Previous month:
September 2006
Next month:
November 2006

In which I turn out to be like my cellphone

Yesterday morning I came downstairs with the intention of davening, but noticed my cellphone lying forlorn on the floor; I had forgotten to plug it in the night before. I picked it up to connect it with its charger, and noticed the little symbol that denotes a voicemail message. Acting on autopilot, I keyed in the code that allows me to access my voicemail. The message I received seemed urgent; I had screwed something up. I sat right down at my computer to try to resolve the situation.

All day yesterday I felt off-kilter. Nothing was wrong, exactly, but I wasn't quite right. Old anxieties nipped at my heels. It wasn't until evening that I realized one reason why I might be feeling so out-of-sorts: I had allowed my prayer impulse to be stifled by my sense of obligation to the world at large. By my emails and voicemails and assignments and obligations, all of the things clamoring for my attention that so easily drown out my awareness of the presence of God.

Today I came downstairs, murmured a blessing over my blood pressure pill, and went for my tallit and tefillin before anything could entice me away. Today I opted to use a siddur I don't often pray with, and as a result didn't get very far into the service; the Artscroll is significantly more text-heavy than the Kol HaNeshamah I often use, and both are more texty than Kivinu Kol Hayom, the daily prayerbook my rabbi assembled for use at our shul. But it's interesting to dip sometimes into a different way of approaching morning prayer, and seeing prayers I know and love embedded in a new context can offer new insights.

And then I unwound myself and moved on with my day. It wasn't until I began writing this blog post that I consciously recognized the humor in this little cellphone story. When I'm not plugged-in to my source, my batteries run dry, sometimes faster than I expect. In retrospect, finding my cellphone low on juice yesterday morning seems like God winking at me...and probably sighing ruefully at me when I used the experience as an excuse to follow my well-intentioned instincts toward overwork, instead of as a reminder that might point me in the right direction.

Sometimes friends ask me how to be grounded, how to remain rooted and resilient in the face of stress, overwork, fear, and frustration. It's easy for me to recommend mindfulness, meditation, and prayer as a, maybe the, recipe for spiritual wholeness. But in my own life? I'm perennially overcoming the part of myself that fails to get the message. It's so easy to believe that if I just work harder, I could actually be on top of things. As though I were actually in control. A pernicious untruth.

Mondays are stressful, sure. But getting a running start on my day doesn't actually help, and sometimes -- like when I miss prayer in order to do it -- it makes matters worse. I'm more like my cellphone than I usually care to admit. When I feel myself low on battery, it behooves me to plug in and reconnect with gratitude, supplication, mindfulness, and praise.

Technorati tags: , , .

This week's portion: leaving the ark

This week we're in parashat Noach, which includes some terrific stories: the flood, the covenant of the rainbow, the tower of Babel. It also includes a fairly distressing story about Noah post-flood, getting drunk, being seen (or perhaps abused) by his youngest son, and cursing that son and his progeny.

That's the focal point of this week's d'var at Radical Torah. I look at clues to Noah's character, explore a few different interpretations of exactly what went on in Noah's tent, and relate the whole thing to the peculiar fact that God felt compelled to invite Noah out of the ark:

I can't help connecting all of this with Noah's reluctance to leave the ark. He built a structure to house a pivotal phase of his life, and when that phase had ended he found himself unready to venture out into the wide world. The ark might have seemed almost womblike, and Noah was in no hurry to be reborn. He knew that once he re-entered the world, the work of rebuilding humanity awaited him. Maybe it's no wonder he fell apart once the pressure of piloting the ark was gone...and once the realization that his work wasn't yet over had set in.

Read the whole thing here: Leaving the ark.

Technorati tags: , , .

Lauren Winner's Girl Meets God

The child of a Jewish father and a lapsed Southern Baptist mother, Lauren F. Winner chose to become an Orthodox Jew. But even as she was observing Sabbath rituals and studying Jewish law, Lauren was increasingly drawn to Christianity. Courageously leaving what she loved, she eventually converted. In Girl Meets God, this appealing woman takes us through a year in her Christian life as she attempts to reconcile both sides of her religious identity.

