Two great reviews of Beside Still Waters

Bsw-smallTwo fantastic reviews of Beside Still Waters were published this week.

In the Berkshire Jewish Voice, Rabbi Jack Riemer -- whose liturgical work I have often used and admired -- writes:

...Ours is a death-denying culture, in which we are taught to ignore the oncoming of death so as not to make those around us feel uncomfortable. And so it is good to have a few different versions of the Vidui here, which is the prayer that we are supposed to say before we die.

Ours is a culture that tries to repress pain and anger, and so it is good to have a prayer to say in memory of someone who has hurt us, and whom it is hard to forgive.

Ours is a society in which most of us stand before the yahrtzeit candle with no idea of what to say, and so it is good to have a meditation for this sacred moment that can help us give expression to the feelings that we have inside....

Read that whole review here.

And for the Association of Jewish Libraries, Fred Isaac writes:

...This small book is filled with wisdom, both ancient and modern. It is meant specifically for spiritual leaders, i.e., rabbis, Chevra Kadisha staff, prayer leaders, and counselors. But its readings can provide comfort for mourners at all stages of the process. It should be considered for every Jewish library...

Read that whole review here.

I'm so grateful to everyone who contributed their work to this volume, to my hevre at Bayit: Building Jewish, and to our publishing partner Ben Yehuda Press, for midwifing this book into being with me.

Buy Beside Still Waters from your favorite bookseller or directly from the publisher. Single copies cost $18. (Discounts are available for bulk orders of 10 or more at the publisher’s website.)


When we are tired

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"How are you," I ask. Often these days the answer is, "Tired." Tired of headlines about the end of democracy, or rising antisemitism, or miscarriages of justice. Tired of the million micro-aggressions of systemic misogyny or racism or xenophobia. 

Tired of wondering whether the 2020 elections will be hacked by Russia (or anyone else). Tired of wondering whether the weaponization of intentional misinformation, designed to sow discord and erode public trust, has done irreparable damage.

Tired of anxiety about the climate crisis, and how the over-focus on individual consumer choices ("did I remember a reusable grocery bag?") keeps our collective eyes off of the real prize of systemic change, sustainable change, meaningful change.

There are horrific injustices happening in so many realms. Sometimes it feels like the constancy and the omnipresence and how the injustices intersect make the fury and the outrage add up to more than the sum of their parts. Of course we are tired. 

I'm thinking a lot about how people have maintained hope in other difficult times. I'm slowly delving into Torah teachings from the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, and I've just started rereading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

We have an ethical obligation not to give up. We have to hold tight to hope that we can make the world better than this. When we can’t access that hope, we need to find someone who feels it, and let their hope shine for us too until we can feel it again.

We have an ethical obligation to help. Make a donation, canvass for a candidate, volunteer some time, bring a can of soup to the food pantry.... each of us will know what we can do. Whatever that thing is, we have to do that thing. And then another.

My best tool for preventing burnout is keeping Shabbat, giving my soul a break every week. It can feel self-indulgent, sometimes, when the world is burning. But this is my tradition's ancient practice for staying whole even in times when my soul feels tired.

It's okay to feel tired. It's okay to feel anxious and afraid. It's okay to take a break and put our oxygen masks on. And then I think we need to roll up our sleeves and keep trying to build a better world -- and looking for joy along the way as we do.

I think joy is integral, actually. Joy can coexist with sorrow, even with deep grief. Joy can be a kind of defiance. Audre Lorde called it "a form of energy for change." Joy intertwines with hope. And hope can fuel us to act. Even when we are tired.

 


Community in our hands

ShowImageMoses' father-in-law said to him, "The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone." (Exodus 18:17-18)

This week's Torah portion is named after Yitro, father-in-law to Moses. Yitro was not part of the Israelite community. Torah describes him as a "priest of Midian," an outsider. Maybe that's why he was able to take one look at what Moshe was doing and say, "Hold up, son, this isn't going to work."

