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January 2007
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March 2007

A taste of today (1 picture + 200 words)

On my way out of the drugstore, where I had picked up envelopes and blood pressure medication and, on a whim, an Almond Joy candy shaped like an egg, I noticed the sale items just beside the door. What caught my eye was the juxtaposition of a jangled pile of ice scrapers, each with bright snow brush and slanted blade, beside rose bushes in plastic-wrapped pots.

The rose bushes look like sticks thrust into pots of dirt. And planting season's miles away. We've got two feet of snow, and dunes left by the plow waist-high. Once we returned from seder in Boston bearing lavendar bushes from my sister's yard, and planted them in the raw wet of April -- but mostly we garden in late May, early June. Certainly not now.

Still, there's something charming about seeing roses on sale. I'll bet everyone who walks by them today smiles a little. The days are measurably longer now than they were; it may still be the depths of winter, but the breeze felt like thaw. With gloves and a hat on, I drove home with the windows of my car open, letting in the sunshine and the almost-March air.

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This week's portion: eternal light

This week we're in parashat Tetzaveh, which begins with an instruction that the children of Israel shall burn purest olive oil in lamps above/outside the ark of the covenant, as a reminder of God's presence.

Thinking of those lamps reminded me of a summer storm, and a power outage, and different kinds of light. That's what sparked this week's post at Radical Torah:

The physical light is a kind of mnemonic device, a reminder to us that on the deepest and highest levels divinity is always pouring into and animating the world in which we live. Torah too is light, a source of beauty that is never-ending. I like thinking in these terms, and considering the nature of the divine light in all of us. And as for our physical lights: given the delicious interpretations we can place on light and learning, whether we garner our physical light via oil and wick, or via electricity and filament, hardly seems to matter.

Except that it does matter. In the industrialized global North we're burning through fossil fuels at an alarming rate, which obligates us to consider what we consume...

Read the whole thing here: Eternal light.

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Interfaith work and the godblogosphere

Last year I had the pleasure of hearing Rabbi David Zaslow speak about Jewish-Christian interfaith work. "The time seems to have arrived when Christians and Jews are beginning to have a new understanding of each other," he said. "We're discarding prejudice and beginning to understand what the Holy One may have wanted us to understand all along. If not now, when?" His remarks made an impact on me. I took a lot of notes. I promised myself to look into his work once I got home again.

Of course, I lost track of that resolve. Other things rose up to take precedence, as they do. But last week when I was at Elat Chayyim, I picked up a slim pamphlet in the bookstore -- Writings from the Heart of Jewish Renewal / K'tavim she'ba'Lev -- and lo and behold, the final essay in the chapbook is by Rabbi Zaslow, and matches neatly what he spoke about. (It's an excerpt from a forthcoming book, which has the working title Roots and Branches.)

One of the first things that strikes me is the passage about one-upsmanship:

Do we need to criticize each other's faith in order to explain or exalt our own faith? I hope not. Do we need to "spin" descriptions of our own beliefs when comparing them to each others' beliefs? I hope not. The word of God in each of our great religions needs no interpretive spin. What we need are more passionate, joy-filled discussions and dialogues with an underlying celebration of what we have in common.

It's tough to take in somebody else's beliefs without feeling some twinges of defensiveness. But we need to learn to listen without judgement; to speak for ourselves, and to allow others to speak for themselves too (instead of speaking for them.) This is a prerequisite for dialogue, easily as true online as it is off.

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Last weekend I returned to leyning, after long absence: I chanted two brief aliyot of Torah during Shabbat mincha services at DLTI. I spent a long time preparing, struggling to make the words and the melody coincide, terrified that when I stood in front of the kahal (community) I would forget every note. When instead the verses flowed smoothly, I was elated...and wanted immediately to do it again.

I'm leading services at my shul tomorrow morning, and I'm planning to leyn those same verses that I chanted last Shabbat afternoon. (At mincha on Shabbat afternoon, we begin reading from the following week's Torah portion, so the lines I learned are appropriate for this Shabbat morning.) Plus this time I'll be doing the aliyah in the middle, too. So today I'm working on learning to chant those middle verses. And I'm wishing I could also chant the translation.

