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August 2006
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October 2006

A taste of Rumi before Yom Kippur

To help us prepare for the fast of Yom Kippur, here's a quotation from the poet Rumi, which I found in this Ramadan readings post from Baraka:

There is an unseen sweetness in the stomach's emptiness.

We are lutes. When the soundbox is filled, no music can come forth.

When the brain and the belly burn from fasting, every moment a new song rises out of the fire. The mists clear, and a new vitality makes you spring up the steps before you.

Be empty and cry as a reed instrument.

Be empty and write secrets with a reed pen.

When satiated by food and drink, an unsightly metal statue is seated where your spirit should be.

When fasting, good habits gather like helpful friends. Fasting is Solomon's ring.

Don't give in to illusion and lose your power. But even when will and control have been lost, they will return when you fast, like soldiers appearing out of the ground, or pennants flying in the breeze.

I especially love "Be empty and cry as a reed instrument" (which I can't help mentally reshaping into "Be empty and cry as a horn instrument," thinking of the wail of the shofar) and "Be empty and write secrets with a reed pen," which resonates for me as a hint of the ineffable way that poems can arise out of unknowing.

I'm off to Elat Chayyim (in its new home at the Isabella Freedman Center) for a Shabbat Shuvah and Yom Kippur retreat, so I won't be online again until after the holiday. (Spending Yom Kippur there last year was amazing; this year I'm looking forward to using Shabbat Shuvah as a time to really dig into preparing for the holiday.)

Tzom kal, everyone -- an easy fast to you, whether you're fasting just for Yom Kippur or during every daytime of Ramadan. May your observance bring you closer to the meaning that you seek.

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This week's portion: Walking the walk

This week -- Shabbat Shuvah; the Shabbat of Re/Turn, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur -- we're reading parashat Haazinu, in which Moses urges the children of Israel to take the words of the Teaching to heart and to make them our very life.

In this week's post over at Radical Torah, I started riffing on what this instruction might and might not mean, and I wound up with something that feels as much like a prose poem as a d'var Torah:

It doesn't mean skipping over the boring or confusing parts, or the parts that contradict other parts. It doesn't mean accepting anybody else's interpretation, necessarily, but it also doesn't mean always feeling compelled to come up with your own, either. It doesn't mean watching other people engage with the text while remaining at a safe distance, comfortably aloof.

It doesn't mean limiting your understanding of "Torah" to just the Chumash, or just the Tanakh, or just the Written + Oral Torahs, or just the feminist commentaries on the Torah, or just the non-feminist ones. It doesn't mean squeezing Torah into any kind of glass slippers that would require you to trim a toe here and a slice of heel there in order to fake a comfortable fit.

Writing this felt like dancing.This might be my favorite thing I've written for RT this year. Read the whole thing here: Walking the walk.

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Seasonal reads

My aggregator has yielded some thought-provoking posts of late. Here are three of my favorites:

Danya has a post called Unetane tokef and collective responsibility, which takes a good hard look at the "Unetaneh Tokef" prayer and the theology it encapsulates. She writes:

What if it weren't about my individual repentance as it affects my individual fate? What if our repentance as a society (which demands that each individual do his or her part) is the thing that affects our collective fate? What if the reason a person gets cancer is not because he or she personally has done something wrong, but because we as a nation and a globe have poisoned our air, our water, and our food with toxic chemicals and negligence?...

(Read the whole thing here.)

And we have Cole Krawitz to thank for Revisioning Unetaneh Tokef, a post which reprints a new version of the classical prayer (as written by Jack Riemer) alongside some of Cole's commentary. Here's an excerpt from the prayer as Riemer revisions it:

How much time did we waste
In the year that is now gone?

Did we fill our days with life
Or were they dull and empty?

Was there love inside our home
Or was the affectionate word left unsaid?...

(You can find the post at Jewschool here.)

Meanwhile, over at Reb Blog, there's a post called Poems for the Days of Awe 5767. I like all of them, but the penultimate one, "Second Day of Rosh Hashannah Afternoon," resonated the most for me, perhaps because it reflects how I spent the afternoon of the second day of the holiday, too, at least once I got home from shul. (Of course, had I written the poem, the anonymous POV character would have been a Packers fan...) Here's a taste:

Have compassion on this team.
They have an aging quarterback.
Their special teams aren't so special.
They are already expecting a losing season.
Answer them.
Do with us charity and lovingkindness.
Simple acts --
A nice wind for a fifty yard field goal,
when the sideline refs bring the chains on the field,
let them stretch just a bit, a two-point conversion now and then...
Our Father, Our King
Help us make it into the end zone.