Moshe was working himself to the bone, all day, every day, standing in judgment. He was the sole point of contact between the people and God: their spiritual leader, their judge, their administrator, their magistrate, everything. Yitro knew that wasn't a sustainable model. His solution was simple: share leadership.

He told Moshe to draw others into leadership and to empower them. This way the burden of caring for the community, and carrying the community, is shared. And it gives others the opportunity to step up and take some responsibility for the community, and in that way, the fabric of community is strengthened.

This is a basic leadership lesson, and it still resonates. The work of building community isn't the job only of those in leadership -- it's a job that belongs to all of us. The work of building the Jewish future isn't the job only of those in leadership -- it's work that belongs to all of us.

Not only because "many hands make light work," though that is true. But because when we step up and take responsibility for building healthy community, the whole community gets stronger... and those who have stepped into holy service don't burn out, because others are willing to tend to the needs of the whole.

After this advice from Yitro, God tells Moses that the children of Israel are to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Ex. 19:6) It's the same theme: holiness isn't just for priests (or rabbis) or public servants. All of us are supposed to strive to be holy. The whole community is instructed to be holy.

And then after that, the whole community hears the revelation at Sinai. Not just Moshe; not just the judges; not just the men; everyone. All of us are a "nation of priests and a holy people," and all of us received Torah at Sinai. Torah is our collective birthright, as the community is our collective responsibility.

What will we do this Shabbat to open our hearts to revelation?

And what will we do in the new week to take responsibility for co-creating, and caring for, the holy community we're called to be?

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services this week. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

Image: Darius Gilmont.


A reason to celebrate

Chanel-red-boucle-44-skirt-suit-size-10-m-0-1-960-960There was a photo on your desk. A group of your friends, maybe twenty or more, all wearing pink and red: dresses and suits, tailored and chic, high heels and handbags to match. You were right there in the front row, with your platinum hair and bright lipstick, beaming. Someone in your circle used to hold a Valentine's Day ladies' luncheon, and that's how everyone dressed for it. I think I remember that the party favors one year were iced cookies with a photograph of the last year's group printed onto the icing. Or am I mixing up the Valentine's Day luncheon with some other festivity? You and your friends celebrated everything you could find. Not just birthdays and anniversaries and Jewish holidays, but Valentines Day, St. Patrick's Day, Fiesta, Susan B. Anthony's birthday... Once, before I was born, you and Dad held a campaign party celebrating an imaginary candidate. You made up the most ridiculous name you could think of. You printed elaborately designed invitations, and hung red, white, and blue bunting everywhere. There was always an excuse for a party, and I used to roll my eyes at that. It seemed over-the-top, even frivolous. I'm sorry about that now, Mom. Now that you're gone, I understand your parties in a new way. No matter what we do, life will hand us sorrow. It's life-affirming to choose to seek joy and togetherness in the face of that truth.  I don't own a red Chanel suit, and I'm not attending a ladies' lunch on February 14. But I'm wearing a string of your garnet beads, and my dress today is burgundy -- a cousin to red, if you squint. And on this day of red and pink paper doilies, and flower arrangements, and boxes of chocolate, I am remembering you.


A body that mostly works

TOS

That I have thoracic outlet syndrome is not particularly interesting. That a lot of major league pitchers have it too -- according to my brother-in-law -- is marginally more interesting, but not by much.

Here is my layperson's understanding: the cluster of muscles in and around the "thoracic collar" seize up and won't unclench. Nerves and blood vessels  constrict. Symptoms ensue.

It's mostly low level pain, unless I move in the wrong way. (Trying to put on a coat right-arm-first, for instance, and then wriggle my left arm in.) I've learned to adjust the way I move, the way I sleep, the way I wash my hair. 

I don't like the chronic pain or the inability to lift my arm. But what I really don't like is how it impacts my ability to play guitar. I don't feel like I'm a "serious" guitar player, but my guitar feels to me like an extension of my hands and arms even so. 

Thoracic outlet syndrome can cause pain, and/or weakness, and/or numbness. I'm not always able to manage barre chords these days. Sometimes I can play them; sometimes not. Sometimes I start a song and midway through realize I can't barre. 