So reads the back-cover copy of Lauren Winner's book Girl Meets God. This book simultaneously intrigued me and discomfited me when I picked it up at a used-books store in Maine in August. Intrigued, because I enjoy memoirs of spiritual seeking, and I'm interested in what would make a woman first choose Orthodoxy (especially when she was reared Reform in a southern household, as I was) and then choose Christianity. And discomfited because...

Well, discomfited because it turns out that I have complicated feelings about the notion of a Jew opting to become Christian. On some barely-verbal level I apparently can't help feeling a pang when someone chooses to leave my tradition. Some childish part of me feels rejected, as if her decision were a reflection on my community, my God, or my faith.

I suspect I'm not alone in having that response... which is one of the reasons I think this book is worth reading. Because Lauren's voice is valuable, her frank chronicle of her journey is inspiring, and her story demonstrates that binary distinction isn't always the most useful way to talk about religious identity in today's world.

Continue reading "Lauren Winner's Girl Meets God" »

A bath, and a blessing

At just after 7:30 on this cold Sunday morning, Hot Springs' Central Avenue -- Bath House Row -- was effectively deserted. I could see early sunlight pinking the buildings to my right, but on the bathhouse side of the street the air was brisk, and clouds of steam billowed from the two naturally-heated hot spring fountains.

Buckstaff Baths alone, of all the old bath houses that still adorn the towntown, still offers baths. I waffled a while on price, but in the end I sprang for the Traditional Bathing Package, which includes a massage. How often, I thought, do I get to experience an old-school therapeutic bath in a National Historic Landmark site, part of a historic downtown that's also a National Park?

The first part of my experience was interesting, but nothing unexpected. I stowed my things in a locker, let an attendant wrap me in a white linen sheet, and headed for step one: the whirlpool bath. That turned out to mean 15 minutes in a huge clawfoot tub -- one among many in a long row, each in its own private stall -- filled with the local hot mineral water. I drank three tiny cups of hot mineral water and got rubbed down with a pleasantly scratchy loofah sponge, and the whirlpool was provided by a kind of cylinder, like an outboard motor, mounted above the tub.

Continue reading "A bath, and a blessing" » Northampton, MA

Photo borrowed, respectfully, from this BBC photo journal.

I posted in late 2004 about the Abayudaya, a tribe of Jews in Mbale, Uganda. My first glimmerings of awareness about them arose when Ethan gave me Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda as a Chanukah gift, and I've been distantly intrigued by the community ever since.

So I was psyched to read in Culture Connect, the e-newsletter about Jewish cultural events in western Massachusetts that the Harold Grinspoon Foundation sends out, that Aaron Kintu Moses, the acting spiritual leader of the Jewish Community of Mbale, is coming to Northampton next week:

Aaron Kintu Moses, headmaster of the Abayudaya Primary School and acting spiritual leader of the Jewish Community of Mbale, Uganda, tells the story of this 700 member Jewish community (established in 1919) and their struggle to maintain their identity in largely Christian and Muslim Uganda. He will speak about sustainable development, a micro-credit loan society, crafts & music projects, tourism and the interfaith “Delicious Peace” fair trade organic coffee project. African Jewish music and hand-crafted African kippot on display. 10/26, 7pm at Smith College/Stoddard Hall, 10/28, 12 noon at Bnai Israel, Northampton. All welcome.

If you're an Africaphile, or simply interested in Jewish communities from places very unlike our own -- and if you live in or near Western Massachusetts -- this might be worth venturing out for. (And if you do go, tell me about it? I have class on Thursday nights, and I'm leading Shabbat morning services next Saturday, so I can't make either of Mr. Moses' talks myself...)

Technorati tags: , , .


I doubt that anyone reading this now remembers, but this blog originated on Blogger, at the very tail-end of September, 2003. I can't remember now why I chose Blogger as a host when I first began blogging; I suppose because it was free. Of course, Blogger failed to offer several features I really wanted, among them syndication and the ability for folks to leave comments. So on October 20th of 2003 I reposted my first three entries here all in one fell swoop, and from that moment on VR was a Typepad production.

This means I've kind of lost access to when my blogiversary ought to have been. I drafted my first post on September 29th of 2003, so that's my anniversary by one metric; then again, VR didn't exist in a sustained or sustainable way until I moved it over here... Anyway, today marks the third anniversary of this blog being where it is. So happy blogiversary to me!

