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(Late) Cookies for Purim and Norouz

Last Sunday we went to Northampton for lunch with my in-laws. We had planned to spend some time bopping around town, browsing the aisles of the used-cd stores, but most things were oddly closed; apparently Sunday was some kind of holiday? (Joking! -- obviously -- and I wish a blessed Eastertide to all my Christian readers.) Still, we were bemused when we realized that even secular institutions seemed to have closed for the holiday; the only place open downtown was, amusingly, the bagel shop. So we bought some bagels and then we continued on down the road to Tran's World Market.

The layout of the stores is similar: You enter to an array of phone cards, Indian videos, over-the-counter medicines, scents and packaged snacks. Most of the stores take credit cards. The aisles are roughly divided by country or by food type. Typically, there is a row of dried noodles -- rice, wheat, cellophane (pea flour), fat and thin -- and spring roll wrappers. The soy sauces, oyster sauces, Sriracha hot sauces and fish sauces fill nearly an entire aisle. There is aisle of bulk spices, dals (lentils) and canned fishes...

That's from this post, which describes several different world markets in the Pioneer Valley. The first one on the list is Tran's, which is one of our favorite stores. Several of our cooking staples come from there: dark soy sauce in big plastic bottles, good sesame oil and sriracha hot sauce, soba noodles and strange spicy pickles. I love the sense of culinary possibility I feel every time we're there, and the way ingredients for different cuisines collide on the shelves. It's a little bit like traveling the world without leaving home.

It had only been two days since I blogged about hamentaschen, and in the process learned about the Iranian poppyseed cookie naan-e berenji, which are made with orange flower water and poppy seeds and rice flour. First I spotted the rice flour; then the black and white poppy seeds; and then the bottles of various flower waters. I couldn't resist. I brought them home, and today I tried this recipe. So Purim was a week ago; who says I can't still enjoy an Iranian Purim treat?

I suspect I should have softened my butter further, because my dough wound up a little crumbly even though I opted to use the lesser of the two amounts of rice flour the recipe offered. But the cookies are tasty; they have a fine grain, like rich shortbread, and their aroma is amazing. (Orange flower water is awesome stuff.) Having just seen Persepolis, I'm delighted to have made a first foray into Iranian cuisine.

A little bit of digging reveals that many folks enjoy these on Norouz (the Persian New Year); they're one of seven sweets that are traditional Norouz fare. Norouz begins on the vernal equinox, which in Jewish tradition we call call the tekufat Nissan; I was born on the equinox, so I feel an affinity with Norouz. (Hey, it marks a new year for me, too.) It sounds like in Iran people celebrate Norouz for 13 days, so -- these cookies may be a late Purim celebration, but they're still right on time for the Persian New Year. Happy new year to all those who celebrate at this season! I'll enjoy a cookie for you.

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Brokenness and purity: more thoughts on Shemini

If you read Vessel, the poem I wrote arising out of this week's Torah portion, you know that Lev. 11:33 caught my attention this week. That's the verse about how if any animal which is tamei (like a mouse or lizard or other creepy-crawly) falls into an earthen vessel, the vessel and its contents become tamei, and the vessel must be broken.

That verse takes me, through a kind of mental hyperlink, to Mishnah Kelim 2:1:

Vessels of wood, vessels of leather, vessels of bone or vessels of glass that are flat are clean. And those that form a receptacle are unclean. If they were broken they become clean again. If one remade them into vessels they are susceptible to uncleanness henceforth. Earthen vessels and vessels of alum-crystals are on a par in respect of uncleanness: they contract and convey uncleanness through their air-spaces, they contract uncleanness through their concave bottoms but not through their backs, and when broken they become clean.

The obsession with tahor and tamei, "pure" and "impure" (or, as my teacher Reb Judith Abrams prefers, "susceptible to ritual impurity" and "not susceptible to ritual impurity"), can be distancing for modern liberal Jews. My advice is, don't fixate on the details of how various kinds of vessels become tahor or tamei. It's the last line of that quote that interests me: "when broken they become clean."

