpose of our lives as Jews: to so thoroughly embody the mitzvot that we ourselves become mitzvot. To so thoroughly embody Jewish practices and values that they become who we are. And maybe that's another way of saying what Proverbs says, that our souls can be God's candles.

In Proverbs we read that a mitzvah is a candle and Torah is light. A mitzvah is a candle, an opportunity to bring light into the world. And Torah is light -- we sing those words every time we dress the Torah scroll, תורה אורה / Torah orah!  For our mystics, the physical Torah we study in this world is a stand-in for the supernal Torah on high, and that Torah, the real Torah, is light.

So let's recap: our souls are light -- we're God's candles. The mitzvot are light -- they too are candles waiting to be lit. And Torah is light. Which takes me to the other words we sing when we're dressing the Torah, from the Zohar: ישראל ואורייתא וקודשא בריך הוא חד הוה  / Yisrael v'oraita v'kudsha brich hu chad hu, "Israel, and the Torah, and the Holy One of Blessing, are all One." 

Us, and Torah, and God: the Zohar teaches that these are all fundamentally one. Our deepest essence is that we are One with Torah, we are One with God, we are One with the source of all light. Right now it's Shabbes: we can bask in that light. And in the new week, we can strive to live it -- to embody Torah, to embody the mitzvot -- so that we can be bearers of light in the world.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at CBI on Shabbat morning, and is cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.

Offered here with gratitude to my Bayit hevre for studying the Sfat Emet with me each week.

 


Kate Inglis' Notes for the Everlost

Everlost...By the time you're an adult, you're rare if you have any less than three or four sizable chunks gnawed off your body, mind, or soul by one trauma or another. An apparently whole-looking person is not a wizard. They are a con man hiding behind a velvet curtain. Wholeness is something to prize only if you care most about the superficial. Let go of it and revel in plentiful company.

Every one of your emotions, outbursts, or lapses in social grace is 100 percent normal. In this extraordinary loss, you are ordinary. This is good. Your rage is normal. Your speechlessness is normal. Your running-off-at-the-mouth is normal. Your inability to know what you need is normal. Your difficulty occupying the same body that let you down -- that's normal. Your falling out with faith -- that's normal too...

I was browsing in a bookstore one day before lunch with a friend and my eye lighted on Notes for the Everlost: a Field Guide to Grief by Kate Inglis. When her twin boys were born prematurely, one survived and the other did not. Out of that trauma emerged this volume: part memoir, part "handbook for the heartbroken." It is dazzling. It is searing. It is holy wow.

Someday, you'll get as far as suppertime before consciously remembering. You'll be adding butter to rice, worried you've burned the almonds again. Your mind will chatter, as minds do:

Power bill

Snow tire appointment

Pretty sunset

Meeting tomorrow

Skype keeps crashing

Suddenly, putting on an oven mitt, you'll remember you ate a bomb.

The baby died

If you had asked me whether I wanted or needed to read a book about grief, and more specifically a book about a kind of loss I honestly cannot wholly imagine (and don't really want to -- who wants to imagine something this unspeakably painful?), I would probably have said no. I would have been wrong. I did need to read this book. It is a beautiful, real, raw, unflinching exploration of grief and loss -- and it manages to offer some redemption, not with platitudes or pretty words but with authenticity. 

I found that I couldn't read it all in one sitting. It's like poetry -- sharp, aching poetry -- and I found that the best way for me to consume it was to dip into and out of the book. To pick it up, read a few paragraphs or a few pages, and then set it down again. 

We sit outside by the creek. Josh and Kari tell me about someone who told them once, trying to normalize grief, that the aftershocks of loss never get better. We decide that's not true at all. We remember how it felt when it was new. And we know how it feels now. They say Liam's name, and I say Margot's name, and we all feel warm... we eat and talk while the fire burns high into the tree canopy, and they say Liam, and I say Margot, and together we decide being open is the way to better.

I've never experienced the kind of loss that Inglis chronicles here. I know that none of the loss I have ever known comes close, objectively speaking, to the grief she describes. But I feel at-home in her words, because I know what grief has been like for me -- the different griefs of my miscarriage, a loved one's illness, my divorce. Each grief is its own shape and color and dimensions. No two of mine have been the same as each other. None of mine are the same as hers. But I recognize my own heart in Inglis' words.

I commend this book to anyone who grieves, or has grieved, or might someday grieve. Inglis is wry and real and her words humble me and give me hope.

All we can do is be good company to one another, marking the most ancient of conditions: birth, love, longing, loss. Heartbreak, no matter its source, is the most universal tax on the human experience. We might as well share in the payment of it.

We might as well indeed. May all who grieve be comforted.

 

For those who are interested, here's an excerpt from the book.