The last three years of blogging have been rewarding, surprising, exasperating, and stimulating. My life is immeasurably enriched by the thinking I've done, the conversations we've had, and the friendships that have arisen here. When I started this blog, I hoped it would keep me writing and thinking about Judaism in a sustained way, maybe even in conversation with a few other folks. I simply couldn't have imagined what an impact blogging would have on my life.

Thanks for being a part of Velveteen Rabbi. Here's looking forward to year four!

A beauty of an encounter

My intention was an inexpensive manicure, plain and simple. But the matron at the door of the Lee Nails upsold me. There was a sale on, she pointed out, and I should get my toes done too. I demurred, noting that I was wearing Doc Martens and thick socks guaranteed to destroy the sheen of any new pedicure, but she assured me that they had flip-flops available for customers to walk out in. By this point in the conversation she was already tugging me toward the back of the salon, so I gave in to the inevitable.

Sitting in the leatherette "spa chair" with my feet happily immersed in hot suds, I wondered what sort of blessing would be appropriate for a manicure/pedicure. Blessed are You, Source of All, who allows me to treat myself occasionally to the particular pleasure of making my hands and feet feel sweetly cared-for, and my nails shiny and beautiful? It's an unquestionably frivolous act, but one I enjoy the few times a year I indulge in it, usually (like now) on the eve of a trip to see family.

Then Cindy, the beautician, struck up a conversation. I learned about how she left Vietnam at twelve, a refugee on a wooden boat ("it had a motor," she hastened to add) with her father and sisters. After three years in Hong Kong and the Philippines, they emigrated to the States; a few years after that, they sponsored her mother and baby brother to join them. She went to school in Worcester, and lives in Pittsfield now. Her father, she told me, was a teacher back home, but because of the language barrier, once he came to the States he worked in a factory. He recently retired.

We chattered about our families (we're each one of five children, though she's the second-oldest and I'm the youngest in my clan), parents (we agreed we have a lot to thank our parents for), the cousin's wedding I'll be attending in Arkansas on Sunday. She told me about spending six months in California, and about how she wound up in Pittsfield. Mostly I listened to her story. I came away (wearing, as promised, freebie flip-flops, adorned with plastic flowers) marveling at the way connection and conversation are possible anywhere and everywhere -- if only I'm present enough to see.

Technorati tags: , .

A tiny taste of Me'am Lo'ez

This morning in my hevruta group we read a text by Me'am Lo'ez -- a.k.a. Rabbi Yaacov Culi, a 17th- and 18th-century Sephardic rabbi (whose major work, written in Ladino, gives him the name we know him by) -- on Bereshit. Specifically, we looked at commentary on the lines about the creation of humankind. (I'm delighted to discover that his text is available for free online -- here's part one.)

We had a terrific conversation about this text, which ranged from the inevitability of mis-reading (given how easy it is to misunderstand an email message, how much easier is it to misunderstand dense and multivalent texts like Torah?) to the writings of Douglas Adams on humanity's insignificance in the universe, to the nature of humans and angels and our relative places in the grand scheme of things.

Here's a tidbit that particularly caught my eye:

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai once said, "If I was alive at the time when man was made, I would have asked God to give him two mouths, one to study Torah, and the other for mundane speech." Later, he took this back, saying, "If this were true, things would be worse. As it is, even with only one mouth, man is constantly engaged in idle chatter and malicious gossip. With two mouths, he would do so all the more."

There is another advantage in having only one mouth. With it, one sometimes studies Torah, and sometimes he speaks. A person might use his mouth to spread malicious gossip, to swear falsely and to eat forbidden foods. But then, with the same mouth, he asks God to forgive him, to keep his tongue from evil and his lips from malice.

Why is it relevant that we each use the same mouth for good purposes, and for ill? (Like the saying goes, "You kiss your mother with that mouth?!") Because if we had two mouths, we would be encouraged to compartmentalize in a way that's ultimately unhealthy. We could imagine ourselves as fully dual: the "good mouth" gets used for prayer and Torah study and right speech, while the "bad mouth" gets used for slander and hateful words and eating things that are bad for us. But that's not how we're made.

And because that's not how we're made, we can't pretend to be bipartite. The Rachel who tries diligently to pray in the mornings, to approach the world with wonder, to ingest food (both spiritual and physical) that's healthful and inevitably the same Rachel who says the wrong thing, misses opportunities for blessing, and consumes negativity like candy. But the very qualities in me which make me vulnerable to error are the same qualities that allow me to make teshuvah, to orient myself toward my Source.