Maimonides, a.k.a. the Rambam, expands that line a little bit:

It is said that breaking is purification (or: to be broken is to be purified.) So that earthen vessels that have become tamei cannot become tahor through immersion in a mikvah ... they are tamei until they're broken.  This is speaking in the language of Torah; everything that is in the vessel becomes impure, and you shall break it.

Talk of brokenness connects me -- another mental hyperlink! -- to a teaching about the broken tablets. Remember that Moshe brought a first set of tablets down from Sinai, but when he encountered the people dancing around the egel zahav, the Golden Calf, he shattered them. In the Talmud (Bava Basra 14a) we read that "The whole tablets and the broken tablets were both kept inside the Ark of the Covenant."

Why did the children of Israel save the shards of the broken tablets? Why not destroy them, or leave them behind in the desert? Surely no one there wanted to keep them as mementos of one of the community's strongest lapses of faith? But the tradition teaches us that the broken tablets were preserved as a sign that holiness persists even in our brokenness. Sometimes our brokenness, our mistakes, are what we have to offer to God...and that's worthy of preservation along with the aspects of us which are whole.

A further leap from that teaching is the teaching that we must treat our elders with love and respect, even those who have lost their awareness and can no longer teach their wisdom, because the broken tablets were cherished along with the whole. And, of course, there's the beautiful Hasidic teaching -- attributed to Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk -- that "there is nothing more whole than a broken heart."

All of this in turn reminds of the parable of the Chinese woman with the two pots of water -- how the broken pot was the one which actually yielded the path full of wildflowers. Blessings can arise through our brokenness -- and maybe when we acknowledge that we're always already a little bit broken, that's how we become spiritually tahor, attuned to the deep purity that's always within.

Shabbat shalom.

Credit where it's due: many of the teachings in this post were drawn from the course I took on middot last summer. For the parable of the woman with the two pots of water, I owe gratitude to Broken, a post at Shirat Devorah.

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This week's portion: vessel



And if any of those falls into an earthen vessel, everything inside it shall be unclean and [the vessel] itself you shall break. --Leviticus 11:33

The heart is an earthen vessel,
the body an urn: made from dust

and patched with slip,
divine fingerprints everywhere.

Clay is permeable. What you see,
what you touch changes you.

The small grey kitchen mouse
with its neck snapped, dry and grisly

or the body losing integrity, blood
welling someplace it shouldn’t

or the friend who lets you down,
the fierce hope that withers away:

each of these charges the heart
with uncanny energy, untouchable.

All you can do is break the clay
wide open, crack the very housing.

What hurts is what draws you
ever nearer to what we can’t reach.

This week's parsha, Shemini, begins with an account of Aaron and his sons making a sacrifice; then the painful story of Nadab and Abihu offering alien fire, and dying; then instructions on which animals the children of Israel are permitted to eat or to touch, and which are forbidden.

My poem arose out of the line that now serves as its epigram. The mention of breaking earthenware vessels reminded me of the Talmudic teaching that if an earthenware vessel becomes tamei (ritually impure), the way to make it tahor again is to break it and then glue it back together. The Hasidic tradition sees this as a metaphor for the human heart.

In my own experience, contact with death and sickness -- and with loss, which can feel like a kind of death -- can make the heart feel tamei. This poem offers my hope that through our brokenness we can draw nearer to our Source.

As usual, if you'd like to hear this poem aloud, you can click on the audio player embedded at the top of the post or download vessel.mp3.



Edited to add: this poem is now available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.

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Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach!

2020 Edited to add: you can always find the most up-to-date version of the VR Haggadah by going to and clicking through to the haggadah page.


Purim sameach! I hope everyone's having a marvelous Purim.

Last night was the full moon of Adar II. From here, the moon will wane...and wax...and before we know it, the full moon of Nissan will be upon us, which means Pesach! Which means it's time for me to joyously announce:


2020 Edited to add: you can always find the most up-to-date version of the VR Haggadah by going to and clicking through to the haggadah page.

