Trying for words


I've been sick (not Covid, thankfully) since the day before Thanksgiving. I don't feel eloquent or wise. But saying nothing is all too often understood as its own statement, so I am trying to find words. The release of each individual hostage during these fragile days has made me weep with gratitude. The Jewish daily blessing for God Who frees the captive has landed differently these last seven weeks.

Until now, I've had the luxury of understanding that blessing metaphorically, spiritually. I have davened it thinking of how God has freed me, continues to free me, from my own life's narrow places. But there's a reason it's been in our liturgy for many centuries. I experience it in a different way, now. Now when I pray it I also mean: may every hostage be released. May everyone who grieves be comforted. 

To the best of my heart's capacity I grieve for and with every Israeli and Palestinian parent who has lost a child, or child who has lost a parent, or anyone who has lost anyone, in these terrible last seven weeks. Grief is not zero-sum. Compassion is not zero-sum. Trauma also is not zero-sum: it compounds. I pray for everyone who carries trauma across that beloved land. I pray for everyone. 

I pray for a just and lasting peace. I worry that those who currently wield power aren't capable of forging one. I find hope in Standing Together, a Jewish-Palestinian-Arab organization that Micah Sifry wrote about recently. But grassroots change is slow. I remind myself: Mariame Kaba teaches, hope is a discipline. I remind myself: Jews know something about long, slow cultivation of hope. 

I pray: Please God, lift up wiser, more compassionate, and more creative leadership who can move beyond this vicious cycle of tragedy. Please God, I don't have words, I need You to turn my cry into the prayer You know is underneath. Please God, out of the rubble and ashes of these days may something better be built. Please God, help us to dream our way to a better future for all of Your children.




Driving home from my son's orchestra practice
in the dark of rural Vermont, mountains
a slightly different deep blue than sky:

sudden sense-memory of dancing with my father
at my wedding. Nat King Cole on Spotify,
probably a song our hired jazz trio crooned.

The marriage and my parents are both long-buried
but I remember my father healthy and strong,
his arms around me, the crisp sheen of his tux.

I wish I could have that back. My parents,
and how everything seemed possible, for all
whom I love. The griefs I didn't yet know.



It is day 42
of this terrible count

but every day
the same qualities

-- anguish
within anguish.

At Shemini Atzeret
time stopped

just as we prepared
ourselves to turn

from Torah's end
to new beginnings.

The new month
never began.

Grief's fires
are still burning,

blood still crying
out from the ground.



Today's daily Ha'aretz email had the subject line, "What you need to know -- Israel at war: Day 42." That's what sparked today's poem: the realization that we're in another kind of Omer count, one where the only harvest I can see is grief. 

May the coming Shabbat bring respite and hope to all.


Last week I added wheat flour.
My son had asked for challah rolls
for his lunchbox. My mother's voice
in my mind's ear tsked to think
of all that white bread. Besides,
I reasoned, shouldn't I save
the best loaves for Shabbat
so he'll want to make motzi
on Fridays the minute he's home?
The rolls were fine. More heft
than usual, and stiffer -- still
better than most of what we buy.
This week I said screw it, made
a double batch of the real deal.
Life is short. I learned today
the wife of a friend of a friend
died without warning. When it comes
to obits, the newspaper runs over.
If he gets a foretaste of Shabbes
amidst the din of the cafeteria
is that really so bad? I could use
some Shabbat when I read how
that man called his opponents vermin.
May these knots of pillowy dough
soothe the shudder that word
sends down my Jewish spine
on this brief November day.




[H]is opponents vermin. Learn more at Forbes. (Content warning, Hitler.)

I Don't Know


One recent day on social media, comments from two people I respect crossed my transom within about an hour. One said (I'm paraphrasing both) that any rabbi who doesn’t call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza is morally bankrupt. The other said that any rabbi who would call for a ceasefire, given Hamas’ stated goals of destroying Israel, is betraying the Jewish people. 

I’ve been sitting with that tension, and it feels like a black hole inside my heart. How am I supposed to know which path is most likely to lead to a future of peace and justice and coexistence in that beloved land? How would I know whether more military response or a ceasefire is likelier to bring about the just peace both peoples need? I can’t possibly know.

