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August 2008
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October 2008

On posting the wrong week's Torah poem

This morning I realized I hadn't yet posted my Torah poem for this week. (Indeed: I hadn't even written it.) I usually like to spend the whole week working on my Torah poem, but this week other work got in the way of that practice. Life's like that sometimes. Nu, fine, I figured I'd write a poem this morning and post it brand-new. I've written to deadline before. No big deal.

I went to the site (which is where I usually grab an online link to the Torah portion of the week) and Hebcal told me that the week of September 5 we're reading the portion called Ki Tavo. Which is...fine, except that last week I wrote a poem for parashat Re'eh. So if this week is Ki Tavo, I missed two Torah portions somehow.

That was completely disorienting for me. I was so sure I'd posted a Torah poem every week this summer, even when I was in transit from here to Jerusalem and back; did I really miss two consecutive weeks of Torah portions? I kept looking at my calendar and at my poems in bafflement. I felt like I'd somehow come unstuck in time. How on earth did I miss two weeks of Torah?!

And then I shrugged, wrote a poem for Ki Tavo, and posted it.

Not until Rich posted a comment asking, "hey, aren't we reading Shoftim this week?" did I think to look more closely at my trusted Hebcal which point I realized that the page is already showing readings for 5769. It is true that Ki Tavo will be the reading for September 5 -- in 2009. But this year, on this date, we're in parashat Shoftim. I didn't somehow miss two weeks' worth of Torah portions over the last few weeks; I just didn't look closely enough at the Hebcal site to realize that they'd jumped the gun and were already offering next year's Torah reading dates!

Mea culpa, gang. poem I just posted will be seasonally-appropriate in two weeks! And I'll do my best to get a Shoftim poem online soon. Whoops.

This week's portion: blessed


Blessed shall you be in the garden
and blessed shall you be in the kitchen.

Blessed shall be your canning jars
and your gleaming pantry.

Blessed shall be your nursery
with diaper pail and rocking chair.

Blessed shall be your address book
overflowing with names.

Blessed shall you be on the elliptical
and blessed shall you be on the rail trail.

Blessed shall you be in your learning
and blessed shall you be in your teaching.

Blessed shall be the work of your hands
and blessed shall be the work of your heart.

This week's portion, Ki Tavo, contains a string of curses and a string of blessings. Much has been made of the ratio of curses to blessings, and of the content and context of the curses and the blessings. Unsurprisingly, I gravitate toward the blessings, both theologically and poetically.

This week's Torah poem riffs on the notion of blessings. I took the form of the blessings in this week's Torah portion and extended it to new arenas: not just basket and kneading bowl but also pantry and nursery. "Coming and going" implies both ends of a journey, the setting-forth and the returning-home; "learning and teaching" does, too. I wanted to include blessings in all four worlds: the physical realm, the emotional realm, the intellectual realm, and the realm of essence.

I winnowed my couplets to seven, one for each day of the week. (It's also a gentle nod to the sonnet form, though I decided I liked the shape of repeating couplets better than four quatrains plus a couplet.) But if you have other blessings to add, I'd love to see them.

As usual, if you can't see the audio player at the top of this post or if you'd like to save the recording of this poem, you can download blessed.mp3.

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Beginning my fall semester with the Qur'an

Masbaha, a Muslim rosary used for reciting the 99 names of God.

This morning I woke up bright and early and excited, because it's the first day of the fall semester! Okay, that's a complicated statement, actually. One of my summer classes won't end until next week, and then I'll have a final project on my plate. Three of my fall classes won't begin until after the Days of Awe, for which I am grateful because I have a high holiday pulpit to prepare for. (I'll post more about my whole fall slate soon, I promise.) But one of my classes began today, and I'm incredibly jazzed about it. I'm taking a class in the Qur'an!

I read the Qur'an a few years ago. (I managed to make a single post about it; I'd hoped that would be part 1 of a series, but never managed to write the rest of the series.) I found the book fascinating but also fairly opaque. I could tell that I was missing a lot because I wasn't reading the book in context. So when I saw that Professor Bill Darrow was teaching a class on the Qur'an at Williams this fall, I emailed him from Jerusalem and asked whether I could sit in. He graciously agreed.

Bill was one of my professors when I was a religion major at Williams fifteen years ago, so it's a treat to be in his classroom again. We began today with metadiscussion about how the class is structured and how we'll proceed. We'll be reading the Qur'an respectfully but not devotionally (a tension with which I'm intimately familiar, as someone who reads Tanakh in both of these ways.) We'll be approaching the text as literature, and as a literary work there are several things that make the Qur'an unique. For one, the authorial voice is understood to be God's; Muhammad (peace be upon him) didn't write the Qur'an, but rather received it as revelation. We learned a little bit about the idea of the book, the idea of writing, and what it means to consider the Qur'an as literature when the text presents itself as utterly other than literature (specifically as other than poetry, which was a central pleasure in that place and time.)

