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Day 9 of the Omer: gevurah within gevurah

Image by Pauline Frankenberg, from her series of 49 images for Counting the Omer.

Today is the second day of the second week of the counting of the Omer. According to the kabbalistic framework many of us use to give added meaning to the process, today is gevurah she'b'gevurah -- the day of boundary & discipline within the week of boundary & discipline.

The connotations of gevurah include strength, bravery, limitation, boundary, judgment. Last week was the week of chesed, overflowing lovingkindness. Gevurah is a kind of corrective to that overflowing. It's the sefirah of boundary.

During this morning's tele-davenen, I told a story that's part of the traditional morning service, but which isn't typically a part of our practice: the story of the akedah, the binding of Isaac.

Abraham is associated with the sefirah of chesed, the overflowing love and light that the tradition tells us was the first impulse of creation. Isaac is associated with gevurah, strength and boundary. The akedah is, I think, the perfect illustration of Isaac's gevurah.

You probably know the story. How God called to Abraham, and Abraham said, "hineini," here I am. How God instructed Abraham to take his son, his only one, whom he loved, up to the place where God would show him. How Abraham and Isaac and two servants went forth, and after three days Abraham saw the mountain, and he told the servants to stay put. He tied the wood to Isaac, and carried the fire and knife in his own hand.

And they went up the mountain, and Isaac asked about the lamb for the sacrifice, and Abraham said that God would see to the lamb. And then on top of the mountain Abraham bound Isaac to the altar. This is the quintessence of gevurah, boundary and discipline: Isaac allowed himself to be bound.

And Abraham raised the knife and an angel called out, "Abraham! Abraham!" And Abraham said, again, hineini. And the angel said, don't stretch out your hand against the boy. Look up and see what's right in front of you. And Abraham looked up and saw the ram caught in the thicket, and he sacrificed the ram instead of his son. And he named the mountain Adonai Yir'eh: God Will See. 

When Isaac asks about the lamb for the sacrifice, Abraham says "God will see to the lamb, my son." Same word, yir'eh. So maybe this story is about trusting that God will see to what's needed, that God will provide. And maybe this story is about learning to see the solutions that are right in front of us. And maybe this story is about submitting ourselves to the boundaries we inhabit, trusting that even if things seem constraining, expansive possibility will appear when we need it most.

Today is the day of strength within strength, boundary squared. 

May the part of us that is broken in gevurah she'b'gevurah be healed today.


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readwritepoem: Brachot 35a


Mishna: "what blessings are said
over fruits," etc.
What do we learn? That we bless
both before and after. On this basis
Rabbi Akiva teaches it's assur
to taste anything
without making a bracha.

The first kushiya objects:
surely this teaches
God has declared "Redeem it and eat."
Shmuel bar Nachmani adds,
what requires a song of praise
requires redemption,
but what does not does not.

In Vayikra we read "yielding a
rich increase," and in Devarim we read
"the increase of the vineyard."
Gezerah shava: the repeated word
hyperlinks the two verses.
This makes the case for blessing after, but
how do we learn to bless before?

Kal v'chomer: if the Torah
requires a blessing after the meal
when full, how much more so
when one is hungry! Indeed
to enjoy without blessing
is stealing from God,
since "the earth is God's in its fullness."

D'var acher, "The heavens are God's
but the earth God has given to men!"
The definitive teirutz:
before we bless, food belongs to God.
After we bless, it belongs to us --
so long as afterward, bellies full,
we pause to make zimun.

It's been a while since I've participated at readwritepoem; writing these weekly Torah poems has kept me busy! But last week I jumped the gun with my poem about parashat Kedoshim. (I'm so used to the flow of one Torah portion into the next that I forgot that last week featured special Torah readings for the festival of Pesach, a pause in the weekly lectionary.) Anyway, having already written and posted a poem for this week's portion, I've got some space for other poetry this week.

The current prompt at readwritepoem is jargon. I figured, what could be more jargon-y than Talmud? The "14 Sugyot Every Jew Should Know" online course at the Conservative Yeshiva just ended, but my two hevrutot (study partners) and I decided that we wanted to spend more time with some of the texts, so we're still studying the course material. This week it was my job to reprise a teaching from Brachot 35a. Since I was already steeping in it, it became the material for this poem.

The first draft of the poem outlined the arguments on page 35a of masechet Brachot (Tractate: Blessings) in detail. It was a decent articulation of the Talmud text but a clunky poem, so I started paring down. This draft is much shorter, but preserves some of the thicket of textual references and the back-and-forth of the dialogue, so I hope it still captures the feel of Talmud learning. And for kicks, I recorded it in gemara nigun, the traditional melody of Talmud learning. (If you can't see the audio player at the top of this post, you can download brachot.mp3.)

Read all of the contributions to the "jargon" theme in the comments to this post at readwritepoem.

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Beginning to wrestle

During the first few years of this blog's existence, I didn't write about Israel. Because I wanted to quietly challenge the assumption that a Judaism-focused blog must necessarily be Israel-focused. Because I figured the last thing the internet needs is another person pontificating about a place she barely knows. Because most online discourse about Israel and Palestine is hotheaded and partisan. Because time and energy and passion are limited resources, and it often seems that so much of these go to Israel that little is left for other aspects of Jewish identity and experience.