In rabbinical school I studied a lot of things, but never political science, international relations, or military strategy. Granted, there are rabbis who do have this expertise – e.g. those who may have a background in international diplomacy or who have long studied geopolitics. But I don’t have the training, or the crystal ball, I would need in order to make these determinations wisely.

I know how to daven from the heart. I know how to sit with a mourner. I know how to teach Torah. I know how to help people ask, “how is what’s happening in Israel and Gaza impacting our Jewishness and our experience of God?” I want the killing and suffering to end: that’s a core moral position. But I don’t know how to discern if a ceasefire now would really get us there. 

I’m horrified by the dehumanizing rhetoric emerging from Netanyahu’s administration. I fear that after this military action nothing will really have changed, except that there will be more parents mourning their children, more families furious and despairing in grief. Is it even possible for a military action to “end” Hamas, or will it only create more hatred? More questions I can't answer.

A Hamas spokesman said, in the Times, that the thousands of Palestinian deaths (so far) are “the necessary cost of a great accomplishment.” In that same piece, they’re clear that they seek a permanent state of war between Israel and the whole Arab world. If there were a ceasefire, would Hamas just attack again? What is the best way to avoid that? How would I know?

Hamas wants permanent war; I yearn for permanent peace. “The real ‘revenge’ for murder is achieving peace,” as MK Ayman Odeh said, quoting Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish. Yitzhak Rabin z"l taught, “You don’t make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies.” Today’s hatreds feel too entrenched to bridge. Then again peace never seems possible, until it is.

But what would make it possible?

I can’t discount the possibility that a ceasefire would embolden Hamas and fuel more attacks like October 7, which would lead to more killing. I also can’t discount the possibility that a ceasefire is the only viable path forward; many Israeli organizations argue that military solutions have repeatedly failed and that the cycle of violence must stop. I do not know. 

I do know that I'm saddened by the ferocity of division over this in the Jewish community. Some Jewish musicians are asking those who seek a ceasefire to stop singing their songs. The North American head of the Jewish Agency for Israel says that he no longer considers those seeking a ceasefire to be Jews. Last time I checked, both doves and hawks are still Jews.

It is not obvious to me whether sustained military action or a ceasefire is the wiser path forward. But it is obvious to me that my hevre who are calling for each of these are doing so out of deep love and care and yearning for what they believe is best, and as an expression of their Jewish values. Surely our Judaism is not so narrow or so brittle as to exile one view or the other? 

Mishna (Makkot 7a) teaches that a Sanhedrin that executes one person in seven years is considered excessive. R. Elazar ben Azarya says: once in 70 years is excessive. R. Tarfon and R. Akiva say, if we were in charge no one would ever be executed! And then R. Shimon ben Gamliel says, that too would have increased the number of murders among our people. 

Shimon ben Gamliel’s point is, I think, that if we eschew all killing all the time, that choice also can lead to more killing. My heart is with Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon. But my heart may not be wise in that regard, if that stance allows harm to proliferate unchecked. And today’s Middle East realities pose a more complicated question than, “should capital punishment exist?”

The question here is which of two policy paths will ultimately save more lives in a conflict birthed in the dissolution of empire, simmering for decades, overlaid atop religious tensions and generational trauma, sometimes involving corrupt or unethical politicians, also serving as a proxy for other geopolitical tensions. It feels like hubris to imagine that I might know the answer.

The best thing I can hope is that this is so clearly a disaster of epic and world-shaking proportions that something, maybe everything, will have to change. I pray that once we reach “the day after,” there will be a rousing and thorough call for new leadership  – Israeli and Palestinian alike – who can together dream a way to something better than this. 


Can we pray for rain yet?
Has time stopped?

Are we still family
even if we disagree?

Where is everyone else
in this cloud of unknowing?

Who owns poetry?
What does belong mean?

Why fear ambiguity?
Where do we draw the line?

How has it been so long?
Where is the sky crying?