It's a little bit funny when I stop and think about it. The pain is annoying but bearable. The limited range of motion is annoying but bearable. But if it gets in the way of my ability to make music? Whoa, hold up there, I can't live like that!

I will put up with pain, discomfort, and numbness. But if they are impinging on my ability to make music -- which is interwoven with one of the ways I most love to pray -- then that's a non-starter. Music is necessary to my soul, like breathing.

I can still lead prayer with my guitar. I'm just aware that it's more difficult than I want it to be. I have to work around the limitations imposed by my neck and shoulder and arm. I'm aware that my body isn't working quite as well as I want it to be.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being: You form the human body with wisdom, creating the body's many pathways and openings... 

My thoracic outlet syndrome has given me another point of engagement with Asher Yatzar. That's the blessing that reminds us that we can't pray if our bodies malfunction too profoundly -- if something opens that should be closed, or vice versa.

Sometimes we offer this prayer during Shabbat morning services. It appears in our siddur alongside the prayer for the soul. I call it "the prayer for having bodies that mostly work, most of the time." That usually gets a rueful laugh from someone.

Because even the healthiest among us have bodies that don't always work the way we want them to. Or if they do now, we know that if we live long enough, they won't anymore. This fragility, this imperfection, seems to be built into embodied life. 

Maybe that's why this balancing act feels built-in, too. Making music with an arm that doesn't always work; praying with a heart and mind that don't always work; balancing our broken places with our whole ones -- isn't that always what we're here to do?

Praise God in market and workplace,
With computer, with hammer and nails,

Praise him in bedroom and kitchen;
Praise him with pots and pans.

(So writes Stephen Mitchell in his rendering of Psalm 150.)  In that vein... Praise God in physical therapy and on the massage table, with resistance bands and heating pads. Praise God with the range of motion that might become possible again. 

Or in the words of Psalm 118:5, "From the narrow place I called to You; You answered me with expansiveness." May the Holy One of Blessing answer all of our constricted places, our tight and painful places, our restricted-motion places, with freedom.

 


Innovating, learning, recharging

Innovation retreat 2020

Within moments of arrival we're talking about how fulfilling it is to learn from each other across the denominations. R' Evan Krame (The Jewish Studio, Bayit) has designed an icebreaker wherein we withdraw slips of paper from an envelope, each containing a quote, and relate the quotes we've drawn to our hopes for our time together. One of the quotes I draw reminds me of the importance of collaboration, and how we can build the Jewish future together better than any of us could build alone.

We study design thinking and innovation with Steve Silbert (Bayit). We talk about the needs we're trying to meet in the community contexts where we serve (and how do we even know what the needs are?) We talk about buy-in and safety, how to measure whether innovative solutions are working, iterative change (come up with a solution, try it, measure what worked, refine it, try again), rightsizing our questions. We dream follow-up conversations, workshopping ideas, adapting, trying again.

R' Jeff Fox (Yeshivat Maharat) teaches us mussar (character refinement) and halakha. We learn that our job as human beings is to feel-with others, and to help others carry their burdens. We learn a teaching of R' Simcha Zissel about tension between imagination (flowing freely) and mind (operating within limits). How does the dialectic between flow and limitation drive innovation? How do we operate from the stance that fundamentally what it means to be a Jew is to ease the suffering of others?

R' Mike Moskowitz (Bayit, CBST) brings texts about the tension between individual and community. We learn about when it's okay to delegate someone else to perform a mitzvah, and when we should be wholly present to bring our unique light. We talk about doing mitzvot because we genuinely love the One Who asks us to do so. We leave that session with the framing question "What can I do that no one else can do?" -- a way to prioritize our limited time and energy as we try to repair this broken world.

There are so many conversations. We talk about congregational dynamics, about who we serve, about projections and transference, liturgy and melody, best practices in teaching and b-mitzvah education, our work's challenges and joys. Even aside from the formal learning we're here to do, the immersion in conversations with wise colleagues is impossibly nourishing. I keep thinking of the Mandelstam quote I drew at the start, about how we can build together what we couldn't build alone.

