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This week's portion: sandals


"Then the Lord opened the ass's mouth, and she said to Balaam, 'What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?" (Numbers 22:28)

If God gave voice
to my worn Birkenstocks

they would cry out
"what did we ever do to you

that you chose to traverse
these dusty sidewalks

and stand in meltwater
from the ice shavings

packed around fish
you can't even name?"

I might not hear them
above the clatter of wheels

and the honking of horns
the rise and fall of voices

negotiating pita and cucumbers,
parsley and eggplants

and the man who repeats
ice-coffee, chamesh shekalim

until my mouth feels so dry
I reach in my pocket

and buy myself a blessing
for the road.

This week's portion, Balak, contains the fabulous tale of how king Balak hired Balaam to come and curse the Israelites for him. Of course, Balaam protests that he can only say what God tells him to say -- and in the end, his "curse" is a blessing. Early in the story,  Balaam's donkey balks in the road because he sees an angry angel blocking the way. When Balaam whacks the donkey with a stick, the ass talks back. (Yes, folks, we have talking donkeys in our sacred text.Torah is wild and wonderful.)

(A digression: last summer during DLTI week three, a bunch of us were assigned the task of chanting, as ensembles, Torah passages which contain multiple voices. As though Torah were a script, complete with stage directions. We performed them for the rest of our chevre, and this passage was absolutely the hit of the show. I don't think I will ever read this parsha again without thinking of the donkey hee-hawing in trop, an angel who sounded like Louis Armstrong, Balaam channeling a creepy voice form the beyond, or Balak in sunglasses with cellphone attached to his ear!)

Anyway. When I thought of God giving voice to my usual form of conveyance -- well, if I were back home I would probably have written a poem about my blue RAV-4 suddenly developing the ability to speak. But since here I go everywhere on foot, the poem naturally became about my sandals. I had just made my first trip to Machane Yehuda market when I sat down to work on the poem (more about the market soon, I hope), so that's where the poem took me.

I haven't had the time to get the necessary library installed on my machine, so: still no audio recording this week. Slicha (sorry!) Maybe soon...


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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A day with ICAHD

I spent Friday on a tour run by the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions (ICAHD). It was overwhelming, intense, and saddening. I'm glad I went.

About ten of us were on the tour, which began at a community center called Daila on Shlomotzion HaMalkah street. Our guide was a woman named Sarah, whose Russian father came to Israel in the 70s and whose mother is a seventh-generation Jerusalemite whose family left in '49.

After a brief presentation aimed at giving us common context, Sarah took us through East Jerusalem to see Jebel Muqaber and Abu Dis, the settlement blocks Nof Tzion (under construction) and Ma'ale Zeitim, a demolished home, the separation barrier in Abu Dis, and the settlement of Ma'ale Adumim.

This is a long blog post for me -- about 4000 words. I want to tell you some of the things I learned, and I also want to write about what it felt like for me as an American Jew and a future rabbi to encounter all of this not as ideas or concepts but as physical places around me. Please read with an open mind and open heart.

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Coming home: a Jewish Renewal erev Shabbat

A lot of people told me that as soon as I set foot in Israel, I would feel like I'd come home. That wasn't my experience with arriving in the country writ large, but it's how I felt when I stepped into Nava Tehila, the monthly Friday night Jewish Renewal service led by Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan.

One reason I felt at-home was that I ran into almost everyone I know in Jerusalem there. Friends from ALEPH, acquaintances from Ohalah, folks I met last Shabbat morning at the Leader Minyan, folks I've met at school, someone I met at the initial briefing session for the Encounter program last week, even someone I knew from the PANIM transdenominational rabbinic student retreat last year. What an amazing intersection of my various Jewish lives!

Beyond that, I feel at home wherever the music is really good, and the music at Nava Tehilah was great. An excellent drummer, two guitarists, a violinist, three song-leaders, and about 200 people singing with intention and heart. That's pretty much exactly my idea of a good time.

But maybe the deepest reason I felt at home was how the minyan dovetails with my ecumenical sensibilities. I first read about Reb Ruth's minyan in a Jerusalem Post article, Keeping the Faiths, which begins, "A rabbi, a monk, and a Sufi walk into a minyan. It sounds like the set-up to a bad joke circulating by email. But it's a reality every month at Nava Tehilla, Jerusalem's first - and only - 'multi-faith' Jewish renewal gathering." (It's a good article, worth reading.)