Why do people act like justice
and peace are opposites

when I know they are one coin
featuring God's own face?

Could the old maps be wrong?
Can we imagine new ones?

What if all I know is tears?
Who cares what I think I know?

What gives me the right?
How do I shake despair?

Is winning zero-sum?
Is anything okay?

Empathy and Dust: Vayera 5784

Screen Shot 2023-11-01 at 1.59.49 PM


If this week’s Torah portion were a newspaper, these would be some of the headlines:


God Says: Gonna Smite Two Cities

Abraham Bargains: “Save Innocents Among The Guilty!”

Angry Mob Wants To Rape Houseguests: Lot Offers Daughters 

Fire And Brimstone Turn Cities To Rubble

Was Sarah Assaulted in Abimelech’s Harem? 

Hagar and Ishmael Exiled to Die

God Instructs Abraham, ”Kill Your Son”

Oof, that’s a lot. Abraham argues with God to save two cities, but it turns out there aren’t even ten decent souls there; demoralized, he doesn’t argue with God to save his son. In last week’s parsha a foreign king despoils those cities and kidnaps Lot; this week Lot offers his daughters to an angry mob. Abraham allows Sarah to be taken into somebody’s harem for the second time; Sarah kicks out Hagar and Ishmael. There’s a maxim I’ve heard from colleagues who work in therapy: “Hurt people, hurt people.” Everyone in this story is hurting. 


Everyone in this story – our story, the one we’re living now – is hurting. I’ve spoken with so many of you about the grief and pain we’re carrying. The trauma of Jews slaughtered and kidnapped by Hamas continues to reverberate. For many of us that trauma feels compounded by destruction in Gaza, and by Jews being blamed for all of it. Many of us feel abandoned or betrayed by people we thought we knew. Antisemitism is rising everywhere. In this country, so is Islamophobia.  Many of us are experiencing anxiety attacks. Everyone in this story is hurting. 

When we’re hurting, we have a choice. We can close down around our pain – or we can open our hearts and just let the pain be, and trust that in time it will ebb. When we open our hearts, we also open to the pain of others. That’s the quality we call empathy: we recognize someone’s suffering, feel compassion, want to help. I recognize that those of us who are neurodivergent might experience or express that in other ways, so this is a broad generalization. Still, whether innate or learned, I think empathy is one of humanity’s best qualities. 

KeretIsraeli author Etgar Keret said something about empathy recently that moved me. "When I see people watching the horrible tragedy that is happening here as if it were a Super Bowl of victimhood, in which you support one team and really don’t care about the other, empathy becomes very, very selective. You see only some pain. You don’t want to see other pain..."  

Right now, I admit, empathy hurts like hell. When I think about Israel, when I think about Gaza, my heart breaks and breaks and breaks. What I hear Etgar Keret saying is that empathy doesn’t need to be a zero-sum game, where if I care about this suffering I can’t also care about that suffering. In fact the opposite is true. I believe the human heart is infinitely expandable in this respect. I think the fact of someone hurting should arouse our empathy. If you only take away one word from this d’var Torah, I would like for that word to be empathy

We can’t control what happens geopolitically. And I don’t have answers, and I don’t think it’s our job to know or to control what comes next. That’s one of the worst things about social media right now: the constant pressure to condemn actions taken by someone else somewhere else. The petitions and statements, as though a digital signature or a Facebook graphic here would impact what happens there. The assumption that silence is assent so if we’re not speaking up constantly, we must be in favor of… whatever. It’s exhausting, and it doesn’t help anyone.

What we can control is whether we close down or open up – and what arises from that. Rabbi Simcha Daniel Burstyn, who serves the Arava region of southern Israel, wrote recently that he keeps hope alive by holding fast to the Jewish value that every life is sacred. He also noted that the average age in Gaza is 15, and the average age in Israel is 25, and it’s only between 25 and 35 that the brain becomes fully developed and able to restrain the drive toward anger. 

“And so those of us who are older, we're actually a real resource for our communities, to speak about kindness, and to speak about calm and thinking reactions, restraining anger and restraining the desire for revenge.”