We span all the denominations of Judaism, so early on in the retreat we negotiate how to daven together. Davening in a community like this -- where we all care about the words, and we're all dedicating our lives to serving the Holy and serving the community that serves the Holy -- is the best medicine there is for my heart. Especially when the davening involves harmony and song, which it always does. There is nothing better, for me. It feeds a part of my soul that is not fed in any other way.

Monday morning we read from Torah. At each aliyah, there is a glorious cacophony of words -- some of us using the traditional words, some of us using a more inclusive variation, some of us using the Reconstructing variation; masculine names for God and feminine names for God; all woven into one tapestry of melody and heart. When we sing the words for returning the scroll to the ark, "renew our hearts as of old," my heart cracks open. It's ineffable, it's like water after a long thirst, it's grace.

The change agency panel features R' Debbie Bravo (Makom NY), R' Jeff, and R' Mike. R' Mike talks about trans inclusivity in Orthodoxy and about answering people instead of questions. R' Jeff talks about ordaining women in Orthodoxy, change agency and design thinking, and navigating opposition. R' Debbie talks about values, community, and how to walk our talk on welcoming. We talk about the loneliness of being a change agent, and about where we find practical and spiritual support.

Shoshanna Schechter (Charles E. Smith) teaches about understanding Gen Z (b. 1997-2012) before we teach them, about navigating Jewish learning and screen time, about kids' resistance to prayer across all the denominations and how we work with that. We talk about how increasing anxiety among teens impacts our b-mitzvah teaching, and how we teach Jewish values (especially to kids who may be allergic to that term.) That leads us into a conversation about innovation in b-mitzvah prep.

We spend some time sandboxing #MenschUp values education for b-mitzvah learning. We use design thinking and its built-in iterative processes to begin brainstorming how we might co-create learning tools that would help kids meet some of the challenges they face today. What can we do with the "periodic table" of Jewish character traits to teach kids of all gender expressions? What would it look like to build tools for this work in a consciously trans-denominational way?

Over the course of the gathering we experience deep text study and davening and singing. We experience innovation learning, text learning, best-practices learning. We partake in late-night game play and laughter.  We grapple with how to innovate wisely and well, and how to meet real needs in the real world. After two days together I'm leaving with a re-filled rabbinic tool box -- and maybe even more importantly, a re-filled sense of connection to this calling, and gratitude for the opportunity to serve.

 

Shared with deep gratitude to this year's innovation retreat planning team, on which I served alongside R' Debbie Bravo, R' Jonathan Freirich, R' Evan Krame, R' David Markus, and R' Alana Suskin. Related: last year's innovation retreat report.


To Know God

Hardened-Heart-300x275This week's Torah portion (Bo) begins like this:

God said to Moses, "Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your children and your children's children how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them, in order that you may know that I am God." (Exodus 10:1)

I like the interpretation that Pharaoh hardened his own heart first, which means God just helped him along -- the spiritual equivalent of, "if you keep making that face, you'll get stuck that way." I can understand that as a spiritual teaching about how the choices we make about compassion (or lack thereof) shape who we are and who we become.

But this idea that God "made a mockery of the Egyptians" so that we would know God -- it's troubling, to say the least. It seems to treat the Egyptians as meaningless pawns in our journey of spiritual awakening. How can we redeem this verse?

Talking this over with one of my hevruta partners this week, here's where I arrived. Yes, Torah and the classical commentators show a distressing lack of concern for the Egyptian people who will suffer under Pharaoh's hardened heart. I can't magic that away. I can temper it by saying that this is a natural way for a traumatized people to react to abuse of power, and surely the children of Israel are traumatized at this point in their story.

And, I don't want to operate from a place of trauma. I reject the idea that the suffering of the Egyptians was fine because hey, it got us to a place of knowing God. And, I'm moved by the fact that Torah says that the whole point of this story is for us to know God.