I'm arguably nuts to even consider trying it. Chanting in English requires two different simultaneous processes of translation: first, looking at the Hebrew and remembering what musical notes go with each word (bearing in mind that the musical notation marks, like vowels, don't appear in the scroll.) Then translating the Hebrew into English, and figuring out how to apply the trop markings to the English translation, which inevitably has a different syntax altogether. Often trop markings are meant to highlight a particular word or give it a particular mouth-feel, and retaining that in English can be tricky.

What this is really about, I think, is my desire to straddle two paradigms at once. The more I learn about the ways in which Torah has traditionally been chanted, the more enchanted I am by the melodies, and by this alternate form of musical notation that's so unlike the western stuff I otherwise know. I want to embrace this, to practice it in my own life. But I also don't want to lose the blessings I've found in the interlinear process; reading in a Reform shul has spurred me to focus on understanding what I'm saying, and helping others to understand too, and that's a value I still hold dear.

When done well, bilingual chanting integrates what I value about each of these ways of reading Torah: the preservation of these lilting melodies (which are themselves a form of commentary), and the translation of holy text into a vernacular that congregants understand. Done poorly, it can be jerky, satisfying neither as music nor as intelligible transmission of words and ideas.

As I practice, this afternoon, it's clear to me that my skills here are...patchwork at best. I can render some of the verses easily and cleanly in either language; others trip me up. The verses I've been practicing for weeks now are pretty smooth; the ones I'm just learning today are kicking my ass. Using an academic metaphor, bilingual leyning is a 400-level skill, while I'm still a student in leyning 102.

I'm aware that if I stretch myself too far, I risk breaking the experience for everyone else -- a notion which makes me cringe. So I will probably aspire to chant these three aliyot, and then speak the translation as I normally do...though who knows; maybe I'll manage to chant just the last line in both languages, to give my community a taste for what can be.

Shabbat shalom, all!

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DLTI post 2: gleanings

The question is how to develop a prayerful consciousness in all that we do. This is what will feed our davenen in the long term.

Kavvanot (mindful intentions) are themselves tefilah (prayer.) They're not a prelude to prayer; they can be prayer themselves. The deeper one goes into a prayer, the less necessary it becomes to preface that prayer with extra words, since the prayers have their own kavvanot embedded. Our challenge is to lift the words off the page with intention. To pray not just the words, but the heart inside them.

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This week's portion: a place for God

Parashat Terumah begins with God's instruction to Moses to tell the Israelites to bring gifts to God, as their hearts move them, and to put those gifts to work in the construction of the mishkan.

This is the part of the Torah I used to find -- I admit it -- deathly dull. Oy, thirteen weeks' worth of readings about the construction of the tabernacle? But the more I invest myself in the process of finding meaning in the text, the more it opens up for me. Today this section of Torah feels to me like a glorious extended metaphor for the work of tending the world so that God's presence can be fully housed, and felt, here where we are.

In this week's d'var at Radical Torah, I talk some about what I'm finding here this time around:

Build a table, the text tells us -- again, acacia wood overlaid with gold -- and on it, place the bread of display, to be before God always. What can this mean today, when we've had neither mishkan nor bread of display in millennia? When we invest ourselves in the holy work of creating a place among us where God's presence can dwell -- whether through learning to daven deeply and with passion, or working to alleviate need, or teaching others to access what enlightens our lives -- we are building that table in our own hearts.

Read the whole thing here: The place we build for God.

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Heads up: SXSW coming soon

Sunny south Texas is calling my name! 2007 has been so action-packed, so far, that it's easy for me to forget that I'll be travelling again soon -- but the first weekend in March I'm going to San Antonio to see my family (just in time for Purim), and the weekend after that I'm going to Austin for South by Southwest Interactive, a festival, conference, and general gathering of interesting folks.

You can check out the slate of panels here. I'm participating in the panel called Ghost in the Machine: Spirituality Online on the afternoon of Saturday, March 10, at 5pm.

I'll blog more about that panel, and about what I hope we can discuss (and maybe also some interesting stuff that might not make it to the stage -- time is limited, after all), sometime soon. But for now I'm mostly posting to ask: who among you will be at SXSW this year? I've never been before, and since meeting fellow bloggers is one of my favorite pastimes, I'd love to know with whom I might be able to meet up.