All of those reasons still hold. And yet I'm beginning to grapple with what it will mean to shift this unofficial blog policy (and, more importantly, to shift the internal focus behind it) because this summer I'm going to spend seven weeks in Jerusalem, studying in the Conservative Yeshiva Summer Program.

The primary reason for the trip is to burnish my language skills. I'll spend mornings in ulpan, beating my head against verb conjugations and vocabulary, because I need greater Hebrew fluency than I have now; I'll take a variety of classes in the afternoons, to round out my learning in other directions. But beyond these academic purposes, I hope the trip will give me a chance to begin getting to know the place and its inhabitants. Israel feels to me like a distant cousin: I know we're related, but we don't exactly have a relationship. I don't delude myself that seven weeks is enough time to really get to know any country, but it's a start.

In 1998 I went to Israel for ten days with my mother and two dozen other San Antonio Jews. Much was wonderful about that trip, not least the chance to spend ten days traveling with my mom. Much was also frustrating (especially the sense that our experience was constructed in a way that was designed to push our emotional buttons.) I came home from that trip, wrote several poems, and -- feeling unsettled by the strength of my mixed emotions -- put Israel in a mental box labeled "I'll deal with this later." 2008 marks a decade since my first trip, and it's clear to me that I need to reopen that box.

Continue reading "Beginning to wrestle" »

Kol b'seder in the J-blogosphere (now that Jeff Klepper's here)

Jeff Klepper helped to spark the "nusach American" folk-music liturgical tradition that shaped my Reform upbringing. In the early 1970s he and his buddy Dan Freelander, both URJ youth group leaders (at the time), teamed up to form a duo called Kol B'Seder ("Everything's Okay.") They're the source of some of my favorite tunes: melodies for "Modeh Ani" and for "Lo Alecha Hamlacha Ligmor" (you can listen to snippets of each here), not to mention this Shalom Rav and this Oseh Shalom (which Jeff wrote in Israel in '82.)

(Both of those YouTube links feature chorale and orchestra, which show off the harmonies beautifully but are a bit showier than what I'm used to. For contrast, here's Jeff singing "Shalom Rav" solo, with guitar. Some of you may remember the post I made about erev Shabbat at the URJ Biennial in 2005; Jeff was one of the song-leaders who led the postprandial song session that made me so happy.)

Jeff is a cantor (ordained by HUC-JIR in 1980) and one of the real luminaries of the Reform movement. He's also a total mensch. So it gives me joy to be able to announce that he's got a new website, complete with blog!

He's only been blogging for a couple of weeks, but he's already posted some gems, like Echad Mi Yode'a from Syra in Judeo-Arabic (featuring stories and an mp3 of the song in question), Uno Chi Sa?...When In Rome (more stories and mp3s, this time a Roman version of the same counting song) and Music & Mishkan T’filah (Jeff was one of three cantors on the editorial committee for the new Reform siddur, and he has intriguing things to say about the process of putting it together.)

If you're interested in liturgical music, and/or in one the musings of one of the smartest and kindest people I know in the Reform movement, Jeff's blog is worth checking out. Pop over and wish him moadim l'simcha and a hearty welcome to the blogosphere.

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Blessed are You, Eternal our God, sovereign of all worlds, who releases the bound.

An object at rest tends to stay at rest, and it takes all of my willpower just to overcome my yetzer ha-ra and climb out of bed this morning. I make it to North Street, where it takes another act of will to drag myself out of the car and across the street and into the yoga studio.

The instructor invites us to close our eyes, to be aware of what it's like to inhabit this body right now, and realization washes over me: being present is the only thing that's called for. Whatever practice I'm capable of is exactly the practice I need to do today. The hard part is overcoming the voice that says I won't be able to do it so I might as well not try. The part of me that hangs back at the edge of the sea, afraid to take the first step.

Source of Mercy! With loving strength, untie my tangles.

I'm tense and knotted, God. It's force of habit. I'm braced against my own mistakes. And I'm a woman in America in the twenty-first century, which means I've spent a lifetime internalizing messages about what kind of body I should have. Those messages turn my psyche into macramé. It's so easy to feel like I'm too this and not enough that and next thing I know my body is a straitjacket. Help me lower my shoulders, God. Help me open my heart.

From the straits I called to You; You answered me with expansiveness.

From the physical straits of tension and tightness. From the emotional straits of anxiety and uncertainty. From the intellectual straits of habitual thinking. From everything in me that's been coiled and yearns now to expand.

You answer me with liberation. With openings. What was cosy in the fall is starting to feel too snug; what have I outgrown? The change in light is calling me to relinquish these too-tight places and begin to unfurl. I don't know what's been germinating, what the remnants of last year have nourished in me, but You're calling me to find out.

Today is the fourth day of the Omer: netzach within chesed, endurance within lovingkindness. A day to explore the light and love, openness and generosity, that endure.

"Who releases the bound" is one of the fifteen morning blessings said daily.

"Untie my tangles" is from Ana b'Koach, part of the morning liturgy; also recited after Counting the Omer.

