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Top ten posts of 2007

It's fun to read back through a year's worth of posts, looking for my ten favorites. Themes and subconscious fixations are often clearer in hindsight, and you may be able to spot a few of mine in these posts. Thanks for reading Velveteen Rabbi in 2007, folks; here's to 2008!

Worth the work. "I get stuck a lot. I falter, and have to start over. It's frustrating to feel so inept, to lose my stride so easily. I'm used to being good at things -- and, as a corollary, to doing things I'm already good at. Sure, my working life poses challenges all the time -- it wouldn't be interesting, otherwise -- but on the whole, these days, I tend to stretch by aiming to do better at things I already do reasonably well. Neither knitting nor leyning falls into that category, and it's humbling to see how easily I can be reduced to abject frustration."

Message in a bottle. "I have many metaphors for the months since my December stroke. At times I've felt like a sailor in a tiny craft, skating across the surface of the unfathomed deep. I'm content, even singing a sea chanty or two -- until I realize how vast the waters below me are, and how a storm would swamp me. At times I've felt I'm on a rollercoaster, wheels ticking slowly as the cart ascends so gradually I forget I'm even moving -- until with a whoosh and a plummet I'm in freefall."

Worship through corporeality. "The obsession with dividing everything into clean and unclean, good and evil, may seem unduly dualistic. And the assumption that the physical world cloaks sparks of God in four levels of shell or peel may be strange. But what appeals to me here is the understanding that physical acts like eating aren't inherently good or bad -- and that the moral valance arises through our mindfulness and our intention to serve."

Through a stereoscope, darkly. "As a kid, I had what we called a lazy eye: one eye wandered, without volition. Eventually a pair of surgeries were required to correct it. As a result, I spent a lot of time at opthalmologists' offices with an opaque plastic circle over first one eye, then the other, trying to explain and understand what I saw. My eyes offer different pictures of the world even now -- color tones vary slightly from one eye to the next. (When I'm using both eyes in concert, the dominant eye chooses the color palette.) That turns out to be a good metaphor for how I'm relating to the ongoing investigation of my health."

Prayer at Panim. "Probably the most remarkable part of the Panim rabbinic student retreat, for me, was the davenen (a.k.a. tefilah -- loosely, if inadequately, translatable as 'prayer.') A tefilah committee, comprised of one student from each of the participating seminaries, met several times over the phone before the retreat to determine how we would pray together. They tackled major issues, including the length and style of our Torah readings and whether we would have any kind of mechitza. (Short answer: no, although the reality was...complicated.)"

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One year stroke-free

We were eating cheap takeout Chinese food and watching a dvd when the vision in my left eye became occluded. At first I thought it was a floater. Then we thought it might be a detached retina. I convinced myself it would be better in the morning, but when I woke up on Boxing Day it had not improved. Finally, despite the sleet, I dragged myself to the emergency room for an adventure that took me all over Pittsfield, into my first MRI machine, and -- by nightfall -- into an inpatient stay at BMC...

My last stroke happened on Christmas Day of 2006. As of today, I have gone a year stroke-free.

We still don't know what caused the strokes, and it seems likely now that we never will. They are not only idiopathic (of unknown origin) but cryptogenic (though their origin seems like it ought to be discernible, it is not.) We know that hypertension is correlated, so I take a beta blocker and a calcium channel blocker daily to keep my blood pressure low. And we know that clots are correlated -- though my blood doesn't show a tendency to clot in lab studies, and I don't test positive for any genetic clotting factors -- so I take a mild blood thinner daily. We trust that these three small pills each morning will keep my body in working order.

Miraculously, there has been no lasting damage to my body. My language skills seem to be as good as they ever were (so if I have trouble with Hebrew and Aramaic, I can blame only my study habits), and I am no longer conscious of diminished vision in my left eye (though field-of-vision tests show there is still some impairment, it's imperceptible to me now.)

The strokes did some emotional and spiritual damage which I think we are still working to repair. They shook my sense of my body's integrity, and they scared the people I love. We spent many months of 2007 working with specialists here and in Boston, searching for the elusive syndrome that would explain everything -- three strokes, two abscesses, and a partridge in a pear tree! -- and although every negative test result brought some relief, every new possible diagnosis left us tense and shaken again. Though in theory we've accepted the reality that the strokes are cryptogenic, in practice it isn't always easy to live with not-knowing.

The strokes also brought some blessings. I have a new sense of my body as a complicated miracle, which I've tried to hold on to as the immediate sense-memory of the strokes and the testing has faded. Over the year I've received unbelievable outpourings of love and prayer -- from family, from friends, from colleagues, from teachers, from readers, from strangers --which I appreciate more than I can say. And the strokes brought me a lot of new poems, work I might never have created otherwise. (I've worked hard at finding the silver lining in this experience.)

I'd like to be able to say that the strokes taught me something about embodiment, about this existential and theological state of unknowing. Sometimes I feel like they did. Other times their lessons, or gifts, seem pretty distant. I suspect being a multiple stroke survivor will make me a more compassionate pastoral caregiver, though I like to think I was fairly compassionate to begin with.