This text also offers a midrash about how God collaborated with the heavens, the earth, and the waters in creating humanity. Each of these three contributed elements to the human body, and God contributed the soul. As a result, therefore, "When a person truly repents, all the angels, stars and planets therefore ask God to have mercy on him. They all have a portion in man, and they love him when he is good." The whole cosmos rejoices when we live up to our potential and become our highest selves, because the whole cosmos has a part in who we are.

Our job, I think, is to embrace and integrate our whole selves. I'm the same person whether I'm living out of my highest self, or my lowest. God created me with only one mouth -- but it's up to me whether I use that mouth in a way that damages the fabric of the universe, or a way that causes the very heavens to rejoice.

Technorati tags: , , .

This week's portion: speaking from our soft places

This week we're starting the Torah all over again, with parashat Bereshit. Upon re-reading the portion, what struck me most was a reference to Enosh, grandson of Adam and Chava, and to the way that in his generation "men began to address God by name."

That's traditionally understood as the first reference to prayer in Torah...and it's the jumping-off point for this week's dvar at Radical Torah:

The sons of Adam made offerings to God -- and we know well the consequences of those different offerings and their different receptions -- but not until the days of Adam and Chava's grandson Enosh did humanity began to pray. Everett Fox translates the name "Enosh" as "Mortal;" it's also  possible to relate the name to words meaning "soft," "weak," "delicate." Perhaps the text means to subtly remind us that our first impulse toward prayer arises out of our weakness, our mortality, the places where we are soft.

Read the whole thing here: Speaking from our soft places.

Technorati tags: , , .

A day in the life

Someone asked me recently how often I post about rabbinic school, and my answer was (predictably) "depends on what you mean." There are relatively few posts in my rabbinic school category, but I tend to feel like many of my posts implicitly relate to rabbinic school these days, in the sense that they allow me to explore what I'm reading and celebrating and learning, and those are all part and parcel of the rab school life (and, for that matter, the Jewish life, and the contemplative life, and my life.)

But perhaps some of you would enjoy getting a glimpse of what rab school is like for me at this moment? So here's a report from a fairly typical Monday at the start of 5767.

I savor Mondays in part because I get to spend them at home, working uninterrupted straight through the productive part of the day. What exactly that means -- well, it's changing, lately. Over the summer and into early fall I had tele-class on Monday afternoons, which shaped my day in distinct ways. Now that that class is over, I'm working on finding a new rhythm for my Mondays, a new way of settling in to the work-week wisely and well.

Continue reading "A day in the life" »


A brand-new poem of mine, "Learning," was published over at Qarrtsiluni today. It's my submission to the current theme, "Education." There've been some fantastic pieces published in this theme so far, among them Paul Dickey's poem "Omaha High School Poetics," Lori Witzel's poem "The Receptive," and Ken Lamberton's nonfiction piece "Iguana 101." I'm honored to be in their company.

You can find my poem here. Go, read, leave feedback for the assorted authors, and if you've got work that fits the current theme, send it along -- having done a stint as co-editor at Qarrtsiluni, I know they're always happy to get submissions.

Spicy blueberry-etrog jam

Some of you may remember that I had a bit of a mishap in my etrog preservation last year. Being relatively new to the world of sugared preserves, I mis-judged my marmalade, and wound up with four jars of etrog-ginger fruit sauce instead of jam. This year I did some research in advance, trying to come up with a better plan.

Last year's recipe included a packet of commercial pectin, and even so, it failed to jell. Intriguingly, the only other recipe I found which mentioned pectin was this orange marmalade recipe. All of the others I located depend on the natural pectins in lemon juice, which seemed dubious to me, given that last year's recipe failed so utterly.

The most basic recipe I found is this one for etrog jam. I also found a tasty-sounding three fruit marmalade, which I imagine would work with an etrog in place of (or in addition to) the lemon. But most interesting to me was spicy blueberry-citrus marmalade, which sounded easily adaptible to include an etrog. So that's what I tried this year -- I replaced the lime in the recipe with my etrog, and in lieu of crushed red pepper I used the ground Ghanaian red pepper that's a staple in our household cuisine.