To be clear: the service is entirely a Jewish service. The davenen (and extra-liturgical conversation) is in Hebrew (with English translations of the teachings so no one feels left out.) But the doors are intentionally open to members of other faith traditions. I mentioned that there was a violinist? He was a monk in brown and white robes (a member of a French Catholic order called the Beatitudes.) I saw a few of his fellows there, and a nun, and an Indian couple in traditional dress, and someone I could swear is Ghanaian (Ga, if I had to guess, though he vanished after the service before I had a chance to go say hello and see if my Ghana-dar was working right.)

After our opening chant, Reb Ruth offered words of welcome, and reminded us that we are all participants here, welcome to sit or stand, daven full-text or join in the extended chanting of brief pearls from the psalms, meditate in silence or dance with abandon... as long as whatever we choose to do, we do wholly. She treated each psalm during kabbalat Shabbat as a gate into the service, and before each offered a brief teaching from this week's Torah portion (in Hebrew and then in English) which was sealed and sweetened by the singing.

During "Lecha Dodi," when our singing and dancing and bouncing reached a fever pitch, a new bride and groom came into the middle of the circle, and we sang to the Shekhinah manifest in the literal bride as well as to the Sabbath Bride. And then we sang the last verse and my heart cracked right open, and I covered my face and wept. From that moment on, I felt luminous.

Looking around the room at this joyful immersion in kabbalat Shabbat and maariv services, I thought, this is what Isaiah meant when he voiced God as saying, "My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples." In that basement room at Kol Haneshamah, where two hundred people of various faith traditions gathered to welcome Shabbat together, I think that statement came true.

Afterwards most of us walked (beneath the darkening sky and the most amazing sliver of new moon) to Ruth and Michael's (beautiful) home for a potluck supper which began with blessings and schmoozing, and continued after dinner with song and a kind of Torah-teaching open-mike. Meanwhile, other people helped put out and clear up the potluck supper while Ruth and Michael circulated -- which reminded me of our New Year's gathering, actually, the sense that this is a community of friends which feels ownership of the regular gathering so that the hosts don't have to run things.

I didn't stay long -- only until about 10:30 -- because it's been an awfully long first week of class for me, and my Friday was particularly emotionally challenging. (Rewarding in proportion to its difficulty, but difficult nonetheless. More about that soon.) But I'm so grateful to have found my way to this monthly Renewal minyan -- and, in a bigger-picture sense, to have found my way to Jewish Renewal, a home I can carry with me wherever I go.

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Missed Encounter

Here's a thing I hadn't mentioned to y'all yet: I was supposed to spend tomorrow and Friday (the Fourth of July, American independence day) in the West Bank, on a Bethlehem Encounter Tour for Rabbinical Students and Jewish Educators. On Monday night the participants gathered at Yakar for a pre-trip briefing session. We had a great evening; I felt sparkly and extra-awake the whole time we were together. Last night I dreamed that I was already on the bus with them to Bethlehem, and I woke today excited, wishing the day of the trip were already here.

But because someone drove a bulldozer into a bus today, smashing several cars and killing three people, the trip has been canceled.

My first sorrow is for the families of those who were killed today. Baruch dayan emet. May the Source of Peace bring peace to all who mourn and comfort to all who are bereaved. But on a personal level, I'm sad and frustrated because this trip was one of the things I most wanted to do while I'm in Israel this summer. (The next trip will be in the fall, when I'm already back home again.)

Encounter is an amazing organization. On Monday night the tour participants studied Encounter's values statement together. Their values include Shema/Listening, Kavod/Dignity, Hokhma/Wisdom, Rachamim/Compassion, Petichat Lev/Openness, B'khol naf'shka/Holism, and Elu v/elu/Multiple voices. Reading about these values, I felt like I was reading an articulation of my own deepest heart. Now I'm feeling loss because I'm missing the chance to spend time with others for whom those are core ideals. And I'm missing the chance to meet people whose experiences and perspectives are likely to be deeply foreign to me, and perhaps to build small personal bridges across a profound political and religious gap.

Our itinerary included a visit to the Hope Flowers School in El-Khader, a bus tour of the Bethlehem area and Separation Barrier, a political presentation designed to be an overview of current issues in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and field visits to meet with folks at Shir'aa: The Laborers Association for Studies and Development and the Al-Rowwad Cultural and Theater Training Center. We were also going to pray three times a day (I was slated to lead ma'ariv tomorrow night), and most of us were going to spend tomorrow night as guests in Palestinian homes. (I meant to bring maple syrup as a hospitality gift, as Ethan often does when he travels; since I left it on our kitchen counter in Lanesboro, I bought a fancy tin of chocolates here instead, which sits forlorn in my pantry now.)