In the end, the strokes can only be what I make them. I try to make them a reminder not to take my life or my body for granted, and a chance to marvel at how it's possible to feel connected with God even "min ha-meitzar," from narrow straits like these. One way or another, I'm pretty sure Christmas Day will never feel quite the same...and we'll be celebrating Boxing Day tonight with a couple of bottles of fancy microbrewed beers (a Unibroue Terrible, and a Lindemans pomme lambic) toasting my health.

I hope you'll raise your cup or mug or glass too to the miracle of embodiment, and the miracle of health, and the miracle that my loved ones and I -- and you, my blog-readers and friends -- have made it through the first year of this post-stroke journey together.

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Ready or not

During on-call nights at the hospital, I used to try to get a few hours' sleep. Yes, there were all-nighters, which yielded (maybe not surprisingly) some of my most enduring memories of hospital ministry, but given the choice I would generally try to nap between midnight or so and five a.m. And usually, during the nights when I was trying to sleep a little, during the darkest part of the night the pager would go off.

If I close my eyes now, I can re-inhabit the way that felt: waking up and turning on the swing-arm lamp, fumbling for paper and pencil to jot down the extension, then picking up the phone to return the call. "Hi," I would say. "I'm Rachel, the chaplain on duty tonight. I just got a page. What's going on?" And then the nurse at the other end of the line would fill me in, and I would tug my clothes back on and re-pin my kippah to my head and walk out into the nighttime halls.

Yesterday I was, after a manner of speaking, asleep. The end of the year can be a difficult time for a lot of us: maybe Christmas is stressful, or we fear we can't live up to Christmas memories of old, or we don't celebrate it and feel alien(ated) as a result. Maybe there are end-of-year deadlines. Maybe there's financial stress. Maybe we're remembering loved ones who are gone, and missing them keenly. Me, I spent most of yesterday feeling caught between rabbinic school obligations and familial obligations, and stewing about it.

And then the call came. There has been a death in our extended community, and I've been called to do the funeral. I was so firmly in school-and-stress headspace that it took me a moment to parse this news, but when the words penetrated it felt like light cutting through heavy fog. All of my little frustrations fell away.

It's hard to explain this sensation, like something in me clicks into place. This is part of what I love about ministry: it calls me to be my best self. It wakes me up. There's no answer I can give besides hineni, "Here I am." Awake and ready.

A Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it; wishing you joy in this holiday of light and hope.

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Tekufat tevet sameach!

Sunset, winter solstice, 2006: 3:50pm.

Today is overcast, white snowy earth mirrored in white clouded sky, so we won't see the sun actually drop behind the hills. One way or another, this is the shortest day of the year; starting tomorrow, the light lengthens.

In honor of the solstice, a story, courtesy of Tel Shemesh:

"When Adam saw the day gradually diminishing, he said, “Woe is me! Perhaps because I sinned, the world around me is growing darker and darker, and is about to return to chaos and confusion, and this is the death heaven has decreed for me. He then sat eight days in fast and prayer. But when the winter solstice arrived, and he saw the days getting gradually longer, he said, "Such is the way of the world,” and proceeded to observe eight days of festivity. The following years he observed both the eight days preceding and the eight days following the solstice as days of festivity." (-- Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 8a)

In this story the first human being is distressed over the decreasing light and believes it is a punishment. Only when he learns that the light will begin to grow again is he comforted. We too often feel sad or anxious when the light diminishes and are glad when it comes again. Adam's drama of fear and acceptance helps us to accept our own moments of not knowing.

After the truth is revealed to him, Adam is able to celebrate before and after the solstice. This Jewish story of the winter solstice teaches us to honor darkness as well as light. We can also wonder: where might Eve be in this story? What would she think of the changing seasons and how would she celebrate them?

I don't have good answers to Rabbi Jill's questions about how our sense of the winter solstice might change if we approached it from Eve's point of view. Maybe for Eve, and for us, winter can be a time for curling up by the fireside, savoring home and hearth, and biding our time to see what germinates in us as we follow the increasing light into spring.

Wishing all a happy tekufat Tevet! May we all be blessed with light!

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Modern midrash on Christmas

Y'all know I'm a big fan of Real Live Preacher. Gordon's a terrific writer, and I count him as one of my role models for what it can mean to be a committed, quirky, passionate person of faith. This year I decided to give myself a little Chanukah gift in a way that would support him. (Hey, I know what it's like to get a little boost, financially and emotionally, because someone decides to buy a blogger's work in print.) I bought myself a copy of A Christmas Story You've Never Heard.

The introduction begins with the first seven verses of Luke 2: "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus..." And then Gordon pipes up, reminding us that "the facts are few and the account minimal to the point of absurdity." There's wonder and mystery in the story, he writes, but much of it hides between the verses and in the silences.

The way most of us imagine the Nativity -- and I'd wager that most of us, even Jews for whom this is not a sacred text, have some mental image of it -- is anachronistic in the extreme. The Greek word kataluma doesn't mean inn; the famed manger was probably a stone trough in a basement animal pen; and the magi aren't even mentioned in this gospel at all. What Gordon offers us, in the place of those familiar (and sometimes hackneyed) mental images, is a real story:

Joseph's carpenter shed smelled of leather and wood and grease and earth and work. The tools were old and the wooden handles slick with use. The place bore the wonderful patina of a man's lifework.