Praise for the haggadah:

  • I made my first Passover tonight. I frantically searched the internet over the last couple of days to find an alternative haggadah which would speak to my heart and soul.  I found yours... Your words and vision made this Passover the most meaningful and enriching I've had so far. -- Robin, New York

  • I used your haggadah this year and wanted to let you know how meaningful it was. It struck the right chord of being feminist without excluding men. Rather it brought the importance of women into the ceremony in a lovely balanced way. -- Merlinda, Nova Scotia

  • I used your haggadah as my foundation for leading the second seder for my family... They told me afterwards it was the most meaningful seder they had ever attended -- actually they told me it was the FIRST meaningful seder they had ever attended. -- Rhonda, Massachusetts

  • Your haggadah may be THE best haggadah I have seen in a very long time.  It has all the social justice things in it that I want to be there, but it is not sententious, it is joyous in spirit, the illustrations are wonderful, ditto the poems. -- Alicia, New Jersey

It's been two years since I last released a new version of my haggadah, and I'm really happy with how the text has evolved. You'll still find great poetry here, and a creative and heartfelt set of responses to the holiday and its traditions; that's as true now as it was seven years ago when this haggadah first took form.

But this year you'll also find some new strengths. I've revamped the Hebrew text, which is both more complete and more readable (now, with vowels!) In addition to adding contemporary and creative readings and poems, I've also folded back in some of the traditional texts which were absent from former versions.(Though there still isn't a full traditional birkat ha-mazon in these pages; if you want one, I can point you to a good one online here.) One way or another I hope the haggadah enriches your Pesach.

My deepest thanks are due to everyone who helped midwife this year's version of the haggadah into being, most especially Natalie d'Arbeloff for this year's cover image and R' Megan Doherty for proofreading; any remaining errors are mine alone. Thanks, too, to the artists who donated artwork two years ago, whose work still graces these pages.

And thanks to all of you who've used the haggadah over the years and have sent me emails or comments to tell me what worked, what didn't, and what resonated most for you. I appreciate all of you more than you know.


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מאי המנתשן / Why hamantaschen?

Despite the lovely savory hamentaschen recipe posted recently at the Jew and the Carrot, I decided to go oldschool and to make good old-fashioned sweet hamentaschen to bring to my shul for our Purimspiel tonight. But Ethan asked me a fine question while I was baking: what's the story with hamentaschen?

As a kid I learned that Haman (boo!) wore a tricornered hat. These tricornered cookies are called "hamantaschen" which means "Haman's Hat" (actually Haman's Pocket, but close enough) and we eat them as a sign of our triumph over Haman. In adulthood it's become clear to me that this is an anachronism (among other things, tricornered hat? in ancient Shushan? really?) but it's still an entertaining drash, mostly because it allows me to picture Haman as a kind of arrogant little Napoleon.

D'var acher / another interpretation: "mohn" means poppyseeds, and (as this article notes) it was customary to eat poppyseeds and honey at Purim-time all the way back in ibn Ezra's day. These cookies were originally called mohn-taschen, "poppyseed pockets." And then someone noticed that ha-mohn and ha-man sound alike, and started associating poppyseed sweets with our story's villain. (According to this article, poppyseeds were the tradition in Central Europe; the custom of filling the cookies with plum or prune filling is Czech in origin.)

Continue reading "מאי המנתשן / Why hamantaschen?" »

Knocking from Inside, by Tiel Aisha Ansari

The city of crows

rises from the human city
like a tree above its shadow --
combs the air with spreading branches
full of raucous citizens...

Crows that worship on the wing; a comet that's "a snowball thrown by God;" stars that praise silence. These are part of Tiel Aisha Ansari's world, and through her poems, now they're part of mine, too.

Tiel -- who blogs at Knocking from inside, and is one of the co-creators of Totally optional prompts -- posts poems online often. But there's something powerful about holding a physical book in one's hands, even if some of the poems in it have appeared online. So when I saw that her collection of poems (which shares her blog's title) was in print, I dashed over to Lulu and picked up a copy. I'm glad I did.