The recipe says to "boil, uncovered and stirring often, 15 minutes or until a gel forms," but after half an hour of uncovered boiling, there was no sign of jelling. Not wanting fruit sauce again (we still haven't eaten last year's!), I added a packet of Ball fruit-jell liquid pectin for good measure.

Once I did that, and simmered and stirred it a bit longer, I tested some on a cold metal spoon, and it was perceptibly thicker. (Also, absurdly delicious: tangy, spicy, citrusy.) I wound up with three jelly jars' worth -- a smaller yield than expected, maybe because I simmered it for so long. It's really yummy; it may take work to save one of these jars until Tu BiShvat. But I'm determined to link the two festivals together in that way...and who knows? Maybe next Tu BiShvat, I'll feel inspired to eat some of last year's etrog-ginger fruit sauce, too.

Technorati tags: , , .

Rejoicing and lingering, Torah and tears

Today is Shemini Atzeret. The name is usually translated as "The assembly of the eighth day," because it's celebrated on the eighth day of Sukkot. Which is, yes, a seven-day holiday. (Don't ask me how a holiday can simultaneously be a seven-day festival, and also have an eighth day, without therefore being considered an eight-day festival. To complicate matters, there's also Simchat Torah, which is celebrated on the ninth day of the seven-day holiday of Sukkot in communities that observe two days of Yom Tov, but in Israel and in the Reform world it's celebrated on the eighth day, which makes it coterminous with Shemini Atzeret.) Right. Moving on...

In Torah we read "On the eighth day you shall hold a solemn gathering (atzeret); you shall not work at your occupations." (Num. 29:35.) The rabbis, in typical fashion, hung an interpretation on a Hebrew pun; they asserted that God invites all those who made a Sukkot pilgrimage to tarry (atzeret) in God's presence an extra day. In other words, God is so enjoying playing host to us that God urges us to stick around just a little bit longer. Sukkot is a festival of fruition and joy, and today invites us to carry that joy beyond the boundaries of the week-long holiday, into what comes next, into our lives.

Continue reading "Rejoicing and lingering, Torah and tears" »

Rainmaker, rainmaker...

The seventh day of the festival of Sukkot is also known as Hoshanah Rabbah, "the great supplication" or "the great 'save us'!" (That'd be today, in case you weren't keeping track.) Today is the day when, according to Jewish tradition, our relationship with water in the coming year is sealed.

What activities mark Hoshanah Rabbah? Going in circles, for one. Whereas during Sukkot it's customary to carry one's lulav and etrog around the synagogue sanctuary once during morning prayers each day, on Hoshanah Rabbah seven hakafot (circuits) are made. Another involves greenery: after the reading of a set of piyyutim (liturgical poems), willow branches are beaten against the ground until their leaves come off. I like to read this as a kind of embodied prayer for rain -- the leaves fall like raindrops, symbolizing the sustenance we hope for in the year to come. (Rabbi Bradley Artson Shavit offers a broad range of other interpretive possibilities.)

Some see Hoshanah Rabbah as the culmination of the holiday season that began with Rosh Hashanah, and regard today as the day when judgement is finally passed on who we are and who we aim to be. I just learned this fall that it's considered a mitzvah to eat one's challah with honey all through the holiday season (not just on Rosh Hashanah), and that Hoshanah Rabbah marks the last day when it's appropriate to savor the honeyed tastes of the holidays.

In an age when we strive to be conscious of our ecological footprints, when we're aware of how precious a resource water is (and how easily, and unthinkingly, we waste and pollute it), Hoshanah Rabbah may have new resonance. Today offers an opportunity to reconnect with our longing for rain, and for divine help in saving ourselves from the environmental dangers we know we don't want to bring upon ourselves, our children, and our home.

So what am I doing for Hoshanah Rabbah? Not going to shul; we're too small to have a weekday minyan, even on a minor festival day like this. But I went out to our sukkah this morning to bentsch lulav for the last time this year, my footsteps crunching on the frost-coated grass. I spent a while reading this series of Hoshanot [poetic prayers] for a Planet in Danger -- Reb Zalman's davenable English adaptations of the traditional prayers for salvation (meant to be read, one each day, during Sukkot, and then the whole cycle on Hoshannah Rabbah.) And now I am listening to an old classic tune that seemed like appropriate holiday music: "Rainmaker," by Traffic, off The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys...