The smell made Isaac smile when he poked his head around the doorframe and saw Joseph's powerful shoulders rolling back and forth as he pulled a drawknife across a huge beam of wood. Chips were flying everywhere.

"Shalom, Joseph. Is that..." He sniffed loudly. "Cedar?"

This is an embodied Joseph, and one who's getting serious flack from his friends for standing by Mary in her disgraceful state. Mary, too, and her family, and Joseph's family, all appear in sometimes startling revitalized form.

This little book is midrash, pure and simple: exegetical storytelling that fleshes out the story's characters, closes off loopholes, offers interpretation. It takes the text seriously, but it doesn't take itself seriously; it's funny as well as poignant. Obviously this is a story that will be more resonant, and more powerful, to those for whom it is sacred scripture. I'm not in that camp. But I appreciate the power of a good story, and especially of a good midrash on a story I thought I already knew.

Available from iTunes as an audiobook; available in print, on audio cd, or via download from his store. (And if you buy the paper book, he tucks a little surprise into it; mine came with a candle label featuring a prayer to the Sacred Heart of Mary.) Thanks for the storytelling, RLP. Here's wishing you a week that is merry and bright.

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Light is sown

This Jewschool post alerted me to the existence of a few new tunes recorded by Reb Shir Yaakov Feinstein-Feit. The Jewschool post is full of new mp3s; you can listen to more here (and there's video of him singing and freestyling, accompanied by other familiar Elat Chayyim faces -- Tamuz Shiran and Tali Weinberg, with Jessie Reagen on cello, and Basya Schechter and Dan Fries on percussion -- here on YouTube.) The mp3 that I downloaded immediately was "Or Zarua."

I've heard the melody at Elat Chayyim, though I can't remember now exactly when or how. Maybe during a late-night session of impromptu and fervent prayer one Kol Nidre night; maybe some Shabbat, after the drumming and dancing had wound down to a low murmur of prayer and song. One way or another, it reaches right to my core.

"Light is sown for the righteous, and joy for the upright of heart." That's the translation of the first line of the song, Psalm 97:11. The other line translates to "For You are the source of light / In Your light, we see light" -- Psalm 36:10. Two of my favorite tiny tidbits of daily liturgy.

It's a running joke in our household that I get awfully eager for the winter solstice. Even though I know the coldest days of the year are still to come, and even though I know we're in for a few more months of winter weather, something in me releases when we pass the solstice. Soon the darkening days will be over. From the solar low point of the year, there's nowhere to go but up.

The lines from psalms that make up "Or Zarua" are talking about more than solar radiation, obviously. "Light is sown for the righteous" has nothing to do with the angle of the sun, and "for You are the source of light" is speaking to the source of lovingkindness and illumination, about that supernal light the human eye may not be able to perceive.

But at this season, as the hours tick down to the shortest day of the year, I crave both kinds of light. During these long dark winter nights, these words from psalms -- especially sung with such kavanah -- help remind me that as I hunger for the rays of the sun, I'm really yearning for the light that lies behind and beyond what's visible...which is, thankfully, the kind of light we can all access at any time of year, darkness or no.

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Illuminated manuscript for our times

My friend Lori Witzel, who blogs at Chatoyance, has been working on a Book of Hours as a final project for a class in the Master of Liberal Arts program at St. Edward's University. She's been documenting the project's progress on its own blog; the first post offers insights into the project's origins and aims.

Her core question was What might a contemporary, non-liturgical reflection on the Book of Hours idea look like? In pursuit of answers she interviewed four people who identify with different faith traditions, asking each of us about the beginnings of our faith ("Dawn"), how we balance our practice with daily life ("Noon"), how our practice has changed over time ("Dusk"), and how our practice has surprised us.

As you've no doubt gathered from my use of pronouns, I'm one of the people she interviewed. As it happened, she interviewed one person in her neck of the woods and two bloggers who live at opposite ends of the country, which meant she wasn't able to photograph and interview each of us in person. The interview was easily conducted via email, and when she asked me whether I could provide her with a few photos, I got my friend Daniel to do the honors, with really beautiful results.

As the project has taken shape, it's dazzled me. Two recent posts -- snapshots in time and details -- include photographs of two of the pages in progress, including mine. I'm not sure I had fully envisioned what spectacular handmade works of art these page spreads were going to be -- seriously, click on those links and marvel. (And once you're there, you can click on each image to get a fullscreen version, which is honestly awesome.) The text is all hand-lettered; the illustrations are hand-drawn; each page spread is rich with the textures of handmade paper and gold leaf. It's like a medieval illuminated manuscript, but one that gives light and expression to the lived Torah of human experience in a remarkable way.

Lori's been talking about posting images of the completed pages, as well as the photos and interview materials, on the project blog. If/when she does, I'll let y'all know. For now, check out the project blog and marvel at this labor of love.

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Synagogue fire

I had meant to post about my third and final field trip for my liturgy class (I wrote about the first one here; this last one was wonderful, not least because I met a fellow rabbinic student there and we had the pleasure of singing and praying together) but that's been backburnered for the moment because Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester, MA, has burned down.

(Learn more: Fire kills one person, destroys synagogue in Gloucester, MA; Cape's only synagogue vows to rebuild; Temple finds temporary home in historic church.)