We could even say: the whole point of our being alive is to know God. Maybe the G-word doesn't work for you. In that case, substitute something that does. The point of our being alive is to know love, or compassion, or justice, or meaning, or truth. The whole reason we're here is to connect with something greater than ourselves -- to "know God."

Maybe this means: to have deep spiritual encounters, to live in such a way that our hearts are open to the sacred. Maybe it means to know each other more deeply, because each of us is made in the divine image. Maybe it means to know creation more deeply, because when we delve into the natural world, we can (in the words of poet and pilot John Gillespie Magee Jr.) "put out [our] hand and touch the face of God." Maybe we seek God through Torah study, or prayer, or environmentalism, or pursuing justice. One way or another, our purpose in this life is to connect with the sacred.

And that leads me to the spiritual practice I find in this week's parsha: approaching everything with that lens. It's the first lens in my spiritual direction toolkit: "Where is God in this?" If someone in a position of power has hardened their heart and they're making choices that harm me, how can I harness that experience to open myself to God? How can I choose to center justice and love and hope, even when others are acting unethically -- or especially then?

I love this as a spiritual practice. And... it's really important that it's a practice I'm choosing, not one that's imposed from outside. It's one thing for me to say that I want to respond to a hardened heart by opening to holy connection. It's another thing to say that anyone else has to respond to injustice in the same way. "Your boss mistreated you -- great, what an opportunity for you to know God more deeply!" Um... no. If I were to say that to someone who'd been mistreated, that would be rabbinic malpractice.

Here's the choice I think we each have: when we encounter injustice -- when someone hardens their heart and acts wrongly -- will we harden ours in return, or will we choose to soften and to make space for the ineffable? I'm not talking about softening to an abuser. I'm talking about making the choice to keep our hearts open to God even in the face of injustice and suffering.

Torah says the whole drama of the plagues and the Exodus happened so we would know God. This year, that says to me: whatever's unfolding in our lives -- on a personal scale, on a communal scale, on a national scale -- can be an opportunity to soften our hearts and to more deeply know God... if we choose to use it that way.

Finding God in whatever's unfolding won't erase injustice, but it can give us resilience in the face of injustice. It won't erase suffering, but it can give us hope in the face of suffering. And maybe that resilience and that hope will give us the capacity to create justice: for ourselves, and for everyone.

 

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

 


The far shore

This is how the year ends.
We've carried your memory, and now 
we dedicate this stone
on the far side of the sea.

We've carried your memory.
Now we look back
from the far side of the sea,
our footsteps washed away.

Now we look back
and blink, disoriented,
our footsteps washed away.
The waves are gentler now.

We blink, disoriented.
I still talk to you.
The waves are gentler now
when I greet your photos.

I still talk to you
in every room
when I greet your photos
as though you were here.

In every room
questions I wish I'd asked
(as though you were here.)
I remember your voice.

Questions I wish I'd asked:
how do we live without you?
I remember your voice.
I don't want to let go.

How we live without you:
we dedicate this stone.
I don't want to let go..
This is how the year ends.

 


Bodies and stones

Tefila-Closed-small

It's been a while since the last time I helped with taharah, the washing, dressing, and blessing of the body of someone who has died. Once I became single, the dynamics of finding childcare for my son on a moment's notice shifted. Also as The Rabbi, when someone dies I'm usually occupied with funeral preparations. I haven't been able to say yes to helping with taharah in a while.

In this case (and this is not usual), I'm not presiding over the funeral -- and the person who died wasn't a member of my synagogue community, either. Before she died, her family reached out to ask whether we would care for her body before the casket is taken to the place where the funeral will be. I'm glad that after considering the ask, my congregants said yes.

There is something poignant about being asked to step in and help with this mitzvah during the days immediately preceding my mother's unveiling (the dedication of her gravestone) over which I will soon preside. I remember a conversation I had at her burial: a man I did not know, telling me that he had sat with the casket overnight so that her neshamah wouldn't feel alone.