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DLTI: 4 worlds, week 2, post 1

When people ask, "so how was the second week of DLTI?" I'm not sure how to answer. The one-word response is "amazing," but that doesn't tell you very much, does it?

So I'm going to try a four worlds response.

I can answer the question on the level of assiyah, actions and physicality, by telling you that most of my colleagues made it to snowbound Elat Chayyim eventually (and that we deeply missed the few who couldn't be present in person), and that our days together were packed. We davened three times a day -- though on a different schedule than in summertime, because winter days have a different physical rhythm. Mostly this meant our days were denser. We still began and ended each day with prayer, but those dips into davenen happened closer together. Sun rises later, and so did we -- though we ended our days well after sunset, because there was just so much to do.

Again, after each weekday shacharit (morning service) we re-opened the service in "lab" so everyone could learn from the experience of critique and re-creation. (Imagine live-action workshopping of service leadership: we weren't just discussing morning prayer, we were asked to immerse in it again in realtime even as we discussed it.) This time students led everything, even the davening on Shabbat. We built on what we learned last time about the matbeah (deep structure) of Jewish prayer. We began learning the Shabbat morning nusach (melody-system) and how it differs from what's done on weekdays. Any moment when we weren't actively in session, we were clustered around in small groups, planning the services which were yet to come.

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Heading for DLTI

Thanks to an incoming winter storm, I'm off to DLTI a day early.

Mike Landin's regional weather forecast predicts a potential snow accumulation tonight and tomorrow of 2-3 feet, maybe more. And for once, the storm isn't blowing in from the north; it sounds like it's coming from the south and east, which means that as I drive toward Elat Chayyim, I'll be heading right into it.

I have good snow tires and a car I trust in inclement weather, but if we really get feet of snow -- well, I wouldn't relish being on the road tomorrow. (If I could even get to the road; our driveway is long and steep, and that sounds like the kind of snow that would keep me here until our plow guy shows up with his backhoe.) So I'm leaving tonight.

Mostly this means today has felt scrunched, as the workweek collapsed into a very small space. I think I'm packed: my usual winter clothes, a velvet dress for Shabbat, snowpants (to go with the snowshoes I've tossed in the back of my car), BP monitor and meds, tallit and tefillin and a bag full of books and siddurim...

I've been rereading my journal from week 1 of DLTI, and it feels like something that happened to someone else. I was so excited and energized and full of insights and teachings. We wrote b'samim notes, to help us preserve the sweetness of being there, and looking at mine now makes me laugh a little, ruefully, because it doesn't quite feel real.

I'm excited about going back, and a little bit nervous. As always I hope to be open to what is, instead of getting stuck in my expectations (both positive and negative) about what might be. One way or another, it might be nice to have some extra time to decompress before the adventure beguns. Maybe I'll work on poems in the morning, or go for a walk in the snow. Once I get there, I'll be free until 5pm tomorrow -- it's like a gift of an extra day.

Anyway, I'm about to be offline for several days. I'll be home late on Monday. Have a great week, everyone; see you on the flipside! And if you live in a place that's snowy, and you have to be out and about tomorrow, be careful...

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Liturgy, free verse, and form

All liturgical worship runs the risk of making prayer a fixed but sterile task. On the other hand, a certain amount of structure is desirable. All ritual depends on it... As Judaism has a word for spontaneity, kavanah, so too it has one for fixity: keva. Jewish prayer balances spontaneity with fixity.

In preparation for week two of DLTI, which begins the day after tomorrow (!), we've been asked to reread several texts, among them an excerpt from Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman's The Way Into Prayer (quoted above.)

Before there were prayer books, Hoffman tells us, people made up the words anew every time they prayed. Though the structure of the service became set, for a time the specific words remained fluid. For instance, in the amidah, the central standing prayer, there came to be a "certain thematic order, each theme being allotted a separate benediction," but the particular words expressing each petition were up to the worshipper.

Worship, in antiquity, was like jazz improvisation around a known set of chords and themes. Rabbis were expected to know the liturgy well enough to be able to lead that musical improv seamlessly, with  rhetorical flourishes and beautiful turns of phrase.