Hurt people hurt people, and everybody in this story is hurting. 

I keep coming back to the part of this week’s Torah portion that we read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. They’ve run out of water, and Hagar cries out to God. And Torah tells us that a messenger of God calls to Hagar and says, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not fear; God has heard the cry of the boy ba-asher hu sham, in the place where he is.” And suddenly she sees a miraculous spring of water.

The sages of the Talmud cite this passage when they’re talking about pre-emptive punishment. Tradition teaches that Ishmael grows up to become the ancestor of the Arab peoples, with whom the children of Israel have not always gotten along. Why didn’t God just let this child die, and thereby prevent all the future harm that would come?

R. Yitzhak says,  ‘We do not judge a person except on the basis of their deeds at that time’” – citing this verse and the phrase “ba-asher hu sham.” (Rosh Hashanah 16b)  We don’t punish someone for what they haven’t done yet. The commentary Torah Temima by Baruch ha-Levi Epstein (ca. 1900) adds: “Even though in the future [Ishmael] will do evil to Israel and even kill…” At this moment, he is a suffering child. Faced with suffering, we choose empathy.

I would add: we don’t know who people are going to become or what the future will hold. We don’t know what the history of our people will be over the next thousand years, or even the next hundred. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War it was impossible to imagine peace between Israel and Egypt – until the Camp David Accords in 1978. It was impossible to imagine, until it wasn’t. Like the miraculous spring in the desert that appeared to Hagar.  

EmpathyWe can’t control what’s happening. We can’t even control what people say on social media. But we can choose how we respond. We can cultivate empathy and curiosity: what must this person be feeling that would cause them to say that? Can we feel empathy even when we disagree?

And just as importantly: can our empathy fuel us in doing something toward a better future? There’s a Buddhist teaching that all suffering is connected, and when we do something to alieviate any suffering we impact the whole. So maybe our hearts are breaking for Israel and Gaza, and we respond by helping someone locally. Or maybe our hearts are breaking for Israel and Gaza and we respond with tzedakah – here is a list of many worthwhile organizations where tzedakah might go after Shabbat. 

When Abraham is arguing for the innocents of Sodom and Gomorrah, he begins his plea for mercy by saying, “I am but dust and ashes!” (Gen. 18:27)  Our hearts may have felt like dust and ashes lately. But the rabbi known as the Ishbitzer finds something beautiful in Abraham’s phrasing. He notes that ashes are the remainder and reminder of what used to be – think of the ash left over after a fire. But dust, or we might say dirt, can give rise to life. 

The first human being, ha-adam, was made from adamah – an earth-being made from earth, from dirt. Our tradition teaches that all humanity comes from one ancestor: fundamentally we are all connected. For me there’s hope in starting our Torah story over again with the first human being. It teaches us each year: begin with earth and care and spirit, and anything can grow.

Even when we feel like dust and ashes: we can honor and grieve what was, and with empathy we can water the seeds of what we hope will be.

Shared with gratitude to R. Robert Tabak, who cited that teaching from Rosh Hashanah 16b in an email this week. And also to my hevruta with whom I studied the Mei HaShiloach this week.

This is the d'var Torah I offered at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)


Content warning: words and quotations from recent Israel / Gaza news stories.










Phrases that render
us breathless, chest
compressed in an iron vest,
a non-exhaustive list:

charred bodies
music festival
hostage video
death toll

under rubble
collective punishment

"From the river
to the sea"
"I will stab you
and slit your throat"

We are all heart,
raw and beating.
Moral injury
doesn't leave a scar.



"From the river to the sea." Source.

"I will stab you..." Source


A question for my fellow poets, and/or for those who have poetry opinions. Does the use of another color "work" in this poem? Would italics work better? Would it be better not to set those stanzas apart at all? 

And a note to all: if the news or social media are giving you panic attacks, please limit your consumption. This suffering does not help anyone, and it diminishes our capacity to pursue healing and justice wherever we are.

Here's a prompt from the Jewish Studio Project that offers an outlet for emotions and reactions when the news becomes more than we can bear: Art-Making as a Form of Prayer and Nervous System Regulation.