That congregation's spiritual leader is Rabbi Sami Barth, who's teaching my liturgy class. As word spreads among the ALEPH and Ohalah communities, we're all reeling, and I suspect we're all imagining what it would be like to see a beloved home burn to the ground, along with all that it contained.

The fire started in the apartment building next door, and then moved to the synagogue. One person was killed in the blaze; the residents of the apartment building are now homeless, and so is the congregation.

The congregation has established a relief fund to help the families who lost their home and belongings in the fire. There's also a rebuilding fund for the congregation. You can find both here.

As the congregation regroups, they'll figure out what help they most need. (My rabbi here, for instance, is planning to look through our synagogue library for duplicate books we could send to them, since of course they've lost their entire library -- not to mention their Torah scrolls, with which we can sadly not assist.)

I'll update y'all when I know more, but for the moment, if you're able to make a donation to either fund, I imagine it would be greatly appreciated. And regardless, good words and prayers never go amiss, so please keep those displaced by this fire in your prayers.

Edited to add: Religious community unites to help members of destroyed temple, from the Boston Globe.

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What we can learn from megachurches: podcast from the Biennial

Two years ago I blogged the living daylights out of the URJ Biennial. Some of the insights I gleaned from the kashrut panel, the meaningful worship in small congregations panel, and the session on the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel are still an active part of my consciousness.

I noted in one of my posts that year that the Shabbat davening -- in a crowd of 5000+, complete with pit orchestra and Jumbotron screens -- made me feel like I'd stumbled into a megachurch. That was a snarky comment, and maybe not an entirely fair one; the experience didn't meet my needs. But one of the podcasts coming out of this year's Biennial -- Creating Community, which explicitly opens the question of what we can learn from the megachurch phenomenon despite our differences -- has me thinking about synagogues and megachurches in a different way.

Reverend Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California took part in a dialogue this evening with Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, moderated by Ron Wolfson, co-founder of Synagogue 3000. This discussion is a must hear for anyone looking to learn how to create and sustain a meaningful community of faith in today's world.

The podcast is posted on the Biennial Blog. (I'm glad they've launched a blog; near as I could tell last time, bloggers were few and far between. I got a lot out of liveblogging the conference, and am sorry I couldn't be there this time...which makes me even more glad that it's possible for me to read about, and listen to, some of what went on this time around.)

The folks on this panel have really smart and interesting things to say about creating community, making people feel welcome, who worship is "for," and more. We've been talking about these issues in the liturgy class I'm taking this fall, especially matters of welcoming outsiders and experiencing our own services from time to time as outsiders. (That's one of the subtexts of the assignment to visit three different congregations this fall.) Anyway, if you have an hour to spare, give it a listen here -- this is thought-provoking stuff.

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Heads we're dancing

In my Chernobyler class we've been looking at some teachings about the body and the soul. (Some of you may have guessed that my recent post Body and Soul was adapted and excerpted from a paper I just wrote for that class. This is how I manage to continue blogging during this really dense rab school semester -- I repurpose rab school material as blog posts.) In our conversation about our papers this morning, Rabbi Bob shared a gorgeous little teaching from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, which goes like this:

The soul knows things the body can never know: joy, sorrow, anticipation, yetzirah [the world of emotion] and briyah [the world of intellect]. But the soul is liable to sickness for that very reason, in a way the body is not; the soul can become depressed, forgetful, closed-off. So the soul's constant duty is to teach the body the habitual ways of dancing -- so that when the soul becomes sorrowful, the body can remind the soul of how to pull itself out of that.

(Alas, I can't offer a citation for this; if anyone reading this knows where I can find it, please let me know.) I really love this little teaching. Yes, the soul can know things the body can't access. The Chernobyler would say that the soul contains the chelek elohut, the spark of divinity or godliness, in each one of us; the body in which that soul is implanted can house that spark, but the spark isn't part of the body per se.

But it's exactly because of that body/soul distinction -- because the soul can access heights the body can't grok -- that the soul can become sick. (Yes, sure, the body can too, but physical sickness is different than soul-sickness. Haven't we all encountered people whose bodies are ill but whose spirits still soar? I wrote a poem once about how I'd rather have a splitting sinus headache than be depressed, because at least the headache is easily-treatable; depression, not so much.)

The job of the soul, therefore, is to teach the body "the habitual ways of dancing." He's talking here about mitzvot -- the practices that shape Jewish life, the connective commandments that link us with our Source -- though I think this can be generalized to work for non-Jewish readers, too. I love the way this turn of phrase frames mitzvot: they're not onerous obligations, not merely laws, but dance steps. When we live a conscious life of good deeds and connective actions, we're not just walking -- we're dancing.

And the answer for periods of depression, for the soul sickness Rebbe Nachman knew well, lies not in the mind or spirit but in the body. So when I feel too depressed to pray, the answer is to don tallit and tefillin anyway, because the physicality of the action may reach me when reason and emotion wouldn't get through. And when I feel sunk in sadness, the answer is to use my body: engage in some exercise (even though the days when I'm overwhelmed are the days when I feel least like moving at all), treat my body to a hot-tub soak or a massage, because it's the body which can pull the soul out of the pit. On good days, my soul elevates my body; on tough days, my body can elevate my soul.