"From the straits" is a line from Psalm 118, part of Hallel, recited daily during Pesach.

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This week's portion: Gevurah (Kedoshim)



You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; you shall not put on cloth from a mixture of two kinds of material. --Leviticus 19:19

The mystics saw the patriarchs     as a dialectic:
Abraham overflowing     his tent always open
boundaried Isaac     (motionless on the altar)
Jacob the harmony     that makes the chord.

Once upon a time    our flocks must have mingled
our fields a patchwork     of millet and barley
linen and wool together     combed, woven, and spun.
But mixing two kinds     is God's job, not ours

our God distinguishes day      from night, rolling away
light before darkness     and darkness before light
our God separates holy    from profane, the six days
from the taste of heaven    one seed from another

or maybe we're the ones     fixated on difference
wild with the pleasure     of ordering chaos
organizing the ruminants     the sheep from the goats
Angus from Holsteins     crisp linen from silk.

But strictness too     can be destructive.
Overfocused beams    burn what's in their path.
When will we receive     the Torah of interpenetration
new Morse code boundaries     that let holiness through?

This week we're in parashat Kedoshim. (ETA: actually, this Shabbat we're reading a special parsha for Pesach. Next week we'll be in Kedoshim. I jumped the gun with this poem. Whoops.)

There's a ton of interesting and thought-provoking material in Kedoshim, including some powerful ethical precepts: leave the margins of one's field unharvested (for gleaners), don't taunt the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind, don't hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Love the strangers who dwell among you, for you were strangers in the land of Mitzrayim.

But this week's poem was sparked by chapter 19, verse 19, an injunction against mixing breeds of cattle or plants in a field or fibers in a fabric. Counting the Omer means I have the sefirot on my mind, and I began this poem on the second day of the Omer, a day of gevurah (discipline/boundary) within chesed (lovingkindness.) This verse of this portion strikes me as pure gevurah -- it's all about boundary and distinction. Keeping this apart from that.

I think a case can be made that this kind of unassailable boundary is no longer helpful to us. For many of us, the semipermeable membrane has become a central metaphor. How does that change our Torah, our worldview, our lives?

If you can't see the audio player embedded in this post, or if you'd like a recording of this poem, you can download it here: gevurah.mp3.

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The first day of the Omer

Image by Pauline Frankenberg, from her series of 49 images for Counting the Omer.

I love counting the Omer, taking note of each day between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation. I love the kabbalistic framework which associates each of the seven weeks, and each of the days within each week, with one of the sefirot, manifestations or aspects of God.

Each evening one is meant to make the bracha for counting and then count the new day that's beginning. If one forgets a single day, one can pick up counting again, but can't make the blessing; the blessing inheres in the experience of daily mindfulness, in not dropping the thread.

I've found it surprisingly difficult to remain aware of the counting all the way through seven weeks. If you'd like help remembering to count this year, there's a great Omer resources page at, including a widget (for download or to place on a webpage; it's in the sidebar of this blog now) to remind one to count.

There are other lovely resources on that page, including recordings of different tunes for Ana b'Koach. I first encountered the prayer as part of Jewish Renewal Friday night liturgy; it's also recited during shacharit (weekday morning prayer.) Turns out it's also traditionally recited after making the blessing for counting the Omer. The prayer has seven lines, one for each day of the week and/or for each week of the Omer journey. (You can learn more about it here.)

So: today is the first day of the Omer. The first week is associated with the quality of chesed, lovingkindness; the first day of each week is associated with that same quality, so today is a day of chesed squared.

Chesed is associated with the patriarch Abraham, legendary for his hospitality (his tent was open to all comers), with the light of the first day of creation, and with boundless, flowing love. Counting the Omer calls us to embody our Abrahamic qualities today, to open our tents and our hearts, to let ourselves overflow.

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A tale of two seders

"You're surprisingly mellow for someone who's hosting a seder for thirteen people tonight," my sister said. She'd come bearing matzah and macaroons from Clear Flour Bakery, and two kinds of haroset (the Ashkenazic recipe we grew up on, plus a Persian version which we all loved), and side dishes in an insulated carrier. She and her family set the dining-room table while I hard-boiled eggs and whisked matzah balls together (and spent a while nattering with Scott, a reporter from the local paper, toward this lovely article; thanks, Scott!)

It made me happy to greet the seder objects I hadn't seen in a year. The sturdy ceramic seder plate and matching Elijah's cup which my aunt gave me when I got married. The cup I use for Miriam, a china kiddush cup given to me when I became bat mitzvah. (It was customary in our community for boys to receive kiddush cups, and girls to receive candlesticks; in hindsight, the delicate china cup painted with flowers seems like a radical gift.) Everything we placed on the table had a story to tell.

The seder was sweet. Our table was full. Everyone sang the Four Questions together; we took turns reading stanzas of R' Lynn Gottlieb's poem about cleaning out hametz; my seven-year-old nephew led us in a few verses of Dayenu. Over dinner we talked about baseball and science and travel. We sang the beginning of the traditional Birkat Hamazon and I remembered, again, that my sister and I know the same harmonies and syncopations. During Hallel we read some traditional psalms, and some decidedly non-traditional -- Hopkins, ee cummings. At the end of the seder we raced through "Had Gadya" at lightning speed.