(Read Rabbi Daniel Brenner's poems here.)

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A tiny step toward leyning

For the last few years, I've been one of the baalei kriyah (Torah readers) at my shul on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Each year I've grown more comfortable with the task. The first time I rose to the occasion it was terrifying; in contrast, last year I wasn't nervous at all. By that point I was reading from Torah pretty regularly, so the scroll felt like a comfortable friend rather than an intimidating stranger.

So last Rosh Hashanah, I made myself a promise: that by the time this year's holiday rolled around, I would take a new leap in my Torah reading. This year, I wanted to chant the text using the traditional trope.

Some of you may be thinking, "What kind of rabbinic student doesn't know how to leyn?" (Answer: the kind who hasn't had occasion to do it in nineteen years, and hasn't yet gone through Hazzan Jack's crash course "Leynen in the fast lane.") Others may be wondering, "Trope? Leyn? Is she still speaking English?" Perhaps an explanation is in order...

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Happy everything!

Shanah tovah, Ramadan Mubarak, and happy autumnal equinox, y'all!

This year is the second of three during which the month of Tishri (on the Jewish calendar) and the month of Ramadan (on the Muslim calendar) coincide. The fine folks at Tent of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar have published three excellent short pieces about this confluence and its significance:

It's neat that this year we'll be walking the path through the Days of Awe, and Sukkot, and Shmini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah, while our Muslim cousins are making their way through Ramadan.

And that's not all! This weekend also marks the fall equinox, which means that while I'm ringing in the new year, some of my Pagan friends are commemorating the Autumnal Equinox (which apparently some folks call Mabon.) If you want to know more about it, Textual Arachne has a terrific post about her practices and the meanings of the day for her: Autumnal Equinox.

Regardless of your holiday practices, I wish all of my readers a good and sweet new year to come.

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New year's poem

For the last several years, I've written at least one poem during the month of Elul which relates somehow to the Days of Awe or to the process of teshuvah that characterizes this season. Each year Ethan and I send that poem, as our holiday card, to family and friends during Elul.

All of you who read and comment upon this blog are part of that circle of family and friends, so I wanted to share this year's holiday poem with you. (Last year's is here.) Once again, I'll put it beneath the extended-entry link; click if this sort of thing appeals to you.

As Elul draws to a close, I wish you a sweet and meaningful journey through the Days of Awe. Thanks for walking this road with me!

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Mikvah, expectations, and the blessing of failure

For a while I've been wanting a symbolic gesture to help myself move from the old year (and its attendant old patterns) into the new. I wanted to speak a few words of prayer, do something physical and then emerge newly-attuned to the potential wonders of the birthday of the world. I wanted, in a word, some kind of pre-Rosh Hashanah mikvah.

I did a bunch of reading, both external sources and my own notes on the practice of "spiritual mikvah" as I've experienced it at Elat Chayyim. I found the Ceremony for the New Year on the Immersions/sample ceremonies page at the website of Mayyim Hayyim, the transdenominational community mikvah in Boston. I decided to combine their words with the meditations of my own heart.

Over the course of several days I drafted the blog post I wanted to make this morning. It began with a fantastic epigraph about a Hasidic rebbe who, when unable for one reason or another to reach the mikvah, would substitute for it with the presence of his hasidim. There were vignettes about different mikvah experiences and ways of understanding the practice of mikvah: kosher and "spiritual" mikvah, pre-Shabbat and pre-wedding mikvah, the "sonic mikvah" I experienced once at Yom Kippur. I was excited about kicking off my morning-of-erev-Rosh-Hashanah this way, and proud of the blog post I'd written about it, too. (You can see where this is going, can't you?)

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On the perils of holiday menu-planning

"The yellow-orange squash of the Veneto is commonly called zucca barucca. For Jews, barucca is related to baruch, the Hebrew word for 'blessed.'" -- Cucina Ebraica

I've read these words at least a dozen times today, before I ventured forth for groceries and again since coming home. I'm oscillating between feeling excited about what I'm planning to cook, and second-guessing my menu decisions again. Why is it so difficult to plan a simple Rosh Hashanah meal?

It's been eleven years since I first marshalled my resources to cook for Rosh Hashanah. My maternal grandmother (of blessed memory) had died the previous spring, and I wanted to make a Rosh Hashanah feast to honor her memory. We always used to gather at her house, when I was a little girl, on Rosh Hashanah afternoon after shul. There would be Cornish hens with wild rice stuffing and giblet gravy, and carrots cooked with honey, and challah and apples and bowls of honey to dip them in...