Screen Shot 2023-10-31 at 6.57.46 AM

Today on social media Bayit is featuring this small poem of mine, alongside art by R. Allie Fischman. When I wrote it, I was thinking about how so many of us out here have beloveds in Israel or in Gaza (or both) and are feeling-with-them from afar. It's something we have in common, those of us linked with one people and those of us linked with the other. (And some of us with both.) Our broken hearts connect us, and I refuse the idea that grief needs to take sides.

Israeli author Etgar Keret spoke about that recently. He said, "And when I see people watching the horrible tragedy that is happening here as if it were a Super Bowl of victimhood, in which you support one team and really don’t care about the other, empathy becomes very, very selective. You see only some pain. You don’t want to see other pain..."  (Read his interview here: I Feel A Human Deterioration.) 

Anyway, the poem and illustration are part of Our Collective Heartbreak, alongside many other powerful offerings of the heart, and you can find the whole collection by clicking through that link. For those who need the poem in plaintext, it appears below.



For Jews and Palestinians in Diaspora


We’re over here:

Too far to help, but not too far to feel.

We’re not living in a war zone

But we can’t sleep either

Because when someone harms you

We feel pain.

Holding you from afar –

Never really apart.


R. Rachel Barenblat



I measure the tiny cubes by the fistful:
brunoise of dried apple and crystallized ginger
that steep to an infusion of hibiscus pink.
Almost November and our skies
are getting a jump on the season,
featureless grey through newly-bare trees.
This is the brightest tea I have.

I remember the man behind the counter
who dropped a dry spoonful into each waiting palm,
the wall of spice jars like stained glass.
I came home with a tiny flagon of rosewater,
a quart of zaatar, a giant bag of apple tea.
I wonder if he's okay now.
I wonder if anyone is.

Why poetry matters (now)

Buried-barenblatPoetry and liturgy and art work differently than essays or arguments do. They can reach us in different ways than prose does.

Pastorally, I think art and prayer can meet a need that discursive forms don't / can't meet. Arguments call forth more arguments, and that doesn't interest me, especially now amidst so much suffering. 

Poetry and liturgy and art can also hold multiple meanings. Jewish tradition has beautiful teachings about God's speech being polysemic (saying multiple things simultaneously). I've been thinking about how prayer and art can function like that too.

Multivocality is part of the point. No prayer or poem or artwork will be understood in exactly the same way by everyone who reads or prays or views it. For me that's an important value right now. I need words and images that can hold multiple meanings and valances.

Anyway: all of this is why I've been grateful to my fellow builders at Bayit over the last couple of weeks. Much online conversation about Israel and Gaza feels fruitless to me, echo chambers talking past each other. And I'm simultaneously drawn to refresh news websites constantly to see what new horror may be unfolding, and aware that so doing doesn't actually help anyone (and might harm me.)

But a few days after the Hamas incursion into southern Israel I reached out to the Liturgical Arts Working Group and asked if there were interest in collaborating on an offering, and the answer was an immediate and fervent yes. So we brainstormed, we drafted, we commented and workshopped, we revised, and when all of that work was done I curated a flow through what we had co-created.

The collaborators on this artistic and prayerful response span the gamut from Reform to Orthodox. Some of us are mystics, others are rationalists. Our Judaisms are not the same. Our relationships with that beloved land and its peoples are not the same.  In this we mirror the Jewish community writ large. That feels important to me, too. We are different and we are part of the same whole.

Find the new offering of liturgy, poetry, and artwork from Bayit here, as downloadable PDF chapbook and as google slides suitable for screenshare:


Our Collective Heartbreak


(And for those who need the above poem in plaintext, instead of as an image, here it is.)



I can't even wish
for a time machine --
we‘d argue
which fork in the road.

The blood of beloveds
cries out from the ground.
Every bent and broken body
was someone’s beloved.

If I say
we’re more alike than not,
all our hearts are shattered
someone will disagree, but

how can I not grieve
with every bereft parent,
most treasured hope
now buried.