The book was published by Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore and Ecstatic Exchage. "One of the formidable challenges for poets with a spiritual bent," he writes in the introduction, "and specifically Muslim/Sufi but also Christian and religious Jewish or any other Spiritual Path poets, is a naturalness and heartfeltness, an openness, and particularly a lack of over-piousness." Ameen, brother. He's right about how rare and difficult that balance is -- and he's right that Tiel pulls it off.

Some of these poems run wordy, like Marge Piercy's poems (which I love, and which I still sometimes itch to pare down!) But others in this collection knock me flat with wonder. Like her "Sestina, inspired by Rumi" -- six tight and tiny stanzas. "Burn every straw. / Leave your roof. / Truth is emptiness,/ the illusion is existence./ Fly from your window/ to the top of the mountain." Holy wow.

Or take "Dead-letter office," which begins,

I am sorry to tell you that your prayer has been judged insincere
and has been sent to the dead-letter office of prayers
where the angel whose job it is will sort and file it
and close the drawer on its thin helpless squeaking.

This is what I want "religious poetry" to be.

Toward the end of the collection there's a series of haiku that remind me of Rumi or Hafiz. And "Fasting" -- oh, remind me to post "Fasting" next Yom Kippur, because it's gorgeous.

And on a personal note, I love that Ecstatic Exchange published the book through Lulu. That's what we at Laupe House Press did with chaplainbook, and with Brilliant Coroners, which makes me feel like in some way our books are cousins. Maybe they are. And that makes me happy, too.

Buy Knocking From Inside here. Thanks, Tiel, for sharing your work with the world.

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This week's portion: Tzav, "command"


A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out. --Lev. 6:6

First you dress in linen
then scoop out the ashes.
Stop and wash with water,
then you change your garments

and scoop out the ashes.
Lather, rinse, repeat;
then you change your garments.
No one said it was easy.

Lather, rinse, repeat;
out here in the wilderness
no one said it was easy
to keep the fire burning.

Out here in the wilderness
there's little wood to scavenge
to keep the fire burning
all night until morning.

There's little wood to scavenge
and you want perpetual motion
all night until morning—
that's the ritual of the offering.

You want perpetual motion
but fires don't burn forever
and the ritual of the offering
is this lesson from the waters.

Fires don't burn forever
(except for that holy pillar)
so take a lesson from the waters
and the reeds you sludged across.

Remember that holy pillar
like a beacon in the darkness
and the reeds you sludged across
each shaky step toward freedom.

Like a beacon in the darkness
God's instructions on this are clear:
each shaky step toward freedom
keeps the fire burning.

God's instructions on this are clear.
Stop and wash with water.
Keep the fire burning.
First you dress in linen.


This poem is a pantoum, one of my favorite verse forms. Because it makes use of repetition, it seemed like a good match for this piece of Vayikra (Leviticus); the same repetition that's a little frustrating in prose feels fruitful and intriguing in poetry.

This week we're in parashat Tzav. When I reread the portion, 6:6 leapt out at me and became the epigram for the poem; the rest of the poem followed from there. Again, if you can see the embedded audio player at the top of the post you can listen to the poem; alternately you're welcome to download tzav.mp3.

I hope y'all are enjoying these Torah poems. They work for me on a different level than do prose divrei Torah; the process of writing them is showing me sides of these Torah portions I hadn't seen before.


Edited to add: this poem is now available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.



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I just spent an hour on the phone with Rodger Kamenetz, interviewing him for a forthcoming profile piece in Zeek.

Rodger Kamenetz, y'all. Whose book The Jew in the Lotus is arguably what set me on the path toward Jewish Renewal and toward my rabbinate. We talked about his new book, about dreams, about the power of the image and the power of the word, about poetry and mysticism and God.

This is one of those times when I really like my life.

(Also, stay tuned for the interview, which will hopefully run in the June issue of Zeek.)