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Grab-bag of resources for Yom Kippur

A reader who's spending the Days of Awe in rural Japan asked me for Yom Kippur resources. He's considering holding a minyan, or at least a study group, in his home on the holiday; he doesn't have a local Jewish community, or wide-ranging Judaic bookstore, at his disposal. What, he asked, can I point him toward that would help him with his holiday observance?

It's a great question, and I thought perhaps my answers to him might be interesting to others, so I'm sharing them here. First, here are a couple of overviews of the liturgy: one from Chabad and one from MyJewishLearning. And Rabbi Scheinerman (I linked to her meditations on Psalm 27 a year or two ago) offers a good overview of the holiday on her site, along with some home-based ritual suggestions.

As a side note, if you have the time and resources to pick up a machzor or two, by all means do. It's worth owning a few, and the more one studies the High Holiday liturgy, the more interesting and meaningful services are likely to be. When I used to go with my sister to the Brookline Havurah Minyan we used Machzor L'Yamim Nora'im, augmented with additional readings and songs (for instance, "Shekhina, m'kor chayyenu" from the Israeli siddur Kavanat Halev.) I expect the Reconstructionist option, also called Machzor Leyamim Nora'im, is good. And if you're Renewal-minded, I hear the machzor created by the Aquarian Minyan is excellent.

But perhaps you, like my correspondent in Japan, aren't in a position to pad your bookshelves right now. In that case, here are some online resources that might be useful.

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A sweet Shabbat

This morning I awoke to a spectacularly sunny day. The rain of the last few days has passed, and today was bright and autumnal-crisp. From my vantage point on our hill, I could see mist pooled in the valleys, but the hilltops gleamed green and gold. My shul, of course, is in one of those valleys; all of Williamstown is. So by the time I arrived at synagogue, I was driving through fog, and there was no trace of sun in the sanctuary. "It's supposed to be a pretty day once the fog burns off," a fellow congregant offered. In response, my rabbi told a story about once hearing John Cage (z"l) speak.

John apparently quoted a Japanese saying which translates to "every day is a beautiful day" -- though in Japanese, that phrase is something like "day day beautiful day," which sounds like a tiny poem. (In Hebrew, too, the term "every day" is denoted by repeating the word for "day," but thanks to the vagaries of Hebrew syntax, it comes out more like "day day day beautiful.") Anyway, that was the kavanah with which we entered our Shabbat morning davening. Sun or fog, every day is a beautiful day.

One of the beauties of this day was that we managed a minyan, which meant we could take the Torah out of the ark -- which led to a dazzling surprise: our new Torah mantles! They arrived yesterday, so this was their first use (which merited a heartfelt shehecheyanu.) They were custom-woven by Phyllis Kantor, and depict the mountains and trees outside our sanctuary, and are adorned with appropriate quotations -- one reads Etz hayyim hee, "It is a tree of life," and the other reads Esa einai el he-harim, "I cast my eyes up to the mountains."

Tonight we'll re-dress the scrolls in our other brand-new Torah covers (also woven by Phyllis Kantor), which bear the same design but in off-white tones for the Days of Awe. I've worn a Phyllis Kantor tallit for 19 years (the off-white one at the far-left in this picture), and her work is a perfect example of hiddur mitzvah, making a mitzvah more beautiful and therefore enhancing its ability to glorify the source of All.

The day has held other joys, too: lunch with an old and dear friend (which turned into a three-hour extravaganza of tea, catching up, walking around town, eating sushi, and having coffee) and then sitting on the deck with the cat soaking up glorious sun. (Also giving myself a pedicure, which is a frivolous but very real pleasure.) And just now I nipped over to and ordered myself a lulav and etrog set, which means I'm suddenly looking forward on some level to Sukkot.

It's good to have a mellow Shabbat like this, especially now. This blog has been a little heavy lately, as I've been working through the intellectual and spiritual process of teshuvah, examining myself and my patterns, and exploring ideas which spark me toward repentance. Inasmuch as the blog is a reflection of my head and heart, it's been a valid reflection of where I'm at. But today it feels sweet to post about something gentle and enjoyable, a kind of pause before the rollercoaster of the Days of Awe.

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This week's portion: where teshuvah can be found

This week's Torah portion, Nitzavim-vayeilech, contains some powerful and resonant lines about where and how we can find teshuvah. And that book I've been reading (hey, alto artist's reading it too!) offers smart commentary on these verses. Out of the combination of those texts arose this week's post at Radical Torah:

The Torah anticipates our lame and shamefaced protestations -- our screwed-up certainty that making teshuvah is difficult, that God probably doesn't want nebbishes like us anyway, that teshuvah requires something we can't access or don't know. Teshuvah isn't baffling or out-of-reach; it isn't in the heavens, and it isn't across the sea. Teshuvah can be found in the words we speak, and in the innermost chambers of our hearts.