Today we are accustomed to praying from siddurim, not improvising. Keva, for us, means following the right notes in the right order...and we aim to balance it with kavanah, the interpretive choices and the heart which make music powerful. Kavanah is what makes the young Glenn Gould's recording of the Goldberg variations different from the mature Glenn Gould's recording, even though the same man played the same notes both times.

The musical metaphor works, but here's one I like even better: the matbeah, the structure of Jewish liturgy, is like formal poetry. A sonnet is a sonnet because it follows particular rules. Within those rules, of course, sonnets differ wildly (compare Marilyn Hacker's Migraine Sonnets [audio] with John Donne's Holy Sonnets, Gwendolyn Brooks' the sonnet-ballad with Robert Frost's Putting In the Seed), but without the rules the term "sonnet" would have no meaning.

Just so, our siddurim offer us structures within which creativity can flourish. Those who choose the liturgical equivalent of free verse should still know the standard forms, and understand how form shapes free verse and the existence of free verse in turn shapes our sense of form.

Deep down, of course, I think prayer inevitably both has form and goes beyond it. In Hoffman's words:

Prayer allows us to appreciate the universe, to express our hopes of what a better universe might be, even to shout defiance when we see injustice occurring. Prayer is a way to elevate our thoughts to speech, and even to formulate better thoughts because of the power that speech has over the way we think. Because it draws on traditional language, it roots us in the history of a hallowed past, and because it is primarily communal, it overcomes loneliness by binding us to a worldwide community that dares to [in Heschel's words] "dream in league with God."

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It is written: I have set the Lord always before me (Ps 16:8). Shviti ("I have set") is related to the word hishtavut ("sameness"). Whatever happens to a man, it should be all the same to him -- whether people praise him or insult him; and so for all other matters... No matter what happens, one should say: This comes from God; if He deems it proper to do so [then that is sufficient for me.]

Man's intentions should be solely for the sake of heaven. As far as he himself is concerned, however, there should be no difference to him. This is a very high degree [to attain]...

(From the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, Zava'at ha-Rivash, ed. Kehot, cited in The Religious Thought of Hasidism, Norman Lamm.)

The Baal Shem Tov teaches that, having set God always before me, I should respond with equanimity to whatever arises. Whether someone praises me or insults me, whether the food before me is good or bad -- whether readers  like my writing, or quibble with my interpretations; whether the text of my body is legible, or opaque to understanding -- I should acknowledge that God is the source of whatever is. If God is always before me, then I can find blessing in all things, even those which appear at first glance to be negative.

But if I school myself to simply accept whatever is, then will I lose my impulse toward improving anything, either internally or externally? I think the BeShT would say no; equanimity doesn't equal inaction. Lamm writes that  with regard to oneself, one should cultivate this kind of studied indifference -- but one must always do what is right, helpful, and satisfying for the other, "for the sake of heaven." If one is occupied with devekut (cleaving to God), ego recedes...but dealing righteously with one another remains important, maybe because interactions with one another are one way we can approach God.

One of my favorite meditations on the Shviti is a four-line chant: "It is perfect / You are loved / All is clear, and / I am holy." (There's a beautiful black-and-white graphical rendering of it here, drawn by Morty Breier.) The four lines of the round can represent the four letters in the Name, and/or the four worlds.

How does equanimity manifest in the four worlds? In the world of assiyah, action and physicality, everything is perfect -- maybe not according to our limited understanding, but from God's point of view. In the world of yetzirah, emotions and the heart, we are loved -- as our liturgy reminds us daily. In the world of briyah, thought and intellect, all is clear -- all obstacles to understanding are products of mochin d'katnut, small consciousness, and not ultimately real. And in the world of atzilut, essence, God is all that exists.

In light of these teachings, the clamor of ego and the inclination toward gratification are simply things to notice and then release. If I keep God always before me, then equanimity naturally follows.

Shabbat shalom.

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This week's portion: what is revealed

In this week's Torah portion, Yitro, we read about the Israelites clustered at the base of Sinai, receiving revelation.