What a gorgeous teaching -- and what a fortuitous one to encounter right now, as we work our way through the very darkest (and therefore sometimes most depressing) week of the year. Thanks, Rabbi Bob and Rebbe Nachman.

The title of this post is borrowed from a Kate Bush song. There's no real connection, except that as I was writing it I got the song in my head, and I like it, so there you go.

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Farewell to Chanukah

There's always something a little bit melancholy about putting away the menorah at the end of Chanukah. Once upon a time it made me sad because it meant the end to the stream of presents; these days it makes me sad because over the week of the festival I've grown attached to kindling lights every night, and I'm sorry to see the festival go. Often holidays leave me feeling anticlimactic upon their ending -- "you mean that's it?" My challenge is to let that feeling be, instead of immediately papering it over so I don't have to feel it for long.

This year Chanukah was more interesting to me than it's been in a long time. Maybe because two of my classes this fall involve immersion in Hasidic texts, and the worlds of kabbalah and Hasidut are chock-full of light imagery. Torah tells us that the first thing created, at the beginning of spacetime, was light. Light represents wisdom and insight, illumination mental and spiritual as well as practical. Living as I do where night falls early at this season, this festival of en-light-enment resonates more for me every year. Chanukah offers us a chance to bring or ganuz (hidden light) into creation.

And now it's over. I've changed my chat message in gmail chat to "busy as usual," instead of the "Happy Chanukah!" it's read all week. The chanukiyah is back in the sideboard where it resides all the other weeks of the year. The two small silver dreidls I picked up in Jerusalem a decade ago are back on their shelf.

But there's a fire burning merrily in our fireplace, and a leg of lamb roasting in the oven. Home and hearth are warm and inviting, even without the tiny flames of the Chanukah lights. It's time to move on now to the next thing: the waxing moon of Tevet, papers to write and books to read as the secular calendar year begins to wind inexorably down. Chanukah is over. It's time for what comes next.

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Body and soul

The rabbis said "the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah," meaning that the commandment is rewarded by the nearness to God that the one who performs it feels, the joy of spirit that lies within the deed. This indeed is "a greeting of the shekhinah," and without it the commandment is empty and lifeless, the body-shell of a mitzvah without any soul.

-- The Me'or Eynayim on a verse from parashat Vayera (as translated by Art Green)

How can I try to ensure that the mitzvot I do have both body and soul?

The question presupposes that I'm doing mitzvot in the first place. I hope that I am; I mean to be; but too many times I've let the perfect become the enemy of the good. One of the most insidious forms the yetzer ha-ra ("evil impulse") takes for me is the whisper that if I can't do something right, I might as well not do it at all. If I can’t take the time to daven all of shacharit, slowly and with intention in every prayer, I might as well just skip it and try again tomorrow. Or if I can't make the time for a long visit with someone who is sick or sad or suffering, I might as well let them be and wait until I really have the time to engage before I call. I have a perfectionist streak, and my yetzer ha-ra knows that.

How to work around this? The practice of doing small mitzvot even when I don't have the space or the ability to do large ones. Even if I can't daven for an hour every morning, I can try Reb Zalman’s suggested practice of the seven-minute daven, which at least gets me plugged-in and connected. I can't feed all the hungry in our town, but we can open our home to a friend in need of respite and soul-care. And so on. There is always -- there will always be -- more work to do in the world and on myself. So my imperfections are no reason to throw in the towel. (Take that, yetzer ha-ra.) And neither is losing the kavanah (intention or focus) I meant to bring to any given mitzvah.

During meditation minyan, my rabbi used to remind us that in mindfulness practice, it's natural to lose focus. The mind runs in circles like a puppy; we can't change that. So when focus vanishes, he told us, just recognize that reality and let it go, without self-castigation; return to the breath and try again. It's as true when I'm trying to do mitzvot as it is when I'm trying to meditate. The yetzer ha-ra would prefer that I sink a bunch of time and energy in kicking myself for screwing up, so I've got my work cut out for me.

I would like to be someone who is perennially conscious of God’s presence in all things. Spiritual muscle memory helps; I'm working on training myself to respond to the world in grateful and mindful ways, but sometimes it's slow going. One way or another, the work of "ensoulling" mitzvot is, for me, a form of mindfulness practice.

Of course, as something becomes commonplace or familiar it can fade into the background. For a while I wanted a shviti desktop image, so that every time I looked at my computer screen I would be reminded to keep the divine presence before me. In lieu of an actual shviti, I've been using an image of the ceiling from an old Budapest synagogue. Which was terrific until it became like wallpaper. Now most of the time my eyes scan right over it, which means it loses its mnemonic power. That's human nature -- or the yetzer ha-ra at work; pick your paradigm -- and it requires me to be creative in reminding myself of God.

I know I'll slip up. What's important is how I pull myself back to the focus I'm aiming for. In Yosher Divrei Emet, the text I've been learning on Sunday evenings, R' Meshullam Feibush writes that it doesn't so much matter whether we manage to truly achieve devekut (full cleaving-to, or union with, God) -- what matters is that we continue to strive toward it, even knowing it may be out of reach.