Purim: redemption and the true king

In Hebrew school yesterday we unrolled a small scroll across the seminar table to show our b'nai mitzvah prep kids the megillat Esther. (No, not the JT Waldman rendition, though I've just taken my beloved copy off the shelf to re-read as I do every year at this season...) We noted a few interesting things about this particular megillah -- like, for instance, the fact that the first line ends with the word המלך / ha-melech (the king) and then in the next ten or so columns the first line begins with that same word, again and again. The king. The king. The king.

Clearly this text has something to say to us about the king. Who's the king? Obviously the king is Achashverosh, right? The first line of the text says so plainly! Of course, Achashverosh doesn't seem very bright. He's clearly ruled by his own sexuality (first the episode with Vashti, then the two times when he, er, raises his sceptre to Esther his new queen.) He can't make a single decision without an advisor there to tell him what to do. And toward the end of the story he admits that he can't annul a single one of his own decrees. Some king.

This story is filled with hints of another kind of power. The power that caused Esther to be placed in a position where she might save her people. The power to which the righteous Mordechai would bow (Haman demands the obeisance and is furious that he can't have it, but the text tells us simply that Mordechai "bows to no man.") The kind of power that would avert the severity of an evil decree and enact righteousness and compassion in its place. But that power, that form of kingship or sovereignty, is never mentioned. Purim is a festival when nothing is what it appears: Queen Esther is more than she claims to be, and the gallows on which Haman meant to hang Mordechai becomes his own undoing, and the true king in the story is never mentioned at all.

My rabbi gave over the following teaching: Pesach is the beginning of the festival cycle, the first holiday in the wheel of the year. (Yes, yes, the new year is in the fall, but the beginning of the holiday cycle is in the spring. The Jewish year has four starting points.) In the story of Pesach, the Jews are in jeopardy and we are redeemed by God, "with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. The vast miracles of that story (the plagues, the splitting of the sea) could only have come from God. Yes, there's a human agent involved -- Moshe -- but the traditional haggadah barely mentions him at all. In the story of the Exodus, God is the agent of change.

Move all the way around the wheel of the year, through Shavuot and the Days of Awe and Sukkot and Chanukah and Tu BiShvat, to Purim: the last festival in the year, the last stop before we begin again. In the story of Purim, the Jews are in jeopardy and we redeem ourselves: through the wisdom and faith of Mordechai, the fasting of Esther and the people, and then Esther's insight, and then the new decree she convinces the king to sign (which gives the Jews permission to defend themselves, turning their prospective day of destruction into a day of rejoicing.) Yes, God is involved -- but God is hidden, never mentioned by name. God may be the agent of change on a deep level, but the change is made manifest by our own hands.

We begin our festival year by relying on God to save us; we end our festival year by owning our own capacity to transform our world ourselves. And each year we recapitulate the journey from one to the other. In that sense, Purim is the ultimate celebration of human agency. Maybe that's why the sages of Jewish tradition suggested that in the World to Come, when creation is redeemed, all other festivals will fall away but Purim will remain: it's the quintessential messianic holiday, because it celebrates our ability to create a redeemed future with our own hands.

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This week's portion: korban



You'll need a smoker.
Get one from Home Depot
and tighten each screw and bolt
exactly as the directions teach.

Split birch logs, and maple
kindle knobs of charcoal
fan them with cardboard
layer the hardwoods to burn.

Place the bird with reverence
then close the lid. What rises
will perfume the neighborhood,
your clothes, your hair.

Two hours later it's blackened,
crisp and burnished, but
inside: so tender even
a butter knife cuts through...

What constitutes a drawing-near
two thousand years or so
after the last sacrifice, bull
or pigeon, went up in smoke?

It's not the roasting that matters,
that's just barbecue -- though
maybe it's a reminder
on some level too deep to name --

but anticipation, and gratitude.
So that what burns bright
on the altars of our hearts
sends a pleasing odor to Adonai.


This poem is my response to this week's Torah portion, Vayikra, the first portion in the book by the same name (in English, Leviticus.) This book is at the heart of the Torah, and Torah's chiastic structure suggests that Vayikra is the most important book. It's quite literally central.