R. Rachel Barenblat - originally published at Bayit


A little bit of a week

Activity-Sheet-Individual-Tile__2A tangled ball of grief.


On Friday nights, before L'kha Dodi -- the prayer welcoming the Shabbat Bride into our midst -- we sing a prayer that asks God to untie our tangled places. (I've written about it here before.)

Years ago I started using a little patter before the prayer that I borrowed from Rabbi David Markus. It was originally ad libbed to be singable to the Rizhyner's melody for the prayer, but it's basically become liturgy in my community. My son sings it to me sometimes. Other members of the community quote it. The opening has become part of the prayer now. And this past Friday night, as soon as I played the opening chord, everyone knew what was coming.

"Maybe you've had a little bit of a week," I sang.

"I don't know about you, but I've had --"

That's when I noticed the tears pouring down my face.


...For the people torn from their homes and shot. For the concert-goers at the all-night dance party whose dancing ended in a massacre. For children, killed and kidnapped. For lifelong peace activists, killed and kidnapped. For over a thousand Jews slaughtered last Shabbat. For my friend whose partner grew up on one of the now-massacred kibbutzim. For the first responders whose job it was to locate and cover every dead body. For the people who were traumatized seeing Torah scrolls draped in tallitot at Simchat Torah because they evoked Jewish dead bodies draped in tallitot. For everyone struggling now with generational trauma. For the hostages in Gaza. For the families of the hostages, frantic and afraid. For the mother I know whose child couldn't fall asleep in the bomb shelter. For the children and adults who have no bomb shelters and nowhere safe to go. For Awad Darawshe z"l, killed by Hamas while doing his EMT work. For the recognition that someone out there is wailing and mourning every single death this week, including those who weren't EMTs or peace activists, just "regular" Palestinians and Israelis. For every life snuffed out. For every child now without parents, and every parent now grieving their child. For the inhabitants of Gaza, with electricity and water cut off, whose buildings are now rubble. For the hopelessness and the anguish. For the fact that grief becomes politicized, and strangers on the internet critique for whom and how we grieve. For the fact that I had to firmly instruct my teenager not to watch videos of hostage executions that Hamas has threatened to broadcast. For the fact that not everyone has the luxury of looking away from the death and loss and horror. For every heart now shattered. For the near-certainty that it's going to get worse before it gets better...


"-- a little bit of a week," I managed, somehow.

By now people were singing along with me, quietly.

"And if you've had a little bit of a week -- ai yai yai yai yai yai yai yai!"

The words of the prayer don't really matter, I've said more times than I can count. I'll sing some Hebrew. Maybe you'll sing some English. Then I'll sing some Hebrew, and you'll sing some English. But what really makes this prayer work, what gives us the spiritual capacity to let go of our baggage and be fully present to welcome Shabbat, is the krechtz. The cry from the heart, from the gut, from the core. The ai yai yai. We have to let it all out before we can let Shabbat in.

I've never prayed that prayer with more fervor than Friday night, even though I could scarcely get words out around the lump in my throat.

"Receive our call, and hear our cry!" I was not the only one in the room weeping. So many of those whom I serve have come to me in the last week seeking comfort, seeking hope, seeking meaning, and the grief is so vast. How do we welcome Shabbat when there is so much bloodshed, and so much trauma, and so much more loss than our small human hearts can begin to understand?

And yet this is what Jews have always done. We make Shabbat even in the worst of times. We kindle our Shabbat candles, a reminder of creation's primordial light, and we affirm that the brokenness that characterizes the world as we know it is not the only way things can be.

Shabbat is our foretaste of the world to come, and when it is over, we begin again to fumblingly try to find our way toward a world better than this.


Some of the pieces I've read this week:

From Chaos to Light: Bereshit 5784 / 2023

Screen Shot 2023-10-13 at 7.42.57 AM

Torah begins, “When God began creating the heavens and the earth, the earth was תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ / tohu va-vohu” – chaos and unformed, scrambled and unpredictable. (Gen. 1-2) In the beginning, there was chaos. Tohu va-vohu was the original state of the universe. It's a law of thermodynamics: entropy is always already with us. Chaos pre-existed creation.