This is how the fabric of community is woven. We step up and we do these things for each other, mitzvot that cannot possibly be repaid. We tenderly pray over and wash and dress each body before burial. We sit with each casket so that the soul of the deceased does not feel fear during the tender transition out of this life. We shovel graveside earth with our own hands.

The pebble I will place on my mother's grave is smooth and grey. I carried it in my pocket as I did taharah, linking this mitzvah done for a woman I did not know with the same mitzvah that strangers performed for my mother. Tomorrow I'll fly with this pebble to Texas. Sunday I'll place it on Mom's stone, a reminder that she is remembered, a marker of my passage through.

 


Tether

These letters, kite-string
or umbilicus: do they
tether you? When I
stop writing will you
dissolve, a water droplet
rejoining the flowing stream?
Maybe I'm the one
tied to what was,
not willing to disentangle.
When I wasn't looking
this year changed me.
Still homesick sometimes, but
I've learned to sleep
in this strange bed
where sometimes, I know,
I will see you
in dreams. Gone but
still here. Almost enough.


The weather

Things I can't know,
a partial list: how cold
the cemetery will be this time

how bruised my heart will feel
-- or not -- and most of all
would you wear sandals?

I don't think the dead
pull climate strings, but
if it were up to you

you'd want Texas to put on
her prettiest face
when we remember you.

You'd want our grief
to melt like thin ice
in morning Texas sun.

 


The world is our kin: lessons from Moshe about being an upstander

וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֗ם וַיִּגְדַּ֤ל מֹשֶׁה֙ וַיֵּצֵ֣א אֶל־אֶחָ֔יו וַיַּ֖רְא בְּסִבְלֹתָ֑ם וַיַּרְא֙ אִ֣ישׁ מִצְרִ֔י מַכֶּ֥ה אִישׁ־עִבְרִ֖י מֵאֶחָֽיו׃

Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. (Exodus 2:11)

UpstanderI always imagined that Moshe didn't know, growing up, that he was an Israelite. He grew up in Pharaoh's household as though he were a grandchild of Pharaoh. Surely Pharaoh didn't know the baby's origins -- he wouldn't have let his daughter adopt a Hebrew baby when he'd just ordered them all drowned, right?

Along with that, I've imagined a dramatic moment when Moshe discovers that he wasn't originally part of the ruling family. A moment when Moshe learns that he was born into a slave household rather than the royal one. But Torah here calls the Hebrew his kinsman. In this moment, it seems that he knows.

Two enticing possibilities flow from that. One is that Pharaoh's daughter told him, in secret, where he came from and who he really is. Maybe he's always known that he is secretly part of his nation's most oppressed people, rescued only by miracle, and that his destiny would be to help his people go free.

Or maybe he grew up as an Egyptian royal kid, having no idea that he was different from the rest of his adoptive family... and when he saw the overseer mistreating the slave, he knew in his bones that the man being oppressed was his kin, because all human beings are kin, and mistreatment is never right.

The commentator known as Ramban says that someone told Moshe he was a Hebrew, so he went out to the fields to see what kind of life his kinsmen lived. The commentator known as the Sforno says he was moved to strike the overseer because of a feeling of brotherliness -- he felt that the slave was his kin.

This year I'm moved by the idea that maybe Moshe didn't know his origins. Because in that case, his choice to be an "upstander" -- to step in and protect someone powerless who was being harmed -- was based not in a sense of loyalty to "his own," but in the sense that oppression is wrong, period.

Maybe I'm drawn to that interpretation because I want us to be like that Moshe. I want us to open our eyes to unethical behavior and oppression and abuse of power. I want us to step up and say: that's wrong. The world shouldn't be like that. As a human being, it's my job to protect the vulnerable from harm.

Earlier this week, my son attended an assembly at his elementary school about systemic racism. He came home deeply upset, having learned about the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. Three hundred were killed. Ten thousand became homeless. It's a horrific story of white people slaughtering black people.

My son wanted to know, how could human beings treat other human beings like that? He was shocked and angry and full of grief. I know that his surprise at the horrific viciousness of racism is a sign of his privilege. Through no merit of his own, he's been able to grow up mostly oblivious to racism.