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I think a lot about sufficiency. What does it mean to have "enough"? I don't mean this as a question about consumerism, though obviously it's that too, especially in the United States during the Advent season that's gotten repackaged as shopping season. I mean it as an internal question, an emotional question.

Because the matter of having enough, or not having enough, is surely an emotional one, as much as or more than it is a fiscal one. Scarcity is a kind of mitzrayim, a narrow place. And the fear of scarcity can be even worse, in the way the fear of a thing is usually worse than the thing itself. Fear of scarcity can be existential, can make the whole world seem constrained.

Fear of not having enough can blur into fear of not being enough. Fear that if we're not smart enough, or rich enough, or thin enough, we won't be valued. Won't be seen for who we really are. Won't be loved.

And, on the other side of the coin, the sense of having enough can be a pearl beyond price. (As it is written in Pirkei Avot 4:1, "Who is rich? One who is happy with what he has.") It's simple, but it isn't easy.

During Chanukah we celebrate the miracle of unexpected abundance. The cruse of oil that shouldn't have sufficed, sufficed. We came face-to-face with a lack, and acknowledged the lack, and acted as though there were enough anyway, and that leap of faith made it so that there was enough. That's a miracle that speaks directly to my heart: not in terms of physical resources, though the holiday can be read in those ways too, but in terms of emotional and spiritual resources.

The Chanukah story is really about trusting that there will be enough. That what we have is enough. That what we are is enough.

Damn right that's a miracle.

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On kashrut, sustainability, and the slaughter of two goats

Photo taken at Isabella Freedman last Pesach.

I've been watching something really remarkable unfold in the Jewish blogosphere. It's moved me so much that I want to make sure you have the chance to read it too. It's a story about the schechting -- the kosher slaughter -- of a pair of goats.

The story begins here, with a post from Nigel Savage:

On the Friday night of last year's Hazon Food Conference I said, "put your hands up if you eat meat - but would not do so if you had to kill it yourself." And a good number of hands went up.

Then I said: "put your hands up if you're vegetarian - but you would eat meat if you killed it yourself." And a different group of hands went up.

And after a brief pause, everyone laughed. They laughed because the two responses revealed what a self-selected group we were - and how fascinating our different distinctions. The first group were essentially saying, "I do like eating meat - but I know the process of killing it is awful - it's actually so awful that if I had to kill it myself, I just wouldn't eat meat."

The second group were essentially saying "I'm vegetarian because I hate everything about how animals are raised and killed in our industrial food economy. But if I actually took responsibility for killing an animal myself, I would feel I was acting with integrity, and in accordance with my beliefs - and therefore, in that instance, I potentially would eat meat."

And my response, when the laughter died down, was to say "Great: next year we're going to shecht (slaughter according to kosher law) an animal here at the Food Conference."

That's from Schechting a goat at the Hazon Food Conference?, a post at The Jew and the Carrot. (Go and read the post, because it's really good, and it's where this whole story started.) For the next piece of the story, read on.

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Looking for light

I never really understood Christmas lights until I moved to New England.

I'm not talking about the houses so covered in zillions of tiny bulbs that they can probably be seen from space. That kind of lighting may be remarkable, but it doesn't move me -- and it also doesn't seem to exist out here where I live. I'm talking about simple lights, prosaic lights. Lights twined around trees. Illuminated icicles along the eaves of rural houses and barns. Strings of light limning fences on back roads in the middle of nowhere. I never understood lights like that until I moved to a place where complete darkness can fall by 5pm.

Jewish time is closely tied to the cycle of the seasons: the phase of the moon, the angle of the sun. In summertime, it makes sense to daven shacharit (morning prayers) as soon as I can roust myself out of bed; the sun rises around 5am, after all. By the same token, evening prayers fall late in the day; in high summer, it's light until at least nine.

Not now. These days, where I live, the sun rises after seven, and sets during the afternoon. Hebrew school begins in the twilight, and when it ends the world is pitch-black. There's a lot of darkness here at this time of year, and that's changed my relationship with Christmas lights in a pretty fundamental way.

I'm especially fond of the houses where a single candle is lit in every window, which turns out to be a Scottish yuletide custom, meant to light the way for wayfarers -- or, depending on who you ask, for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve. Maybe that practice resonates because Jews place our chanukiyot (Chanukah menorahs) in the windows of our homes, so that the lights we kindle can be seen by all who pass. The prayer Hanerot Hallalu (recited after candle-lighting) is a reminder that we kindle the Chanukah lights solely for their beauty and their mnemonic power, not because we plan to use them for any other purpose. We don't light them to read by, or to play dreidl by. We light them in order to see them, remember, and feel gratitude and awe. They're just there to give light.

Obviously Chanukah lights and yule candles have a religious resonance that purely decorative lights don't and can't lay claim to. But the two kinds of light in the darkness feel kin to me in some way, and both make me happy. The religious ones because of the stories they evoke; the secular ones because they're proof that someone out there cares enough about spreading light to take the time to string the cords, replace the bulbs, and illuminate the darkness. They're a gift for everyone who passes by. Sometimes, especially late at night when snow's coming down, they light my way home.