Read the whole thing here: In your mouth and in your heart.

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Seasonal teachings from Rabbi Alan Lew

Last year, shortly after Yom Kippur came to an end, I dipped into the Elat Chayyim bookstore and picked up a copy of a book I'd been meaning to read for a while: Rabbi Alan Lew's This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation.

Back in 2003 when Velveteen Rabbi was new, I posted a brief review of Rabbi Lew's first book, One God Clapping. I've been meaning to read his book about the Days of Awe ever since, and when I saw it there on a table last fall I bought the copy right away. Of course, having just come through the emotional and spiritual challenges of Yom Kippur, I wasn't in any mood to crack the book then. But I promised myself I would read it when Elul rolled around again.

I'm reading it now, and I'm finding it both valuable and thought-provoking. And for that reason, I'm going to break with the way I usually review books here. Because I bought this book specifically in hopes of enriching my journey through teshuvah season, I don't want to review it after the fact; instead, I'd like to post about it a few times, and share what I'm finding powerful as I work my way through.

The journey I will describe in these pages is one of self-discovery, spiritual discipline, self-forgiveness, and spiritual evolution. It is the snapshot the Jewish people pull out every autumn of the great journey all human beings must make across the world: the journey from Tisha b'Av to Sukkot, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, from birth to death and back to renewal again...

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Rabbi Gendler on Rosh Hashanah

Rabbi Everett Gendler was among the first rabbis to talk seriously about ecology and its relationship to Judaism, and was (according to Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb) the first rabbi to create a solar-powered ner tamid (eternal light.) He contributed to the volumes The Greening of Faith and Ecology and the Jewish Spirit; the folks at Isabella Freedman call him "the grandfather of Jewish acriculture." He contributed to The First Jewish Catalog (and its successor volumes), and wrote many of the margin commentaries in The Jewish Holidays.

According to his bio at COEJL, "he now spends some of his time cultivating the soil at his homestead in Massachusetts, while also travelling annually with his wife, Mary, to India, where they devote two months each year to community education work among the Tibetan exiles on Strategic Nonviolent Struggle."

He's also the rebbe of my rabbi Jeff Goldwasser, which makes him one of my rabbinic zaides -- and he was the speaker at my shul last night after services.

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This week's portion: harvest blessings

This week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, offers a series of blessings and curses in language both poetic and resonant. The lines have been running through my head this week as I've been working in the kitchen.

Maybe that's why and how this week's d'var for Radical Torah wound up a meditation both on the blessings and curses in the Torah portion, and on the strictures of preserving the harvest:

If I do all of these things as I have been taught, then we will have five, maybe six gleaming jelly jars of sun-dried tomatoes, the fruit of local soil, to rest on our baker's rack through the Jewish holiday season, through autumn, through the falling of the leaves and the first snows, and into the chill damp days of next spring and the season when the sun returns to our skies. I will feel blessed when I venture into city spaces, and blessed here in my chosen country life. My kitchen will yield sustenance and abundance.

Read the whole thing here: Harvest blessings.

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Plunging into fall

Over the course of the last year I've grown accustomed to explaining that I'm studying to become a rabbi. I've even gotten to a place where I can say who I am and what I do without breaking into a goofy grin...most of the time.

My first year of rabbinic study has been uplifting, occasionally overwhelming, and overall wonderful. I filled in for my rabbi during his four months of sabbatical, did a nine-month unit of CPE, and took my first few courses toward the sixty I ultimately need to complete in order to be a candidate for smicha someday.

This fall I'm taking another giant leap in that direction. Having stepped down from the executive directorship of Inkberry, I'm about to begin my new incarnation as a full-time rabbinic student. Although one of my summer classes ("Reading Reb Zalman," which has led to two recent posts) is still in-progress, my fall semester officially begins tomorrow. Well, I'm easing in; one of my courses has been going for a while, one begins tomorrow morning, and the other two will start in a little while.

Two of my courses this term are in the general realm of Tanakh, one is a philosophy class, and the fourth will be my first class in halacha. Want to know more about what I'm studying and with whom? You're in luck; read on.

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In the traditional understanding, one of my teachers noted recently, we make teshuvah to correct aveirahs, sins or misdeeds. It's easy to be abstract about this, but far more valuable to be concrete. So the question arises, for what aveirahs do I aspire to do teshuvah this year?