As cool as the formal meetings and presentations sounded, what I was really excited about was spending time with people: both the other rabbinic students and Jewish educators who would have been on the trip, and the Palestinians who were prepared to meet with us and and to share their experiences.The Encounter communication agreement urges us to "listen with resilience, 'hanging in' when we hear something that is hard to hear." That's a really compelling idea for me, and I wanted the chance to enact it in Bethlehem.

There are things I anticipated would be hard about the trip. Hearing perspectives and stories that would be painful for me. Encountering difficult realities. (Like reading Joe Sacco's graphic novel Palestine, which I reviewed some years ago, only -- well, real and 3-D and alive.) There are also things I anticipated would be sweet: really meeting people panim el panim (face-to-face). Hearing Palestinians tell their own stories. Seeing where our common ground might be. And then today happened, and then the trip disappeared -- just like that.

Of course, my disappointment at missing this opportunity for learning and dialogue pales laughably in comparison with the real tragedies of this awful cycle. Injury and death and loss; border closings which result in people being unable to reach their jobs or fields, or get to a hospital in time. These things happen here all the time. In a way, this experience of being thwarted by the realities of mistrust and violence is a piece of what I came all this way to encounter. I'm just sorry my encounter is with a death toll and a canceled adventure, instead of with human beings from whom I could have learned, and with whom I could have shared coffee and conversation.

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This week's portion: red heifer


Could Moshe have imagined
the Red Heifer Steakhouse
off King George Street
in Jerusalem? He never crossed

the Jordan, a Diaspora Jew
to the last of his days, but
maybe God granted him
a vision or three

of the Temple to come, limestone
gleaming in the evening light.
The heifer was a koan
in hide and bone. The men

who offered her up, who moved
the ashes outside the camp
were unclean until evening, but
the ash could cleanse.

Do the diners at the Red Heifer
contemplate death's mysterious power
to linger on our clothes
and in our hearts

or do they just want a steak
and maybe a beer
and to watch the Euro Cup
at the end of a long day?

This week's portion, Chukat, begins with instructions for sacrificing a red heifer and using its ashes -- which were tamei, "impure" -- to make the water of lustration, which made one tahor, "pure." 

Once again I think I've written a poem that's shaped by where I am in the world. On my first walk down to Ben Yehuda street, I saw a sign for a Red Heifer steakhouse, which I thought was hilarious. (Maybe you have to be a Bible geek? I laughed out loud.) That moment was this poem's genesis.

Sometimes I feel like I'm looking at Jerusalem through a bicolored set of glasses. Through one lens, this is a city filled with all the mundania of modern life: cars, cellphones, restaurants, fashion. Through another, it's a Biblical place, considered the axis mundi in Jewish tradition (and significant in Christianity and Islam too.)  There's some cognitive dissonance in that. Instead of trying to resolve it, I'm doing my best to revel in it.

I'll say this: Chukat never made me giggle until I saw that steakhouse sign. I doubt I'll visit the Red Heifer, but I'm glad it's there.

No recording of the poem yet this week either, but stay tuned; I hope to be able to offer audio of last week's and this week's poem soon. (And if anyone else wants to record them in the meantime, feel free; just drop a link here so we can listen!)

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Poetic sustenance

Toward the end of the second morning of ulpan, we read a shir (poem or song) by Naomi Shemer called "כַּד הַקֶּמַח / Cad hakemach," which means "the jar of meal" or "the jar of sustenance." (If you read Hebrew, here's a link to כַּד הַקֶּמַח in the original.)

First Michal prompted us to remember the story from I Kings chapter 17, wherein there is a famine in the land and Elijah the Prophet shows up in the home of a woman who has no bread, only a little flour and oil, and her son has died. He tells her that her jar of sustenance won't become empty, nor will the dish of oil run short, until rain comes to replenish the face of the earth. And he brings her son back to life. That's the story. Then we looked at the shir.

It's in pretty simple Hebrew. Michal read it for us once, and then went through it slowly, translating the words we didn't know. "Wadi." "Dish." "Shortage." Poetic terms for "finish" and "rain." And then we read it and translated it. Here is my clumsy rendering:

The jar of sustenance

I was reading in the book of Kings
in chapter seventeen.
I read about the man of God
who said:

"The jar of meal will never be finished
nor the dish of oil run short
until the rains come
on the face of the earth."

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