My job now is to help him grow into awareness that we who have privilege are obligated to use our power to help those who don't have it. Because oppression is wrong. Which Moshe knew. And he knew in his bones that the man being beaten was his kin; Torah calls him "kinsman" twice to make that point.

Now, I don't recommend Moshe's methods here. (Killing the overseer: not the way to go.) But Moshe's apparently immediate knowledge that this person who was experiencing systemic oppression is his family, and that therefore he has an obligation to act -- that's Torah's role model for us this week.

Who experiences systemic oppression in our world? I'm not talking about individual acts of mistreatment, but about the systems and structures that give some people an inherent advantage and others an inherent disadvantage. Oppression expressed in the practice of social and political institutions.

[Harvest answers from the room]

Here are some of my answers: Immigrants. Refugees. People of color: at increased risk of unfair sentencing, and of being shot by police because of unconscious bias. Trans people: at increased risk of suicide because of prejudice and mistreatment. Women. Non-Christians. Those who live in poverty.

And, of course, one can be many of these things at once. This week I see Moshe's choice to stand up against the oppression of that Hebrew slave as Torah's lesson for us. Our world contains systems of oppression too, no less than the Mitzrayim ruled over by this Pharaoh who didn't remember Joseph.

Those who are oppressed are our kin, and it's our job to stand up for them as we are able, as Moshe stood up for his kin in the field. Not necessarily because we see ourselves in their faces, though maybe we do. But because oppression is wrong, and Jewish tradition calls us to pursue justice with all that we are.

 

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


Come write with me!

I couldn't be more delighted to announce that I've been named in the Liturgist-in-Residence for the National Havurah Committee's Summer Institute 2020, which will be held from July 27-August 2 in Hartford, CT.  Here's the text of their official announcement:

Liturgist-In-Residence 2020: Introducing Rachel Barenblat!

Rachel Barenblat, the “Velveteen Rabbi,” is an American poet, rabbi, chaplain and blogger. She is a founding builder at Bayit: Building Jewish, and serves Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, MA.  In 2016, The Forward named her one of America’s most inspiring rabbis. She has previously served as co-chair of ALEPH with Rabbi David Markus, and as interim Jewish chaplain to Williams College. In 2013 she was named a Rabbis Without Borders fellow by Clal, the Center for Learning and Leadership. Her blog, Velveteen Rabbi, was named one of the top 25 blogs on the Internet in 2008 by Time Magazine. Rachel has written several books of poetry, and has edited / compiled / contributed to a Passover haggadah, a machzor, and a book of prayers and poems for mourners.

Rachel will be teaching three workshops throughout the week:

  • Session 1 – Psalms of gratitude and praise. We’ll talk briefly about what makes a psalm, explore some psalms of gratitude (from Tehillim / the Book of Psalms, and from contemporary poets), and talk about ways of talking to / about the Holy. Our first writing exercise will serve to “prime the pump” and get words flowing; our second writing exercise will invite a stream of words about gratitude. Then we’ll revise / reshape those words into the first draft of a psalm. We’ll share psalms with each other aloud, and close with a niggun to send us on our way. 
  • Session 2 – Psalms of sorrow. We’ll begin by establishing shared vocabulary around psalms, poems, and spiritual practice. Today’s focus is psalms of anxiety and fear. We’ll explore some of these psalms (both classical and contemporary) and then shift into writing together. Our first writing exercise will prime the pump, and our second will invite words from a place of fear, sorrow, grief, or anxiety. We’ll revise those words into psalms, and those who wish can share them aloud. This session requires particular care because these psalms can evoke or activate difficult emotions. We’ll close this session with a meditative and musical practice designed to help us release our emotions and return to a sense of spiritual safety, and I’ll make myself extra-available after this session for anyone who wants to talk.
  • Session 3 – Psalms of wholeness. In this session we’ll explore psalms of wholeness and Shabbat. We’ll enter into Shabbat psalms (both classical and contemporary) and then do the week’s final two writing exercises. The first will prime the pump for our creativity (in a way that by now will be familiar to repeat participants), while the second will invite reflections on a hope for Shabbat or a memory of Shabbat. We’ll reshape those words into the first draft of a new Psalm for Shabbat, and will close with a niggun that evokes Shabbat, now on its way! 