And when I drive our dark winter roads during the week of Chanukah, the remembered lights of my chanukiyah gleaming in my mind's eye, the lights on trees and barns and houses feel like they're twinkling in celebration right along with me. The illuminated snowflakes that line Water Street in Williamstown have six points, in fact, which means if I squint they're almost stars of David. It's all in the eye of the beholder, of course, but at this time of year I'm inclined to find light, on all levels, everywhere I can.

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Totally optional poem: road sign


Three days in
we broke the border of South Dakota
and the sky opened up, an inverted bowl.

All day I itched to reach Oacoma.
We high-fived as we crossed the flat Missouri.
So much time spent on the Mass Pike

we'd memorized the words:
Highest Turnpike Elevation 1724 ft.
Next highest on I-90 in Oacoma SD (1729 ft)

For years we'd wondered
what we'd find at the road's peak.
But there's no sign

to match the one we knew back East.
Unremarked-upon the prairie just ticks by.
Isn't that always the way.

Anticipate for days and still
the high point only becomes visible
in the rear-view.

When I saw that this week's Totally Optional Prompt was "Road Sign," this came immediately to mind. The road sign referenced in the middle of the poem is in Lee, Massachusetts. During the years when we drove to Enfield, Connecticut every week to study karate, we drove past the sign twice every Saturday. Discovering that there wasn't a parallel sign in Oacoma was something of a let-down. All these years later, though, it feels like there's more to the memory than the surface narrative might suggest. I hope some of that comes through in the poem. Happy Chanukah to all!

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Crazy eights

On the ALEPH-Pnai-Or email list, someone recently put out a request for Chanukah teachings, and my teacher Reb Arthur Waskow offered a teaching I want to excerpt and riff on here. He wrote:

I think that one is to see the leap from one day's oil to eight days' light as a teaching that we leap from Unity to Infinity. ("Eight" is the number of Beyond.) That if we take ONE seriously, plunge deeply into The One, we find ourselves in the Infinite.

"'Eight' is the number of Beyond." This is a gorgeous insight. Let me try to unpack it for those who aren't immediately going "aha!"

The paradigmatic number in Torah is seven. The Torah begins with a verse containing 7 words and 28 letters (divisible by 7.) Seven days of creation; seven weeks of counting the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot, which are mapped to the seven lower sefirot (divine attributes or qualities in which we too partake.) The original menorah was a seven-branched candelabrum, lit in the tabernacle and later in the Temple sanctuary in Jerusalem (and echoed in many contemporary synagogues worldwide.)

Kabbalah teaches that seven represents completeness, a single perfect cycle. Six days of work followed by Shabbat, six years of work followed by a sabbatical year, and so on. And the sevens just keep going: seven blessings recited in a Jewish wedding, the Torah speaks of seven Noachide laws that pertain to all humanity, Jewish mysticism describes seven layers or levels of heaven, in Pharaoh's dream there were seven cows and seven stalks of grain, Rosh Hashanah falls in the seventh month, the world contains seven continents and seven seas, on Simchat Torah we dance in seven circles. (Hat tip to this Ask the Rabbi column, from whence many of these references were drawn.)

And yet Chanukah lasts for eight days. If seven represents a round week in its wholeness -- the range of divine qualities that streamed into creation during those six paradigmatic days followed by the first paradigmatic Shabbat -- eight is all that and then some. Eight goes beyond. And, of course, in the system of numerals most of us today use, the number eight matches the symbol for infinity turned on its side.

When we make the metaphysical shift from seven to eight, from one whole week to and-then-some, we transcend our ordinary systems and enter into the Infinite. That's one of the things Chanukah can be about. Cool, eh? חנוכה סמח / Happy Chanukah!

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One small flame

We have good friends who throw a Solstice party each year. (I've mentioned it here before.) On the longest night of the year we gather to eat tasty foods and drink hot mulled wine in a room festooned with evergreen boughs and as many lit candles as our hosts can find. The candles are a beautiful visual representation of what the party's celebrating -- light in a time of darkness.

We're gathering friends at our house tonight for the first night of Chanukah. We'll make a mess of latkes (the classic potato ones, with apple sauce and sour cream) and, of course, light the chanukiyah. Like the candles our friends light on the solstice, the lights of Chanukah represent light in a time of darkness: the metaphorical light of hope burning bright in a time of fear and sorrow, against all odds sustaining us.

The Talmud records a debate about how to kindle the holiday lights. (This article is excellent if you want to learn more.) The school of Shammai favored starting with eight lights, and decreasing the number each night; that way, the number of lights kindled on each night would correspond to the number of days remaining in the miracle of the oil. The school of Hillel favored starting with one and increasing until we reach eight, and in this -- as in so many things -- Jewish tradition follows the teachings of Hillel. Lighting one more candle each night allows us to tap into our sense of the miraculous. As we increase physical light in the world, so too can we increase spiritual and metaphysical light in our lives.

Lighting one solitary candle can feel insufficient, insubstantial. (Especially when one lights ordinary thin Chanukah candles. The huge mahogany chanukiyah that my brother made when I became bat mitzvah holds 12" tapers, but I don't have a chanukiyah like that. Our menorah is beautiful, but it's small.) Everyone gathers 'round -- the match is struck, the shamash (helper candle) is lit -- the blessings are sung, and the one light kindled -- and then it burns there, small and brave, until that one wee candle is gone. There's something poignant about it. The miracle we're hoping to connect with is only barely present.