And it's always been challenging for me. All of these details of animal sacrifice keep me at arm's-length! But the words we use are lenses, and some of these Hebrew terms speak to me in a way the English terms don't. The English word "sacrifice" suggests giving something up; the Hebrew word korban connotes something like "drawing-near." Vayikra shows us how we once drew near to God. When I see it that way, something in me opens.

Some blog aggregators will display the embedded audio player at the top of this post. If yours doesn't, and you'd like to hear this poem aloud, you can download korban.mp3.


Edited to add: this poem is now available (in revised form) in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.


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World enough, and time

Back when I was in college, Ethan and I used to wake up well before dawn twice a year to drive to Boonton, New Jersey for shiai. Shiai was a combination family reunion, master class, and day-long boot camp. It was the biannual gathering of the extended clan of the dojo where we used to train, hosted by the man we called Shihan, the sensei of our sensei. Every year we piled into our cars and drove the few hours there to gather with the rest of the community for fellowship and learning.

Shiai was also where belt tests happened. Well, really belt tests in our school happened slowly over time; by the time sensei told us we were up for a new rank, he already knew we were ready. But the belt test was designed to make sure we knew it, too -- an opportunity to feel ourselves grow into the new role we were about to be asked to assume. Shiai was a challenge on all sorts of levels: the drive in the early-morning dark, the long day of workouts and sparring, looking inwards for reserves of physical and emotional strength we'd never quite tapped before.

I was thinking of that this morning when I woke well before dawn to drive to New Jersey. Though instead of my old white gi, my uniform today was my basic black suit, and my responsibility today was only to be present and to mourn a member of my extended mishpacha. As I drove down I thought, too, about the trip I made to New Jersey last spring to welcome two babies into religious community and into the world. That trip and today's trip feel like mirror images. Sanctifying and celebrating moments of transition, life beginning and life coming to its end.

During the funeral today, the rabbi mentioned that his favorite way to translate the word neshama (usually rendered "soul") is "spark." The sparks of God in each of us don't come into existence ex nihilo when we're born, and they don't disappear when we die. The man we buried this afternoon (may his memory be a blessing) is no longer among the living, but his neshama endures.

I wasn't able to call in to my tele-davenen group this morning, but I davened shacharit at 8am along with them from afar. I saw sunrise on the road; I saw sunset on the road, too, and davened a quick ma'ariv at the wheel as the late rays painted the hilltops purple. As I sang, I felt the voices of my ALEPH chevre in my ears and in my heart. I pictured their faces, their voices, their laughter; their presence enlivened my prayer, even though we're apart. For that matter, it's more than ten years since Ethan and I left our dojo, but those relationships and that learning still reverberate in me too.

The sparks of our souls endure, and so do the connections between them. The naming of those twin boys last year is still a bright explosion of connections and love, radiating outward and inward. The funeral I attended this afternoon is, too, in its way. So are those shiai gatherings I used to attend, which resonate in me even though I'm not going twice a year any more. So are the retreats that make up DLTI, even though I'm finished with that program now too.

The Hebrew word olam connotes both "world" and "forever." Space, and chronology. "World enough, and time." It seems to me that the connections between us endure l'olam va'ed, "forever and ever," throughout spacetime, just as God does. Maybe because God is in those connections, in the places where our neshamot meet.


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A tele-davenen poem


We're fumbling for melody
when a faraway voice rings out.
Though it's five A.M.
in Reb Daniel's time zone
for an instant I imagine
he's teaching us the tune.

Afterwards the emails fly
like chickadees to the feeder:
who played the mp3?
No one owns up. He's our ghost
in the machine, spirit
crackling through the wires.

We build this mishkan
by showing up week after week
through static and silence,
offering old prayers
through new cellphones, Skype
oscillating like the sea.

Like our ancestors before us,
each of us brings
the half-shekel of a soul
in need of repair.
They match like broken lockets
made whole, finally restored.

We joke, in my telephone shacharit group, that someday we ALEPHniks are going to write the halakha of phone davenen. We take classes over the phone, we hold hevruta sessions over the phone, and now we even daven over the phone: we're experts in telepresence! One of the traditional names for God is "ha-Makom," the Place; I feel increasingly that when we meet in this placeless way, God is the Place in Whom we connect.