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Sermon conversations

Have you ever seen one of those films where something slow is sped up so you can watch it unfold: a bud opens into a blossom, a butterfly emerges from its cocoon? Standing before you now I can imagine the next 24 hours in this sanctuary in just that way: people coming and going, the energy in the room rising and falling. How the room will fill, and empty, and fill again...

One of the final assignments in the pastoral counseling intensive class I've been taking since February is to write a sermon which comes out of one of the subjects we've studied in the class. I wrote a sermon for the eve of Yom Kippur which centers around memory and death and transformation. The lines at the top of this post are the way that sermon begins.

Last night in class, I was the first to deliver my sermon to the group. It was a fascinating experience. Giving a sermon over the phone to a conference call is weirdly unlike giving a sermon in person. Though I've grown very comfortable with the conference call format when it comes to general class discussion, I found it not-very-comfortable for this purpose. I couldn't see anyone's face. I didn't have body language or visual cues to rely on, so I couldn't tell whether people were with me or not. I was surprised by how much harder that made it for me.

After I gave my sermon, everyone in the class took a few moments to tell me what had struck or moved them, and also what didn't quite reach them or what they might have wanted more of. I did my best to reflect what they'd said back to them, showing that I'd heard and received what they were trying to say. And then in more general terms we talked about the anatomy of a sermon. A sermon is basically group spiritual direction! It's a pastoral spiritual encounter; it's meant to give people an opportunity to connect with God.

It's not a chance for the sermon-giver to dazzle people with her rhetoric or knowledge. Or at least it shouldn't be. A good sermon should tell people what they need to hear, whether or not they know they need to hear it. It takes people on one step of a spiritual journey. Not usually more than one; if you try to take people on a multi-step journey, you risk the possibility that they'll be so moved by the first step that they make it that far and then stay there, unable to follow you the rest of the way.

In giving the sermon, I realized things I hadn't consciously known. For instance, the final idea in this draft is actually a major theme, maybe the major theme. And the opening image -- reprised at the top of this post -- works on more levels than I'd realized. I began with it as a way into talking about how the dynamics of the room will change over the course of Yom Kippur, and how empty the room often is during the Yizkor (memorial) service, and how I hope people will stick around for Yizkor even if they're not directly mourning. But as my classmates responded to the sermon, it became clear that they found deep resonance in the image of the flower unfolding. It's a metaphor for personal transformation, which is the work of Yom Kippur, and also the work of spiritual life writ large.

I hadn't realized I was drawing on such a deep well when I wrote those opening lines. I was just looking for a good metaphor to lead me into the sermon. But the metaphor turns out to work on more levels than I knew.

That's one of the things I love about writing, especially writing for an audience. When writing becomes communication, I learn both from writing the piece and then from carrying it into the world and seeing what comes up in response. Blogging is like that, too, though blog posts aren't meant to be delivered aloud the way sermons (and, for that matter, poems) are. Still, the writing and the conversation feel like parts of the same whole.

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New moon of Ramadan and Elul

I dreamed last night that I was in the Hebrew school classroom at my synagogue, sitting with three students at the table where a pair of tall candles burned in crystal candlesticks. "Does anyone know why these are lit?" I asked. They hazarded a few theories, though none were correct. I explained that the candles were there because it was Rosh Hodesh -- the beginning of a new lunar month -- and that this meant we were beginning the month of Elul, the month leading up to the Days of Awe.

I've never heard of burning a candle all day on Rosh Hodesh; I think my brain made that one up. But that it's a new lunar month is true even in the waking world. This year, the month of Elul overlaps with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. (Ramadan mubarak to my Muslim friends and readers!) Both of our communities will spend the waxing and waning of this moon praying and doing our best to align ourselves with (our understanding of) God and to make sure our lives are headed in the right direction.

The name "Elul" can be read as an acrostic for the phrase ani l'dodi v'dodi li, "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine." (That's from Song of Songs. The line works simultaneously as a description of love between people, and also as an assertion of relationship with God, the cosmic Beloved.) Elul is a month for wandering in the fields with our Beloved, as the lovers do in the Song of Songs. Maybe that means a literal wandering outdoors, after the practice of Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, who made a habit of walking outside and talking aloud with God. Maybe it's an internal process of prayer and meditation. Maybe it's both.

Rosh Hodesh Elul fell during my first week at Elat Chayyim, back in 2002, and I was struck by how our practices shifted once we acknowledged the turning of the new moon. Suddenly at every opportunity people were singing a folk-music setting of two lines from psalm 27 (the psalm traditionally recited at this time of year.) We began wrapping up morning prayer in the red yurt with the sound of the shofar, meant to awaken the soul from slumber. The teachers began offering teachings about teshuvah, "repentance" or more literally "return:" the process of re/turning ourselves, reorienting ourselves so that we're facing in the right direction again. It gave me a sense for how attentiveness to the Jewish calendar can shape daily life, if one is open to it.

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