But barely present is enough. It's something to hold on to. It's a start. Even if it only lasts for a little while, there's a little more light in the world. In our day, the work of creating light is in our hands.

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The Faith Between Us

Scott Korb and Peter Bebergal: a former wannabe Catholic priest and a self-described "failed Jewish mystic." Close friends. Co-authors of The Faith Between Us, a book which charts their dialogue about everything from marriage proposals to veganism, parables and mysticism and the pursuit of authentic religious faith. Both men have long literary pedigrees; they've been regular contributors to McSweeney's and Killing The Buddha, and Peter is one of my colleagues at Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. Together, they fight crime. Okay, no, they don't. But they've written one hell of a book.

This book began with what has become, for many of us, a not-so-innocent and not-so-simple question: Do you believe in God?

We're nervous even to ask; simply posing the question reveals something about you, if only that you're earnest enough to care. And answering in either direction, yes or no, can often feel like a great risk, depending on the company you keep. This kind of exposure can be embarrassing. The question catches us with our, yes, Proverbial pants down.... We step carefully around the question: Do you believe?

To say that we believe means that at the center of our lives is an idea of God.

In the introduction, Scott and Peter talk about existing "on the religious fringe" as undergrads, preferring rock shows and girls to Bible study and campus-sponsored Shabbat dinners. (I know the feeling.) And about studying theology in graduate school, yearning to reconcile the desire for intellectual integrity with religious devotion that was unquestionably irrational, but was powerful nonetheless. (Yep. I know that feeling too.) And they talk about their friendship, and what it opened up for and in them.

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On reviewing books, and "Hours of Devotion"

I like reviewing books. Reading with an eye toward writing a review is a different experience than reading all by itself. It's a way of reading-in-community; I get to respond to the work as a writer, not just as a reader, plus often there's conversation with other readers via email or blog comments. Often, these days, I get to connect directly with the author of the book, too, which is a treat.

And yet you may notice that I haven't posted any book reviews here since the first week of September. What gives? Well, it turns out that when I'm taking five courses at once, I don't seem to have the mental/emotional space I'd like to dedicate to really good, long, interpretive book reviews. I probably should have anticipated that, shouldn't I?

But -- maybe some of you have noticed this? -- Chanukah begins on Tuesday night! And perhaps some of you would like to buy books for your loved ones this season. So following that old adage about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, I plan to post a few short book reviews this week. I'd like to write something longer and more substantive about each of these, but for now I hope these brief reviews will capture your interest. These are titles I think are worth some attention and time. The first one is:

Hours of Devotion: Fanny Neuda's Book of Prayers for Jewish Women (Dinah Berland; Shocken, 2007)

This is a collection of prayers written by Fanny Neuda, originally published in German in the mid-1800s. Neuda was the daughter of a Moravian rabbi. Dinah Berland, who is a marvelous poet in her own right and who comments here often, worked with a translator to render Neuda's prayer-poems in modern English.

These prayers offer insight into the internal life of a Jewish woman in Central Europe during the Enlightenment, which is especially fascinating to me because I've been taking a course on the Haskalah this fall. The book's introduction sheds some light on how Berland came to engage with this work ("As an adult, my circuitous spiritual path -- punctuated by bouts of struggle and loss -- led me on a long quest, often far from Judaism, to try to recapture the sense of acceptance, love, and communion with God that I had glimpsed as a child") but after the introduction, the book consists purely of Neuda's prayers (and an afterword, also written by Neuda, included in every edition since the original printing of 1855.)

Great poems are both timely (grounded in the period when they were written) and timeless (meaningful beyond their initial moment in time.) I'd put many of these in that category. These personal devotions chart thanksgiving and praise in a way any reader of the psalms should recognize, and like the psalms they feel alive and new. And there's a range of material here: morning and evening prayers, Shabbat prayers and weekday prayers and festival prayers. I find myself drawn to the section titled "Prayers Especially for Women" -- a daughter's prayer for her parents, prayers for expectant mothers and for returning to synagogue after giving birth, a prayer for a mother whose child is abroad. But I'm also moved by the universal prayers here: prayers for rain, for illness, to be said at graveside.

Liturgical poetry is one of my passions. It's something I aspire to create. So I know how hard it is to write a prayer that works too as a poem. Prayers require the investment of emotion and heart, but there's a fine line between sentiment and sentimentality, and sometimes material that feels appropriate in prayer is too over-the-top for a poem, weights the poem down. I don't know whether Neuda's original 18th-century German verse would suit the modern sensibility, but Berland's rendering of Neuda's work walks the line beautifully.

You can read an excerpt from the preface here, and here are some selected prayers from the collection. (I especially like the Traveler's Prayer.) And here's a list of links to places where the book is available. Lately I've been incorporating these poems into my regular prayer life. Some days I read her weekday poems as a kind of 19th-century shir shel yom (song of the day), and I plan to meditate on her Chanukah poem later this week. These are poems I want to send to friends, little written gifts I think will speak to their lives, as they speak to mine. Maybe they will speak to yours, too.

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