On Sunday we set the breakfast table with our everyday pottery, and filled it with friends. Early in the seder, my friend Daniel asked why our bracha over wine featured the term ruach ha-olam ("breath of all life") instead of the more familiar melech ha-olam ("King of the universe"), and Ethan joked that he'd made my night. He kind of had, actually. I derive such pleasure from explaining the valances of different God-language, and why I like to use multiple metaphors for God (Who is beyond all language anyway.)

There are parts of the haggadah which we read on both nights, of course, either because they're central to the experience or because someone wanted to read/sing them or because I just love them. But there were a lot of readings we did on night 2 which we hadn't done on night 1 -- poems by Jay Michaelson and Martín Espada, a few classical texts with creative interpretations, and so on. The counting of the Omer, that first tentative step toward Shavuot.

Our second seder wound up both more serious, and goofier, than our first had been. I offered an impromptu explanation for the ladybug crawling on our seder plate ("it represents the Israelites who, when their bondage became too heavy, 'flew away home.'") We established that The Ballad of the Four Sons (written by Ben Aronin in 1948) can be sung to any 4/4 tune (not only "Clementine" but also "The Yellow Rose of Texas," "Ode to Joy," the Gilligan's Island theme....) When it came time for the egg course, in a nod to my San Antonio heritage (Fiesta began this weekend), we cracked cascarones on each others' heads.


I am so grateful to be able to fill two seder tables with family both given and chosen, and to be able to celebrate this festival of freedom with so many people I love.


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The three-legged stool of the Jewish year rests on the shalosh regalim, the three great festivals which were once occasions for pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Reb Arthur Waskow teaches that they map to stages in an individual life. The festival of Pesach is a kind of birth; Shavuot, which the mystics understood as the date of our marriage with God (the Torah being our ketubah), represents adulthood; and Sukkot, the harvest festival, celebrates fruition before we wind down into the snow-covered stillness of a life's winter. And then we come around to Pesach again.

Pesach is the festival of new creation; Shavuot, the festival of revelation; Sukkot, the festival of redemption. (Franz Rosensweig mapped this same trio onto the blessings surrounding the Shema: yotzer or points to the light of creation, ahavat olam speaks of God's love manifest in revelation, and the geu'lah blessing describes our redemption from slavery as a reminder of the ultimate redemption toward which we strive.) Each year we move from birth to maturity to completion, and after each fallow winter we find ourselves born again.

And Pesach is step one, a new beginning. Pesach is Chag ha-Aviv, the Festival of Spring. It's the season of lambing, first flowers, new green. A season of birth and increasing light.

Birth is a leitmotif in the Pesach story. Pharaoh orders the Israelite firstborns killed -- and then midwives Shifra and Puah defy him, the first act of resistance that midwifes the new narrative into being. The ten plagues can be seen as contractions, preparing us to leave Egypt's initially comfortable but now constricting womb. Together we pass from the constriction of Mitzrayim through the birth canal of the Sea of Reeds and into the wide expansiveness of freedom. We're starting over, all of us together.

In the Temple of old, fifteen steps led up to the altar where we brought korbanot, sacrifices which drew-us-near to the Holy Blessed One. The seder we celebrate now unfolds through fifteen steps, a chance to make intangible offerings on the altar of our hearts. On this festival of spring, what are you bringing to draw you near? Having come through the Sea of Reeds, what songs will you sing?


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This week's portion: leaving Mitzrayim

The folks at the Torah Queeries project at Jewish Mosaic asked me to write a d'var Torah for this week's portion, Acharei Mot.

This is a notoriously difficult parsha to read in a queer-friendly way, so I approached it with some trepidation. The path in which I finally found has to do with where the portion falls on our festival calendar. The "holiness code" is prefaced by a reminder not to copy the practices of Mitzrayim where we dwelt, and we read it this week on the cusp of our annual recreation of our departure from Mitzrayim in its many forms.

What intrigues me this year is the framing device, that mention of Mitzrayim. Especially because we're reading this Torah portion on the cusp of the transition into Pesach. At our seders we celebrate our liberation from slavery. We are each called to see ourselves as if we ourselves had been liberated from Mitzrayim: not our ancestors, not some mythic predecessors, but us, you and me, right here and right now. Mitzrayim has many forms. Maybe we're enslaved to the Pharaoh of overwork. Maybe we're enslaved to the Pharaoh of unreal expectations. Maybe we labor at pretending we're someone we're not. Maybe we're hiding something about who we really are, afraid to be "out" in all of our complexities.

Read the whole thing here: Returning to Mitzrayim.

I'm not sure whether I'll have the chance to post again before the holiday; Shabbat is almost upon us, and Pesach will follow right on its heels. So I'll take this chance to offer one last link to the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach (if you use it, please drop me a line or a comment and let me know your thoughts!), and to wish all of you a sweet, uplifting, and meaningful Passover. May we all find ourselves able to take steps toward liberation.

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Three questions (three answers)

Who are you? (I am Yisrael.)

Where are you coming from? (I am coming from Mitzrayim.)

Where are you going? (I am going to Yerushalayim.)