This post at readwritepoem inspired me to try embedding my first sound file. Edited to add: Alas, the audio player at the top of this post doesn't seem to appear in my blog aggregator, so if you want to hear me read the poem, you'll either need to visit the post page itself, or  download visitation.mp3.

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The centrality of questioning

In my online Talmud class this week we're studying a text from Pesachim 116a about the Four Questions: who asks them, and what do they mean? It's been incredibly fun, in part because these questions are among the most familiar texts in my own personal lexicon. I've been reciting these words since before I knew how to read Hebrew; my mother typed a transliteration on an index card and paperclipped it to my haggadah when I was, oh, maybe four? So for once I don't have to struggle with the Aramaic,  but can just dive in to the meaning and the implications of the text.

We began by looking at a piece of the Kaufmann Codex, one of the earliest mansucripts of the mishna:

The thing is, the questions in the mishna are not exactly the ones I know. There are only three, not four; one of the questions I'm used to isn't there, and one of the questions that's there isn't what I'm used to! The mishna tells us that right after the second cup of wine is filled, the son asks his father. (The question is unspecified, but it seems safe to presume it's something like "what's going on here?") If the son isn't smart enough to ask, then the father teaches him, beginning with the question "how is this night different from all other nights?" And then the father offers three answers, each of which is in turn expounded-upon. But the question comes first. It's the act of questioning that's foundational. (That said...want to know what the answers are and why they're interesting to me?)

Continue reading "The centrality of questioning" »

This week's portion: only connect

Parashat Pekudei, the last in the book of Shemot (Exodus), offers a recap of the building of the mishkan, the portable tabernacle that the Israelites carried in the wilderness. It also offers some beautiful teachings about connection.

Creating the mishkan and its trappings required hokhmah, wisdom or vision. And the mishkan is meant to be a dwelling place for Shekhinah, the divine Presence here in the world. In the Hasidic understanding, hokhmah is the highest aspect of God toward which we can aspire, and Shekhinah (also known as malkhut) is the most approachable and immanent aspect of divinity. They are the top and the bottom of the tree of sefirot. We need to reach up toward our highest wisdom, the most transcendent part of ourselves, in order to roll up our sleeves and build a place where holiness can dwell right here in the world.

Holiness isn't an either/or proposition, either too distant to imagine or fully arising out of familiar earthy reality. It's always both/and. In building the mishkan, our ancestors were challenged to embody that tension: to reach toward transcendent hokhmah in order to build a structure infused with the immanent presence of Shekhinah. Heights and depths. Far away and right here in our hearts. And while altars and sacrifice and tabernacles may feel wildly distant to modern (postmodern?) folks like us, we face that same challenge of connecting what's above and what's within.

The text mentions a few times that each person gave a half-shekel (in Hebrew, a beka) toward the construction. What can we learn from the repetition of half-shekels? Why not whole shekels? One beautiful interpretation of the half-shekels comes to us from everybody's favorite hermeneutic wordgame, gematria. The gematria of shekel/שקל is 430 (ש=300 ק=100 ל=30). The gematria of nefesh/נפש, which means soul, is also 430 (300=נ=50 פ=80 ש).

If a shekel is in some way related to a soul, that teaches us that our philanthropic giving should be a deep act, motivated by who we truly are. That makes sense, right? But here the text stresses that the giving was in halves. God wants half-shekels -- which is to say, half-souls. God wants souls that are in I-Thou relationship, with each other and with God. Our ancestors gave in halves so that it would take two people to create each whole donation.

The deep message here is about relationship. Building the mishkan was an intense undertaking which involved the whole community. But this detail of the half-shekels invites us to see smaller units of connection within the communal whole. Even when we all come together to collaborate on our shared work, it's also important that we relate to each other one-on-one. And even when we strive to connect with our most transcendent wisdom, it's also important that we root that wisdom in the embodied world. When we make those connections -- between transcendent and immanent; between my half-shekel and yours -- we build a place where God can dwell.

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