And finally, I'm blogging an extemporaneous holiday prayer:

Source of all that is! Help us tap into Your sustenance in the coming year. Shower us with mayim chayyim, living waters, in all four worlds. In the world of actions and physicality, give us real water to irrigate with and to drink. In the world of emotions, let our hearts move us as mighty currents move the seas. In the world of thought, let our minds be as clean and clear as the purest waters. And in the world of essence, let us truly know ourselves as beings mostly made of water, sustained by Your ineffable wellspring in all that we do.



Technorati tags: , , .

Poetry reading!

This coming Saturday evening I'll be reading poems at Papyri Books, as part of the monthly Word Play series run by Gail Burns and offered through the auspices of Inkberry. Each month, Inkberry presents one or more regional writers at Papyri; after a brief intermission, there's an open-mike which is open to all.

I was invited specifically to read Judaic work, since the reading is a kind of belated celebration of the autumn Jewish holiday season. I'm planning to read some from chaplainbook; I'll probably also read a few older poems, and a few very new poems. If you want a reminder of what my work is like, here are a few links: Into the earth (a Sukkot poem, quite seasonally-appropriate, published at The Middlewesterner a while back), Mystery (published at Qarrtsiluni a few months ago.)

If you're in the Berkshires, or able to come to the Berkshires on Saturday evening, I'd love to see you there! The event begins at 7:30; I'll probably read for about 20 minutes; the whole thing is free and open to the public. Herein ends the poetry PSA.

Technorati tags: , , .

Our house (is a very very very fine house)

We walked out to our sukkah by the light of the full moon, along the spiralling path that Ethan mowed through the wildflower meadow. Six of us sat outside for maybe an hour, marveling at the shadows our hands and wineglasses cast in moonlight, enjoying the opportunity to fulfil the mitzvah of hospitality in our sukkah this year.

Our conversation ranged from laser physics to Jon Stewart, congressional politics to Emily Dickinson, to the halakha of Sukkah-building (I explained my theory about our sukkah's unorthodox shape) and a variety of truly groan-worthy Sukkot puns. (I flirted, briefly, with titling this blog post "I'm Gonna Git You Sukkah"...)

There's a yin-yang to Sukkot which suits me really well. On the one hand, my contemplative side lights up in the mornings when I take my lulav and etrog out to the sukkah, beckon blessing from all six directions, and meditate on the morning service. And on the other hand, my sociable side grooves on inviting friends over to sit in the sukkah come evening-time, trading puns and pop culture references and festival factoids.

Sukkot turns our sense of place temporarily inside-out. Inviting people over is a mitzvah at this season -- in order to sit in a little house that's not a home, open to the elements, where we wave fruits and branches to invite the omnidirectional presence of blessing. We "live" for a week in the great outdoors, demarcated by flimsy walls and a patchy roof that allow moonbeams and starlight through.

This morning, davening a brief shacharit in the sukkah, I was struck anew by "Mah Tovu" ("How goodly are your tents, Jacob / Your dwelling-places, Israel.") My favorite interpretation points out that Jacob and Israel were the same man, and that the wonder lies in his (our) ability to transform our ohalot (physical tents) into mishkanot (dwelling-places for the Shekhinah, God's immanent presence in the world.)

Sitting in my sukkah -- as I am doing now, as I draft and publish this blog post! wireless internet is so cool -- I want to rededicate myself to the work of turning all of my physical structures into homes for holiness, be they "indoors" or "out."

Technorati tags: , , .

I can't believe I'm making a Catmas post.

Joey's been reminding us that Catmas is today -- the bloggy holiday dedicated to, you guessed it, blogging pictures of one's cat. (Explanation.) This is not, you understand, the kind of thing I usually do here.

But maybe y'all could use a break from the dense and heady stuff I've been experiencing and reading and posting about lately? Besides, after seeing the cat post at Sarah Laughed entitled "She just LOVES the New Testament," I couldn't resist:

That's Thorn, sitting atop Reb Zalman's book Wrapped in a Holy Flame: Teachings and Tales of the Hasidic Masters. I guess my cat's a fan of Hasidic tales...or at least, a fan of using them as a mattress.

Technorati tags: .