Who are you?

I'm Yisrael. I'm a God-wrestler. I'm someone who wrestles with the holy, with the Source of All Being, with my understanding of ultimate reality, and I expect God to wrestle back. I dance with God. I waltz with Torah. I stay up all night grappling with angels, and even if I come away limping, I know I come away blessed. I'm a wandering Aramean, and I'm wearing my traveling shoes. I'm a child of the house of Israel, and my community and I -- and anyone else who hears freedom's call -- are walking into the wilderness together.

Where are you coming from?

I'm coming from Mitzrayim. From the narrow place. From slavery. From constriction. From the birth canal. I'm coming from hard labor. I'm coming from the surfeit of sweetness that lulls me into forgetting the world's imperfections. I've been settling for what hurts, too fearful to risk something new. I'm coming from suffering and isolation. I'm coming from addiction to my work, addiction to success, addiction to separation. I'm coming from "if I stopped working, I'm not even sure who I'd be."

Where are you going?

I'm going to Yerushalayim. I'm going to Ir Shalem, the city of wholeness. I'm going to Ir Shalom, the city of peace. I'm going where talking to God is a local call. I'm heading toward my best imaginings of community and connection. I'm clicking my ruby slippers with fervent kavanah and moving toward the meaning of home. Maybe I'm going to a place; maybe I'm going to a state of mind. Maybe it's an asymptotic progression toward something that can't be reached. Maybe it's the journey that defines me.

Run that by me again?

I am Yisrael. I am coming from Mitzrayim. And the moon is almost full: tomorrow night, as soon as Shabbat is over, we're packing our bags. Grabbing the flatbread. And setting out. It's time to go.

There's a Sefardic custom -- Iraqi or Afghani, by most accounts -- of asking these three questions at the start of the seder: either to one participant who's shouldered a pack and is orbiting the table, or each person to the person sitting beside them.

The first time I experienced this was at seder at Elat Chayyim some years ago. They're set questions with set answers, but I heard them as existential questions, and they've reverberated in me ever since.

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Rabbi Rami on addiction and liberation

Jewish spiritual growth is, in fact, a misnomer: there is no growth, if by growth we mean becoming something other than we are. There is only a growing awareness of who we already are. I am the likeness of God, I am holy; I am and you are and Life is. It is as if we had a mirror and dropped it in the mud. The mirror is still intact but it no longer reflects the world around it. We don't have to redesign the mirror, all we need to do is remove the mud.

That's from  Rabbi Rami Shapiro's This is the Path: Twelve Step Programs in a Jewish Context, assigned reading for last night's Pastoral Counseling Intensive class. The book -- a scant 67 pages -- had my attention from the interior flyleaf page, which says simply "To all who risk the first step / and dare the next."

The passage about the mirror puts me in mind of a teaching about teshuvah which I like very much (and which I referenced in my Rosh Hashanah sermon several years ago): that the soul is like a pane of glass, and teshuvah -- turning-toward-God -- is a process of cleaning that glass so that we and God can fully shine through it. But I hadn't thought about the extent to which that notion would be consonant with the twelve steps.

What plagues us on a deeper level is not alcohol or narcotics, but a general sense of dis-ease, a spiritual malaise arising from our addiction to the mud of alienation and separateness that blinds us to the Divine Unity linking man, woman, nature and God. For the purposes of this essay, our addiction will be not to one substance or another, but to the illusion of separation that haunts our every waking moment.

Unconscious addiction to the illusion of separation: an uncomfortable idea, so probably worth paying attention to. I don't think Rabbi Rami is denying the reality of other addictions -- drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, work -- but rather making a kind of meta-point: that beneath and beyond any of those, there's a human tendency to become dependent on our familiar illusions of separation. And while we might all say we prefer connection to alienation, actually relinquishing the illusion of separation is hard work.

The idea that behind physical addictions lies a spiritual malaise reminds me of the teaching (which I've heard both from Reb Zalman and from Reb Arthur) about learning to discern our needs within a four worlds framework. Hunger in the world of assiyah (physicality) can be assuaged by eating. But if my hunger is for emotional connection (in the world of yetzirah) or intellectual satisfaction (briyah) or spiritual nourishment (atzilut), no meal can fill that need. Likewise if our hunger is for connection with each other and with God.

Toward the end of this small book, Rabbi Rami offers a teaching I find particularly poignant on the cusp of Pesach:

Freedom is choiceless awareness. When we awaken to Reality, when we see What Is Happening Now, we see what needs to be done. What needs to be done is never in opposition to Reality; it grows out of it. In this sense it is choiceless...

When we do awaken, when we do see, when we do surrender the "I," we discover that we are what is happening now, we are the environment, and that doing what must be done is the true act of freedom and liberation, growing as it does out of Reality rather than illusion. When we see clearly and know what it is to be done, we are beyond choice. Yes, we can willfully refrain from acting, but only if we shut our eyes to Reality. The only choice we have is between seeing and not seeing. And once we have seen, we cannot but do.

It's always possible to keep blinders on. To pretend that one doesn't see the reality which demands movement, risk, and change. To remain in Mitzrayim, the narrow place of constriction. To choose the familiar constraints of slavery over the uncomfortable open spaces of liberation.