Participants will have an opportunity to share their original psalms and poetry with the community during the week.

Stay tuned for more information about the roster of classes that will be offered at this summer's institute. For now, save the dates and plan to join us!

 


Pebbles

I know I must have talked with you
after unveilings for relatives

or friends, but I don't remember
what you had to say. Probably

we talked about shopping or haircuts
or Shabbes dinner, what Marie Howe

called "what the living do."
When you drove out of a cemetery

you moved on, but part of me still
hasn't left where we buried you.

Soon we'll gather to bless the slab
that marks the spot. Did you know

the tradition that says we stop
saying kaddish after eleven months

because only wicked souls require
a full year of kaddish to ascend

and we wouldn't want to imply
you weren't righteous? I think

you'd laugh and say whatever works
for us is fine by you, then ask

where we're going for lunch after
and what kind of shoes I'm planning.

Almost eleven months now I've been
writing to you, each line a monument

to memory. These poems,
the pebbles I leave on your stone.

 


Cooking Iranian food with a prayer in my heart

9565d065d0aa94196cb7ee23e02cde88I don't think it was a conscious decision. Consciously, I was thinking: I brought dried limes home from a recent trip to one of the markets in Albany. What can I do with them? Oh, I know. Samin Nosrat talks about dried limes in Persian food; I'll make something Persian! A few days of comparing recipes led me to this slow cooker Ghormeh Sabzi / Persian herb stew recipe.

But once I was cooking -- inhaling the scent of onions and garlic and turmeric, and then leeks and bunches of parsley and cilantro and last summer's frozen chives chopped and sautéed -- it occurred to me that I was making Iranian food. And I wonder whether the pull toward this recipe came from somewhere deeper than just "what can I make with dried limes."

There's so little I can do about the actions of my nation's government. I know that refreshing the New York Times and the Washington Post and my Twitter stream as often as I habitually do is probably not good for my mental or emotional or spiritual wellbeing, and yet... And yet I do those things anyway, on days that are not Shabbat, and therefore my heart keeps being broken.

My heart is broken by the state of America's body politic. By disinformation and misinformation. By fake news and propaganda. By threats and bluster. By fear for what this administration might do. By the knowledge that war is not an abstraction to military families -- nor to innocents who will be traumatized, or will die, simply because they're in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And I can't do anything about any of it. Sure, I can write to my Congresspeople, and I can volunteer toward electing a president whose values align better with mine, but neither of those will help now. But I can hold the people of Iran in my heart -- and the people of Iraq too, for that matter. I can pray for them (and us) to know hope and connection, health and prosperity.

I would love to visit Iran. To taste the food, to wander the markets, to see the Pink Mosque, to see the ruins of Persepolis, and most of all to meet Iranian people. I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon. But I imagine that if I were able somehow to make it there, people would be warm and welcoming. People are warm and welcoming everywhere I've ever been.

I remember traveling in Jordan the year before the Iraq war began, fearful that people would be angry about the actions of my nation's government. And yet when I acknowledged where I'm from, every single person I met welcomed me. Some of them indicated that they weren't fans of President Bush (hey, neither was I!) but none of them held my nationality against me.

When we meet each other as human beings, with curiosity and openness, we can learn so much about each other -- and also about ourselves. That's why travel is so broadening. And even if we can't travel, we can seek to meet others in the places where we are. My understanding of my religious tradition calls me strongly to welcome the immigrant, the refugee, the stranger

There's so much brokenness in the world today. It breaks my heart that my nation now accepts fewer refugees than ever before. And that this week my nation veered close to the brink of war with Iran.  And that we are living in times of rising xenophobia in so many places. I can't fix any of these. Today all I can do is cook Persian food and hold the people of Iran in my prayers.