As I read the aseret ha-dibrot ("ten commandments") this time, I found the words resonating for me in an expansive way. That's what sparked this week's d'var at Radical Torah:

Listen up! I am the Eternal force for transformation Who brings you forth from Mitzrayim, from all of your tight places. Everything and anything that you perceive, with your narrow consciousness, to be confining -- the prison of your body, the constrictions of your life or your obligations -- can be opened. I am that which opens, which liberates you from slaveries.

Read the whole thing here: What is revealed.

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Poems of place

The current theme at Qarrtsiluni is Come Outside. Here's how guest editor Fiona Robyn of A Small Stone (one of my favorite poetry blogs, serving up tiny bite-sized truffles of poetry) describes the theme:

Come outside. Put on your coat, leave your comfortable home. Outside there is weather, the generous sun, the lonely stars. Outside there are gardens, with slugs and poppies and last night's half-empty wine glasses. Outside there are tangled forests, wide rivers, fields of corn. Outside there is a boy kicking a can across the street, and an old lady talking to herself at the bus stop...

Some of my favorite posts from this theme include this gorgeous photograph by Miles Storey, the poem Night comes in by Dick Jones, and the poem Snapshots by Karl Elder. If you've got some time, head over there and read what's accrued so far.

And while you're at it, check out the poem of mine which appears in this issue, too: Last week of the farm. (Yes, the eponymous farm is the same one I so often blog about -- clearly an important place to me both physically and spiritually.)

Thanks, Fiona, for accepting the poem. And thanks as ever to managing editors Dave Bonta and Beth Adams for the work you do to keep Qarrtsiluni vibrant and fresh.

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Worth the work

Yesterday my friend J gave me a knitting lesson. (She'd offered to teach me while I was housebound after the stroke, though we didn't manage to meet until yesterday.) She arrived with a bag of yarn and projects, and she left me with a copy of Stitch 'N Bitch, my first pair of needles, and my first two skeins of yarn. (I'm planning to practice with the big fuzzy stuff; the soft variegated Icelandic wool will have to wait until I have some skill.)

In theory I learned how to knit years ago. When first I visited my alma mater as a prospective student, I stayed with an old friend whose room-mate was an avid knitter. I spent my visit drinking coffee and discussing philosophy and pop culture with a group of jazz musicians (some of whom remain my dearest friends, fifteen years later), and while I was there I learned how to knit. I made a single simple scarf, in garter stitch, and then never picked up needles again.

Until yesterday, when I fumbled my way through making a test square. It's imperfect -- I managed to both add and drop stitches when I wasn't paying attention -- but I made it with my own hands, which feels good. J tells me knitting can be calming and restorative. Plus, at the end of a project one has something tangible to show for one's time, so the work is a kind of double blessing. (Thinking of my knitted prayer shawl, I have to agree.) We have a date for another lesson soon, and in return I've promised that next summer I'll teach her my favorite useful craft, pickling and preserving the harvest from Caretaker Farm.

Yesterday I also began preparing to read from Torah at mincha (afternoon services) two Shabbatot from now. I'll be at DLTI, and I'm hoping to leyn. Like knitting, leyning is something I knew once, many years ago, but haven't done since; I began learning it again in December, but lost a few weeks of learning time to my recent medical adventures, so now I'm scrambling a little. It feels like a clumsy uphill climb, and it's definitely teaching me humility. Kind of like the knitting.

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Happy new year, trees

Tu BiShvat, the "New Year of the Trees," begins tonight. This is the time, tradition tells us, when the sap begins rising to feed the new growth of the year to come.  Last year at this time I linked to some terrific Tu BiShvat resources, and posted a haggadah for a Tu BiShvat seder.

I've been looking forward to Tu BiShvat this year, both because I'm planning to eat that spicy blueberry-etrog jam I made after Sukkot, and because on a personal level I find the idea of a new beginning in deep midwinter pretty compelling.

I feel endlessly fortunate to live in a place with so many trees, a place where I can feel so easily connected to the natural rhythms and cycles of living things. Tu BiShvat -- like Groundhog Day, which also happens to be today -- is a reminder that though the world may be snowy, what's leafless isn't dead, only dormant. All the bare branches will leaf again in the fullness of time.