But Pesach is almost upon us, calling us to take a leap into the unknown. The story of Pesach is a story about seeing the need for change, and en-acting that vision. What constrictions am I allowing to bind me, what outdated patterns are holding me in thrall? What would it take for me to have the courage to break free?

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This week's portion: Naked (Acharei Mot)



The high priest's garb was whitest linen
and separation was what made him holy.
He needed to be clean to make the offering,
to step into the shrine behind the curtain.
There was risk in excess and in being naked
and daily he walked the line between death and life.

He must have prepared to do it his whole life.
He knew how to gird himself with linen,
so he wouldn't even accidentally be naked;
how to sluice himself with water and become holy,
stay safe even when he dared to broach the curtain.
What mattered was how he made the people's offering --

a bleating goat, a bull. The point of offering
was the atavistic way a single life
could substitute. Inside that holy curtain
it was his only job to dress in linen
and make expiation, calling on all that's holy.
One Hebrew word for "shrewd" also means "naked"

(like the snake who rendered Adam and Chava naked...)
Is that why we circumscribe touch and vision, offering
this thicket of instructions for becoming holy?
How Noah's sons transgressed: exposing his life
instead of shrouding it respectfully in linen.
The terror of realizing that behind the curtain

is always just ourselves. What could curtain
the shock of waking to that dream of being naked?
I can't blame my ancestors for preferring the linen
weave of regulations, familiar ways of offering
contrition for iniquity and gratitude for life.
A nation of priests, we're commanded to be holy

now as we were then, so what is holy?
What if I choose to draw aside the curtain,
if I aim to dwell in God's tent every day of my life?
Am I allowed to stand here even if I'm naked
bearing my heart, the melodies I bring as offerings,
the weave of my tallit, the rush of linen?

In linen or in leather I believe we're holy.
Bring yourself as offering. Part the gauzy curtain.
Trust yourself to be naked. Emerge into life.

This week's Torah poem takes one of my favorite forms: a sestina. (I've posted a few of these before: Sestina using six words Blogpulse chose for me, Rabbinic school sestina.) When I was a student at Bennington there was a sustained love affair with the sestina (I credit/blame my dear advisor David Lehman) -- at one residency, I heard, there were spontaneous readings of sestinas in the laundry room! Anyway, I like them a lot, and when I set out to write a poem arising out of this week's portion the form came naturally to mind.

This week we're in parashat Acharei Mot. Acharei mot means "after the death," and refers to the death of Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu who brought strange fire before God and were incinerated instantly. (We read about that a few weeks ago.) At the start of this week's Torah portion, God instructs Moses on what to tell Aaron after the death of his sons, and how to offer sacrifices in a way that's officially-sanctioned and safe. This portion also contains the "holiness code," which contains a lot of material about sexual ethics and behavior -- including that infamous verse about lying with a man as one lies with a woman.

This year I had the honor of writing a d'var Torah about this portion for the Torah Queeries project at Jewish Mosaic. (That should go live on Friday.) It was a terrific experience not only because it prompted me to wrestle with the portion anew but also because making philosophical and exegetical points in prose meant I felt free to let the sestina highlight the portion in a different way.

As usual, if you can't see the audio player at the top of the post or if you'd like to download the recording, you can do so here: naked.mp3

Edited to add: this poem is now available in print as part of 70 faces (Phoenicia Publishing, 2011).


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Pre-Pesach miscellany; unlit candle for Tibet

Home again, home again! Italy was grand; short and sweet. We squeezed a lot of vacation out of just a few days (fairly impressive, given that Ethan was also working.) Anyway, I'm home now -- a little bit jet-lagged, but very happy to have gone. And now very happy, if a little bit overwhelmed, that Pesach is coming up so soon!

Thanks to all who've sent feedback on the new version (2008 / 5768 / version 6.0) of The Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach. (By the way, the file will always be available in the "ceremony archive" section of my website, and from here on out the latest edition will always have the filename VRHaggadah.pdf.)

A couple of quick housekeeping/troubleshooting notes: one person has reported trouble in downloading the file, and another has reported that while it downloaded just fine it's refusing to print. If anyone here has experienced similar problems, please let me know -- and if anyone here has suggestions for solving them, please drop a comment?

One of the emails in my inbox when I came home was about An Unlit Candle: Solidarity with Tibet at Passover:

During this season of freedom, the people of Tibet are groaning — and the world hears their cries.

Since 1950, the Chinese military has brutally occupied Tibet. Hundreds of thousands have died. Thousands have been jailed, tortured, raped. Countless monasteries have been destroyed.

And now, as the Chinese Olympic torch is met with protests around the globe, we call on you to join the effort to shed light on Tibet's suffering by extinguishing a torch of your own.

We call on all Jews to include an unlit candle on their Seder Tables this year. The candle symbolizes both the Olympic torch, whose light has been dimmed, and the unmet hopes of a people still living without freedom.

At the website you can learn more about the project, and/or about the people behind it. (I also recommend Rodger Kamenetz's recent Forward article Cry Out for the fate of the Tibetan People; for a fascinating set of perspectives on the political situation in/around Tibet, I recommend the coverage at Global Voices Online [Tibet].)