My first answer involves missed opportunities for mindfulness. I begin my days with modah ani, but it doesn't take long for me to forget all the things I'm grateful for. I get distracted. I slip into the familiar habits of anxiety and stress. I lose sight of the miracles of each day, and miss opportunities for relationship and transformation.

Probing deeper, I think patterns can be aveirahs. Maybe it's a pattern of relating to a particular person in a particular way, somebody who pushes my buttons or with whom I have baggage. I might aspire to begin a new kind of relationship, but if I don't unpack the pattern of the old relationship I'm liable to recreate it. The same goes for my relationship with money, with work, with my body.

So, then, if I commit myself to mindfulness, if I strive to find holiness in every day, if I vow to relinquish my negative attachments and patterns and to seek equanimity, is that enough? It seems insufficient, somehow. There's a larger world out there, and this focus on my issues and relationships and blockages seems paltry, a kind of self-centered navel-gazing.

Then again, I believe that microcosm and macrocosm are inextricably linked -- that the spiritual work I do within myself has the capacity to be reflected and magnified in supernal realms. And perhaps digging through my own internal stuff is a necessary prerequisite to working on the world at large.

And maybe the self/world dichotomy presumes a false either/or mentality: maybe the real task is finding a paradigm that includes the needs of both. As in the parable about keeping two slips of paper in one's pockets -- one which reads "for my sake was the world created," and one which reads "I am dust" -- maybe there's teshuvah in learning when to focus on one slip, and when on the other, and when to open one's hands and let them both go.

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Going to Heaven

Being on vacation, for me, means luxuriating in taking time to read books: lounging in a hotel room or on a porch, sitting in the woods, on rocks by the beach, at a bar or restaurant, in the car. True to form, I read several excellent books on our trip to Maine. One of the ones I was most excited to read -- and, it turns out, deservedly so -- is Elizabeth Adams' Going to Heaven: The Life and Election of Bishop Gene Robinson.

I've been savoring Beth's work for some years now: she writes The Cassandra Pages, one of my favorite blogs. She writes beautifully about the ordinary moments that make up a luminous life. (For examples, read Fromagerie, or Shriven, or Reflections in a scalloped mirror.) So I had an inkling that this book would probably be well-written and well-thought-out.

But the book exceeded my expectations. If you have an interest in the Right Rev. V. Gene Robinson (his life, his theology, his election as bishop) or in the Episcopal church (its history, its roots, its changes) or simply in the powerful story of a faithful man living his calling in our times, this is a must-read.

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This week's portion: relationship, work, self

This week's Torah portion, Ki Tetze, contains a set of verses -- at first glance, apparently unrelated -- about military service exemptions, appropriate collateral, and the penalty for kidnapping. It's an intriguing trio, and it's at the heart of my d'var this week for Radical Torah:

The throughline that connects these three verses is respect for our fellow beings, our “others,” in their relationships, their livelihoods, and their selves. Even the ordering can hold meaning: relationships, at the heart of every interaction, come first. Then work, the way we earn our bread and make our mark on the world. And then, in a stunning case of last-but-not-least, personhood, the recognition of the whole and holy value of every other being with whom we interact.

Read the whole thing here: Relationship, work, and self. Shabbat shalom, all!

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J-blog Q-and-A

We're back from our holiday. Coastal Maine is, unsurprisingly, very beautiful. And now, a return to our usual VR programming...!

A while back I did an e-mail interview with Lauren Breslin, who writes for The Canadian Jewish News, "Canada's largest weekly Jewish newspaper." Lauren's article about the J-blogosphere, which arose out of conversations with several different J-bloggers, ran in the August 24th edition of the CJN; if you're interested in reading it, it's available for download [.pdf], and the article is on pages B6 and B7. Meanwhile, Lauren graciously gave me permission to reprint the interview here.


What, in your opinion, constitutes a j-blog?

This reminds me of the perennial question "what defines Jewish literature?" which was an obsession of mine through part of my [first] grad school career. (For what it's worth, after spending a term studying that question in-depth, the best answer I could come up with was, "Jewish subject matter counts; Jewish authorship counts; use of Jewish themes and tropes count; but mostly what counts is a kind of indefinable Jewish neshama, such that we 'know it when we see it.'")

Similarly, in this case I would say that if a blog focuses on Judaism and Jewish subjects (which might include Torah, Jewish texts, Jewish literature, Jewish culture, ritual, liturgy, customs, Jewish life) it is a J-blog. If it's written by a Jew but doesn't focus on anything Jewish, it might not be a J-blog per se; if it focuses on Judaism but is written by an outsider, it might still be a J-blog. There's a sense in which the blogger's passion for Judaism is what defines a J-blog, rather than the blogger's official religious identity.

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