Surely chaos preceded the formation of the modern State of Israel. In the years before 1948 our world experienced profound upheaval and destruction. The hope encoded in the modern state of Israel was planted in spiritual soil laced with the shrapnel of our broken hearts after the deaths of the six million. Could we have imagined, in 1948, the particular grief of right now?

This week we have re-learned some things about chaos and broken hearts. I have no words for the horror of what we’ve witnessed from afar… and I know this pales in comparison with what our beloveds there are going through. I think of when Aaron’s sons die unexpectedly and Torah says simply that he is silent (Lev. 10:3). Sometimes our sorrow is beyond all words.

There is unspeakable sorrow also in this week’s Torah portion. In Bereshit we read about Cain and Abel, the first siblings, born to Adam and Chava. One brother brings produce to God, the other brings animals, and God looks with favor on only one of their offerings. We might wonder why God's favor seems here to be zero-sum, but Torah doesn't answer that question.

Torah just tells us that the face of Cain, the farmer, has fallen. And God says, "Why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do right, there is uplift." (Genesis 4:7) But Cain doesn't do right. He slays his brother in the field, and when God asks about Abel, Cain retorts, "Am I my brother's keeper?" And God replies, “your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!” (Gen 4:10)

I keep thinking about the grief Adam and Chava must have felt – and the grief God must have felt, too. Torah seems aware from the very beginning that human beings are capable of unthinkable harm. Indeed, there's midrash that says at least some of the angels tried to talk God out of creating humanity, arguing that humans would be violent and terrible.

Truth and Peace say: don’t do it, God, humanity’s going to trample the values we stand for. Justice and Compassion say: no, God, create humanity, they’ll act with mercy and justice! Of course, we know that God creates humanity, because here we are. Our mystics say that’s because God yearns for relationship with us. God yearns for us to live up to who we can be.

Chaos is at the very beginning of the cosmic story, and bloodshed is at the beginning of the human one. In this sense Torah feels very realistic. It’s a funny word to use for a seven-day creation story that midrash populates with angels! But Torah has no illusions about who and what human beings are. This is what we have to work with. Torah begins with chaos.

And then: יְהִ֣י א֑וֹר  / Yehi or, says God: "let there be light," and there is light. And God sees that the light is good. (Gen. 1:3-4) Torah isn't talking about sunlight. We know this because God creates light before creating the heavenly bodies that illumine our sky. This light is something else. This is what our mystics call the primordial light, the light of creation itself. 

The primordial light shines in the darkness not of space but of spirit. And when God declares it good, God is saying that there is capacity for good in this world. God is saying that we can choose to create, not just to destroy. Our Shabbat candles shine with the glow of that primordial light. Shabbat comes each week to remind us that tohu va-vohu is only the beginning.

Shabbat is supposed to be a holy time out of our ordinary existence. But I am here tonight to say to you: if we need to grieve, then Shabbat can hold our grief. If we need to pour out our hearts at the pain and horror of it all, then we can. God can take it. And I promise that even if we feel our hearts are shattered altogether, I know that in time healing will come.

Cain asks God, "Am I my brother's keeper?" We learned at Kol Nidre that kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh -- all of Israel is responsible for one another. We're mixed up in one another. We're part of one another. It's why when others are harmed, we feel the hurt. And I wouldn't want to be any other way. Even if that means worrying and crying and grieving from afar.

And I'm also here tonight to say to you: this week's Torah portion comes to remind us that we have agency. Chaos isn’t the end. On the contrary, it seems to be a necessary precursor to beginning. Even when darkness and chaos feel like all we have, this is where creation itself begins. Existential darkness gives way to light. It’s why a Jewish day begins with evening.

For R. Isaac Luria the story of creation begins with breaking. When God first began to create, he teaches, the vessels meant to hold God’s light shattered. Creation as we know it is full of shards, and also holy sparks. That was the original meaning of tikkun olam: lifting the broken shards to find the sparks of holiness, and lifting those sparks back up to their Source.