Jewish tradition grows by accretion, and that may be nowhere more visible than in our haggadot for Pesach. Many of us have adopted the practices of Miriam's Cup, and the orange or olive on the seder plate; now we're invited to add an unlit candle to our festival tables, too. At Pesach we celebrate liberation from Mitzrayim, the "narrow place" of slavery and constriction; what better time to become conscious of how others still struggle for freedom?

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Assisi and its blessings

One of the strongest memories I retain from my first trip to Italy, many years ago, is of the church bells endlessly ringing in the mountain town of of Assisi, onetime home of St. Francis.

From that first visit, I felt an affinity with Assisi. I liked its twisty little walkways and alleys, the way everything is built from native pink and white stone, its long views of the Umbrian countryside, its abundance of churches. But some of the things I loved in high school don't quite have the same charm for me now, and I was vaguely nervous when Ethan and I decided to take a day trip there on Friday. Would it still be as pretty as I remembered, and as spiritual? Or would it feel overly-touristed, choked with a plethora of vendors selling Prayer of St. Francis t-shirts, coffee cups, and decorative plaques?

Short answer: the place is still pretty remarkable. Yes, the streets are filled with tourists, though they're also filled with people who are identifiable as religious. Every few minutes one sees monks in their brown robes and simple sandals (sometimes carrying backpacks or wearing polarfleece or talking on their cellphones), nuns in their habits.

The Basilica of St. Francis moved me in ways I hadn't anticipated. Both the lower and the upper basilicas are covered in frescoes -- rich paintings depicting stories from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and from the life of St. Francis -- but they're not otherwise ornamented with precious metals or statuary, which gives them a surprisingly humble feeling for enormous, soaring houses of worship. And the atmosphere at St. Francis' tomb, which lies beneath the two basilicas, felt genuinely prayerful to me. (We sat for a time in quiet contemplation there, along with other pilgrims, listening to sacred music.) Maybe those explain why I still feel like Assisi swept me off my feet.

Or maybe it's because of the bird guy.

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Buongiorno from Perugia!

No sooner did say all those nice things about my blog than I vanished from the face of the internet! Well, okay, it's not that dire; I've managed a few posts this week. But I'm mostly offline at the moment. As Ethan posted, we're traveling in Italy for a few days. (He's speaking at a conference; I'm along for the ride.)

Although the ALEPH rabbinic program is effectively low-residency, which in theory means I can attend my classes anywhere with reliable Skype service, I don't often take advantage of the opportunity to travel. But I'm really glad to be here now. Perugia is a beautiful city, and we're staying in the heart of the old part of town, all twisting alleys and terracotta roofs.

I hunted online for a synagogue here; I thought attending Shabbat services in Italian would be a fascinating experience. (Plus I'd get a great blog post out of it!) This Synagogues Without Jews site tells me that there's a tiny one-room shul in a Perugia apartment, which is apparently open during the Days of Awe, but I wasn't able to locate weekly davenen anywhere. Alas. I'll just have to make wandering the streets my form of prayer this Shabbat.

And I look forward to returning to normal blogging rhythms when I'm home again. Until then, Shabbat shalom to all; see you on the flipside!

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This week's portion: on your house (Metzora)


If the plague again breaks out in the house, after the stones have been pulled out and after the house has been scraped and replastered, the priest shall come to examine: if the plague has spread in the house, it is a malignant eruption in the house; it is unclean. (Leviticus 14:43-44)

I think of houses
after Katrina, walls marred
when the waters receded.

Spores reddish or green
erupting like an epidemic
in old soft stucco.

The X marking doors
where bodies were found
empty-eyed and bloated

like the startling slash
of blood on lintels
where death spared us.

But houses can suppurate
beneath the seen surface.
Bruises don't always show.

Notice the subtle signs.
Empty out the dwelling:
rot threatens the timbers.

Resist temptation to plaster.
Cast out the stones
and pull down walls.

Save what you can
and torch the rest
outside the city line.

This poem took me places I didn't expect to go! This week we're in parashat Metzora, which includes verses about how to cleanse a leper, how to use blood in a purification ritual for one who seeks atonement, how to deal with a plague breaking out in someone's (physical) house, and the tum'ah of bodily discharge. Not the elevated stuff most of us associate with poetry (though I imagine Sharon Olds could create something great with it; she's never been afraid of blood or physicality.)

The poem's opening image came to me first. I haven't been to New Orleans since I was a kid, but I've witnessed minor floods in south Texas. I remember taking Ethan to visit my parents in McQueeney one Thanksgiving after a flood, and how sobering we found the piles of debris outside every home. The parts of the Gulf Coast devastated by the hurricane came out tamei, in a certain way: charged and changed by their encounter with the mighty forces of destruction and death.

Of course, a house can become "impure" in more ways than one. "A plague o' both your houses" didn't generally mean "may your walls be infested with killer mold" in Shakespeare's day any more than it does in ours. Our households become impure in all kinds of ways when we mistreat one another within them.

As usual, you can listen to me reading the poem via the embedded audio player at the top of the post, or by downloading the mp3.