Four Species -in-a-box

The UPS guy stopped by yesterday afternoon, waving to me through the window of my study as he placed the tall, slim box in the garage and backed his truck carefully away. I left it unopened until this morning; it's pleasantly cool outside, so I knew the contents would remain suitably refrigerated. But today, after making my morning tea, I had to go out and investigate.

The first thing I withdrew was the myrtle branch in its thin plastic sheath. Then the willow. I cut the bonds holding the palm frond in place. And finally, out came the little cardboard box containing the etrog (a.k.a. citron), which was cushioned on a pillow of soft foam. (That brought me up short; I'd been imagining a nest of soft curls of wood or straw.) The etrog is deliciously fragrant, a peculiar bitter-lemon scent I didn't realize I remembered but which was immediately familiar once I opened its box.

The framework of our sukkah -- again, the skeleton of last year's ger, stripped of walls and roof -- stands in the yard, round wooden lattice topped by the barest suggestion of a roofline. Tomorrow I'll find some branches to strew across the top as skhakh, the leafy covering through which it is required that we be able to see the stars. included a free gift this year -- a garland of gold tinsel leaves, which will make a nice decoration for our otherwise unadorned structure.

And when I say morning prayers during the week of Sukkot, I'll be able to take my three branches and my etrog to our sukkah, stand among the hip-high wildflowers that are going slowly to seed, and beckon blessing from all six directions into the open-air room that only barely implies house and home. Events in the lives of loved ones remind me, this year, of just how impermanent the structures of our lives can be. May we all be blessed, as Sukkot approaches, with the ability to access gratitude and joy even as we face our own fragility.

Technorati tags: , , .

Me'or Eynayim on the hidden meaning of Sukkot

This morning in my hevruta group we studied a text about Sukkot by the Me'or Eynayim, as translated by Rabbi Jonathan Slater. (The Me'or Eynayim's given name was Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl; as is typical in the Hasidic world, he's known by the name of his major scholarly work. It's like calling Jane Austen "the Sense & Sensibility," or Charles Darwin "the Origin of Species.") A few ideas leapt out at me which I wanted to share here. Bear with me; this is dense, but I think it's really beautiful.

The world, the Me'or Eynayim says, is built on love; God created the world in order to reveal God's love to all creatures. "Before the creation of the world there was no container for the love; it was above any container and beyond comprehension." In fact, God's creation of the world can be compared to "that loving act that one does for the dead" (taharah), in that just as we cleanse and bless the bodies of the dead without any possibility of payback, God puts forth love in a similarly generous (and impossible-to-repay) fashion.

God contracted God's-self, the Me'or Eynayim writes, and descended step by step into the lowest realms -- into what we would call reality. There's a tension between what's hidden (e.g. God) and what is revealed (reality -- though God hides beneath, so really, even our physical reality has God in it.) With me so far?

Continue reading "Me'or Eynayim on the hidden meaning of Sukkot" »

Eleven jewels from this Yom Kippur

A teaching from Philo, as retold by Reb Shefa Gold: We Jews love to eat. We eat all year long! And then we need a whole day of fasting in order to properly say the birkat ha-mazon, the grace after meals, so that we might truly feel gratitude and bless all that we have eaten. In this sense, all of Yom Kippur is one spontaneous upwelling of blessing.

At the end of the Kol Nidre prayer, at the very beginning of Yom Kippur as the sun is just going down, we recite the words "vayomer Adonai, salachti kid'varecha," "And God said, I have forgiven you, as I have promised." The whole holiday begins with forgiveness. We're always already forgiven. We just need the 25-hour experience of the day in order to really feel that in our bones.

"Avinu Malkeinu," sung to the melody I grew up with, is a waltz in 6/8 time. How did I fail to notice that all of these years? And there is absolutely nothing like chanting it with kavvanah (mindfulness/intent), in a room filled with fervor, with two excellent hand-drummers keeping us on our feet.

The refrain to one of the prayers of the day ("Ki Anu Amecha") is "S'lach lanu, m'chal lanu, caper lanu" -- basically, "forgive us" said three ways. Reb David Ingber gave over a teaching from his rebbe, Reb Zalman, that we can understand these as follows: the first one says, "delete the files." The second one says, "empty the trash on the desktop of our hearts." And the third one is, "wipe the disk clean to make room for something new."

Continue reading "Eleven jewels from this Yom Kippur" »