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about these words from the Kotzker rebbe, as taught by Rabbi Alana Suskin: “The Torah says, ‘In the beginning, God created…’ God only created the beginning, and left the rest to humankind.” It’s up to us to figure out how to get from this beginning to something better. I believe that most people, in Israel and in Gaza, want better than this.

A friend recently mailed me a book by Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes, and I opened it one morning this week over breakfast. Immediately I had to pick up a pen to draw exclamation points in the margins. The sentence that drew me in was, “Hope and grief can coexist, and if we wish to transform the world, we must learn to hold both simultaneously.” 

I don't have answers to the vast tragedies and traumas we've witnessed this week from afar. But the voices that resonate most for me this week are the ones saying: these two peoples can live in peace. Nobody's children should be killed. Out of this terrible mourning, we pray for a better path forward. A better world is possible. 

May we remember that we are all each others’ keepers. May we extend ourselves with care to all who are suffering across that beloved land. Out of this chaos, may we find our way to creating light. In the words of the National Council of Jewish Women, this week we’ve seen the worst in humanity; may we respond by cultivating the best in humanity. And let us say – amen.


Wondering how to help?


This is the d'varling I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)

My heart is heavy

Screen Shot 2023-10-08 at 10.13.42 PM

Here's the message I wrote to my community to accompany that prayer:

We woke this morning to the news that Israel is officially at war with Hamas. My heart is heavy with grief. It’s especially heartbreaking on Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah. Like the Yom Kippur War, almost exactly fifty years ago, this coordinated series of attacks via land, sea, and air were a shock on a day of national religious celebration.

How can we rejoice with the Torah at a moment like this? And yet our tradition calls us to do precisely that. Our ancestors danced with Torah in times of Crusades and pogroms. We too can find strength in our traditions and in community. And we can dedicate our grief and our celebration alike to our most fervent prayers for peace...

Read that whole letter here. (And I'll include the text of the prayer below, knowing that some of us need plaintext rather than images.)

To our friends and family
From the windswept Golan
To the sands of the Arava:

We hold you in our hearts
We hold your children in our hearts
Our fate is bound up in yours.

And to the parents and children
From Ramallah to Gaza City
Who also do not wish for war --

We love this land with you
We pray for better with you
And we yearn for peace with you.

God, with all the desperation of our hearts we plead: may it be true that peace will yet come.

עֹוֹד יַבֹא שַׁלוֹֹם עַלֵינוּ וְעַל כֻלַם. راع ييجي اسالام لاينا واي كل إلام


Rejoice / Fragile

וְשָׂמַחְתָ / Rejoice

My door is open. Will you enter?
Taste the air, heady and fragrant --

limned with honeyed autumn light
and wet with morning dew.

Let me wrap around you
like a cloud, like an embrace.

Stay with me just like this.
Joy expands to fill everything.


I see how fragile everything is
around you, how tenuous
any peace. Reasons for sorrow
pile up like fallen leaves.
Feel my heart touching yours,
enfolding yours.
I'm here with you where you are
under this roof that lets in rain.


I've been working on these two Sukkot poems in tandem. Sukkot for me evokes both fragility (the sukkah begins falling apart as soon as it's created; every life is a sukkah, fragile and fleeting; God knows I've sat with sorrow in the sukkah at times) and joy (Torah tells us to rejoice in our festivals; this is zman simchateinu, the season of our rejoicing; on Shemini Atzeret, the 8th day, God calls us to linger a little longer in joy.) These poems are somewhat in the mode of Texts to the Holy, though I leave it to you to decide who is speaking, and to whom. They appear above with accompanying images (and alt-text for screenreaders). Below are the two poems as plain text.



I see how fragile everything is
around you, how tenuous
any peace. Reasons for sorrow
pile up like fallen leaves.
Feel my heart touching yours,
enfolding yours.
I'm here with you where you are
under this roof that lets in rain.

וְשָׂמַחְתָ / Rejoice

My door is open. Will you enter?
Taste the air, heady and fragrant --

limned with honeyed autumn light
and wet with morning dew.

Let me wrap around you
like a cloud, like an embrace.

Stay with me just like this.
Joy expands to fill everything.