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The limitations of personal experience

When I was a student chaplain at Albany Medical Center I used to case the neonatal intensive care unit every time I was on call. I felt a connection with that ward because I was a NICU baby myself. My birth weight (three pounds, one ounce) halved by the time the ambulance got me from one hospital to another, and I spent weeks in an incubator overcoming hyaline membrane disease. Walking the halls of the neonatal intensive care unit at AMC, I used to make every step a prayer for the tiny babies in their little glass houses, that they might flourish as I have been blessed to do. I thought maybe my story made me a more effective chaplain there. Offered parents hope.

But I have no memory of those six weeks behind glass. Whereas I have plenty of memories of my recent strokes and their aftermath. So when I'm called to minister to someone who has suffered a stroke, it's a poignant and surreal experience for me in a whole new way.

Do my strokes make me a better chaplain? I'm certain that having been sick -- having faced, however imperfectly, my body's failings and my own mortality -- makes me a more empathetic listener. Telling about my experience, in a tiny nutshell, might offer comfort either to the patient or to the patient's family. I know what it's like to be on the inside of that experience, in a way most chaplains don't. In those ways maybe my experience does help me offer care.

But there's also the danger that I might overlay my own experiences atop the experiences of the person now suffering, which would make me not a very good caregiver at all. I know what it was like for me to open my mouth and not be able to make words come out the way I intended. I know what it was like for me to lose vision in one eye, to enter my first MRI machine, to wonder whether there was something seriously wrong with my body which we might or might not ever uncover. But I don't know what it's like for her. I don't know what it's like to be in her body, to experience it with the stretch of her experiences and memories. I have empathy, and I have sympathy, but I still can't presume I actually know what she's going through.

One can never presume one understands what someone else is going through. Even if the experiences have the same name, they're not the same. When I lay tefillin, that experience is necessarily different than I imagine it is for men who have the same practice. My experience surely differs from that of other women who take on the practice, too. If you were to wrap the leather retzuot around your arm, what would it evoke for you? How would you feel? Can you really express it in words? How much more true that is for embodied experiences like illness. So I'm a stroke survivor: that doesn't mean I truly know what it's like for someone else to suffer.

All I can do, in the end, is all I can do visiting anyone: be present to the reality of what's in front of me. Honor what I can understand of her story. Manifest the ear of the Holy Blessed One, Who listens in and through me. Admit that I can offer this sage's opinion or that sage's pithy quotation, but in the end, I can't answer the question of why we suffer, either. Offer the prayers of my heart, that she know a complete and speedy healing, a renewal of body and a renewal of spirit, now and swiftly. And, if she'll let me, take a long moment to clasp her hand.


Technorati tags: , , , , .'s top 25 blogs has just put out's First Annual Blog Index -- "from millions of blogs about nothing, we've selected the 25 best about something." These are big names, folks; Metafilter, Post Secret, Boing Boing and more.

Their top 25 list also includes -- to my great pleasure! -- this blog you're reading right now. (Their writeup quotes one of my recent poems, and has some very nice things to say. Color me delighted.)

Check out the list, which is quite terrific. And if you're so inclined, you can rate each blog on a 1-10 scale to let Time (and the blogosphere) know whether you like it or not. Thanks for the kind words, Time!

If you've found your way here via the Blog Index, welcome to Velveteen Rabbi. The "Greatest Hits" category in my sidebar shows off a few of my favorite posts. (Offhand I'd recommend Being visible, Thirteen ways of looking at Yom Kippur, and Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach.) Or if it's the poetry that piques your fancy, the poetry category is probably the way to go. Oh, hell, I like everything here; click on some links and enjoy yourself.

One way or another, feel free to drop a comment if you'd like to say hello; I hope you'll stick around.


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The historicity of revelation

I've really been enjoying my Biblical History & Civ class this semester. That's a testament to Reb Leila, who is a top-notch instructor. She's very organized, she lectures well, and she's structured the class in such a way that most weeks we're doing the teaching, which is a great way to ensure that we're internalizing the material. My familiarity with Biblical history and early Israelite civilization was pretty limited before this, so I've been devouring this material pretty avidly.

We've spent a lot of time lately with Bernhard Anderson's Understanding the Old Testament, John Bright's A History of Israel, and Yehezkel Kaufmann's The Religion of Israel. These are solid scholars and their books are valuable to have on my bookshelf (both literally and metaphorically), though what's especially fascinating is the extent to which they disagree. That's intentional, of course. We're learning as much about the meta-story of how our history has been understood (by Jews and by non-Jews, over the course of time) as we are about the history itself.

But none of these writers lend themselves to pithy blog posts. They're a little on the dense side. (I contemplated trying to turn my in-class presentation on the United Monarchy into a blog post, but concluded that it just wasn't likely to appeal.)

But this past week we read an article that struck me as bloggable -- and even germane to the time of year we're entering. It's an article by Dr. Edward L. Greenstein called Understanding the Sinai Revelation, which takes a fascinating approach to questions about the historicity of Sinai (which strike me as parallel in many ways to questions about the historicity of the Exodus; suddenly this material feels appropriate for the period leading up to Pesach, and even more for the period between Pesach and Shavuot.)

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