I know from talking with Jesse, a local maple farmer, that without a solid winter the maple crop suffers. The cold is good for the trees. Over the years that I've lived here, I've come to recognize that having a dormant season is good for me, too.

This year especially, I like the idea that though the mercury is low, deep down there's something new germinating. Today the trees are one year older and so are we. May we, like the trees, be firmly rooted, draw sustenance from our source, and bear good fruit!

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Meeting the Mishnah

The word "mishnah" means repetition, and that's what the Mishnah originally was: Oral Torah, learned through repetition. Sometime around the year 200 of the Common Era, Yehuda ha Nasi orchestrated the compilation of these formerly-oral teachings in print.  In Rabbi Judith Abrams' words:

When the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., the Jewish people were devastated spiritually and emotionally. In addition, after the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 C.E., the Jews of the Land of Israel were subjugated militarily and politically by the Roman conquerors. What does a people do when they are defeated spiritually, emotionally, physically, and politically?

They dream. Powerless to change the world in which they live, they imagine an orderly, meaningful world in which human relations, commerce, and politics run according to tidy paradigms. This is precisely what the sages did. The document they formulated to express this neat world vision is called the Mishnah. It is spare, rhythmic, clearly organized, and idealistic; in a word, poetry.

Usually Mishnah is called the first code of Jewish law, but as my rabbi pointed out to me, it doesn't exactly match what we think of as a law code. (Imagine, if you will, a Massachusetts state law that began, "What do we do upon reaching a red light? Stop entirely; this is the opinion of Joe. Jane says that a rolling stop is acceptable. In the opinion of Sue, the answer depends on whether there are other cars on the road. Once, Joe's sons were coming home from a party in the middle of the night, and they admitted to their father that they had neglected to stop at a stop sign...") Mishnah is less a code of law, in the modern sense, than it is a collection of authorized tradition about how to do mitzvot.

And yesterday I began my formal study of it, with my rabbi, which was awesome. We spent our hour on the first mishna (when not capitalized, the word means the first teaching) of the first perek (chapter) of the first tractate (volume) in seder Zera'im, the order concerning seeds. The first tractate in Seeds is called Berachot -- "Blessings." (Why do teachings on prayer belong in the book of seeds? Beats me. One theory is that seeds relate to agriculture, and therefore to food, and what do we do over food but bless it? If you have other explanations, I'd love to hear them.)

I'm really excited about beginning this process. The Hebrew is simple (and, as R' Judy notes, a kind of prose poetry) and the subject matter is fascinating. And even more fascinating are the tidbits I can begin to glean about what mattered to our sages almost two thousand years ago. The first mishna of Berachot begins with the question, "From when does one recite Shema in the evening?" The answers are intimately tied to the cycle of offerings in the Temple...even though, at the time when this was written, there had been no Temple sacrifices within living memory. What can we learn from their decision to ground this conversation in that history? How does avodah she-ba-lev (the service of the heart) relate to the avodah (service) once performed by priests at the altar? These are the kinds of questions I look forward to exploring.

Starting my Mishnah learning was sweet on another level, too: for an hour or so, it took my mind off of the fact that I continue to be a medical mystery. I look forward to where this study will lead me, and for now, I'm saying a fervent shehecheyanu for the blessing of this beginning. Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Source of all things, who has kept me alive, sustained me, and enabled me to reach this moment!

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This week's portion: Water from the rock

This week we're in parashat Beshalach, in which the Israelites pass through the Sea of Reeds and begin their wandering in the wilderness. In this portion, the Israelites find themselves without water; when an anxious Moses turns to God for aid, God says something slightly cryptic about God standing before him on a rock, and instructs Moses to strike the rock in order to make water flow.

That moment sparked this week's d'var at Radical Torah:

There's a reciprocity here. One only gets as much out of an experience as one's able to put into it. In this case, the Israelites only get water from the rock when they're both willing and able to take action to generate that water. When we stand before God fully present, then God in turn stands fully present before us...which means that when Moses taps the rock with his staff, God is already awakened to the Israelites' presence and their need, and in response God causes shefa, divine abundance, to flow forth.

Read the whole thing here: Water from the rock.

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