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Ready or not (Radical Torah reprint)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's Torah portion in 2007 for the now-defunct Radical Torah.

This week we're in parashat Bo. Here we read about the tenth plague, and about the Israelites' departure from Egypt. Intriguingly, just before the climactic moment, there's a fairly lengthy digression from narrative, in which Moses exhorts the Israelites to observe the annual commemoration of the exodus which hasn't quite yet taken place.

And thus you are to eat it: your hips girded, your sandals on your feet, your sticks in your hand; you are to eat it in trepidation -- it is a Passover-Meal to YHWH.

(That's Everett Fox's rendering.) The Passover meal is to be eaten, the text tells us, in haste and even with a little bit of awe. We are on the cusp of a journey. Excitement and trepidation are appropriate, because we don't know where we're going, or what our travels may bring.

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ALEPH Kallah 2009

The ALEPH Kallah is the Jewish Renewal biennial, a gathering which happens every two years. The Kallah moves around the country, so that each time it happens it's convenient to a different subsection of our community (two years ago it was in New Mexico; this year it's at Ohio Wesleyan University, from June 29-July 5) and it's an amazing opportunity to learn, pray, and spend quality time with many of the wonderful people who make up the transdenominational Jewish Renewal world.

At least, that's what everyone tells me. This year will be my first Kallah. I can't wait. I know what a treat it is to spend a week on retreat with part of this community, but the biggest Renewal gathering I've ever experienced was maybe 200 people. Kallah tends to garner a crowd of 700 or so. I love imagining the spirited prayer, the singing, the conversation, the learning, reflected and refracted through the prism of such a sizeable gathering of like-minded folks.

I'm also delighted to be able to say that I'll be teaching at the Kallah this year. The schedule features classes by several of my most beloved teachers: Reb Marcia Prager and Reb Shawn Zevit, Reb Arthur Waskow, Reb Elliot Ginsburg, Reb Burt Jacobson, and more. I am honored and humbled to be on the list as well. I'm teaching an afternoon class called Writing Your Heart's Prayer:

Do you yearn to give voice to the meditations of your heart? To connect with the timeless poetry of the daily liturgy, and to add your own timely voice to the conversation? This workshop is designed to bring you into dialogue with our many-voiced tradition of prayer. Rachel will create safe space, lead writing exercises designed to stimulate prayerful consciousness, and help you shape your words into a psalm or prayer of your own. Bring your favorite siddur. Expect to come away with new work, new techniques for generating work, and a renewed relationship with tradition and connection with God.

The intersection of poetry and prayer has long been a passion for me. I come to the rabbinate with a background in creative writing, and I'm deeply committed to helping everyone find their own unique "voice" in both literary and prayerful terms. I look forward to drawing on the years I've spent teaching creative writing, as well as on the learning I've done in my years with ALEPH, to put together a class which will hopefully be creative, meaningful, and powerful for everyone involved. (I will surely write more about this as July approaches; consider this post your very early heads-up.) And, of course, while I'm there I'll also plan to take a morning class -- it will be hard to choose between all of the amazing options on offer.

Anyway: if you've ever wanted to experience Jewish Renewal, if you're curious about who we are and what we do, consider coming to the Kallah! This year will be the 13th international ALEPH Kallah, the theme of which is Living in the Light of G-d: Making Every Day Holy.

It's one thing to read about Renewal, but one can only learn so much from books. The singing, the davenen, the community: these things have to be experienced, and this is a great chance to experience them. And regardless of whether or not my class floats your boat, let me know if you're going to be at Kallah; I'd love to meet more of y'all who read and comment here.

For a preview of the Kallah -- information about the gathering, the davenen, and the morning and afternoon classes on the schedule -- you can download the brochure in .pdf format:

Kallah Brochure 09 [pdf]

Hope to see you in Columbus!

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This week's portion: offering


[A]nd we shall not know with what we are to worship the Lord until we arrive there. -- Exodus 10:26

Maybe God wants goats
scruffy and bleating.
The richest colors we know.
The taste of coffee, dark and smooth.

Maybe God wants smoke
from the trees our children will fell.
The songs we sing
when it's late and no one can hear.

The Holy One will tell us
what sacrifices are required,
blood or water poured on the altar
sluicing down to the earth below.

Does God want our grief?
Hopes raised, then dashed
like pears against a rock.
Maybe God wants us not to give up.

We must bring all that we are
so when that Voice speaks
we can open our chests
and pull out what's inside.

In this week's portion, Bo, we read about the plagues of locusts, and darkness. And then there's an intriguing interlude: Pharaoh summons Moshe and says, "fine, go worship your God; you can even take your children with you, but leave your flocks and herds behind." Moshe refuses, saying that the Israelites must take their livestock with them. "We shall not know with what we are to worship the Lord until we arrive there," Moshe says.

That's the line which sparked this week's Torah poem. I love the notion that we can't know with what we will be called to worship until we're in the moment of worship itself. 

Avodah means both "service" in the sense of "going to services," and in the sense of "serving a higher power." Our avodah she-ba-lev, the service/offering of our hearts, can never entirely be planned. We have to bring our whole selves to prayer in order to find out what is asked of us today, and who we might aspire to become.


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7 things you might not know

My wonderful husband Ethan tagged me to share seven things you might not know about me. (Thanks, sweetie.) As it happens, back in 2007 I got tagged to share five things you may not know about me, so I guess these are items six through twelve on that list!

1. From the time I was twelve until I was twenty I kept an ongoing stream of diaries and journals. They were inspired in part by reading the diary of Anne Frank at the age of ten; a couple of years later I read the diary of artist Wanda Gág, and by the time I finished her book, I had started keeping a diary of my own, faithfully. When I went off to college, I left the journals from junior high and high school at home for safekeeping. A washing machine flood in my parents' utility room drenched the cardboard box I'd packed them in, and most are now illegible. (I still have them anyway.) These days I keep a paper journal only when I'm on retreat or traveling.

2. I am a serious lover of tea. My tastes are quite catholic; I like black teas, green teas, herbal teas (perhaps more properly called "tisanes," but I'm not picky), flavored teas. I love the dark umami smokiness of Lapsang Souchong, and the delicate kick of a good Earl Grey. I love Adagio's Valentines tea and Tealuxe's Monk's blend. Lately I've been grooving on a tea that Ethan's colleague Lokman brought to us from Hong Kong; I can't read the packaging, but inside the canister are little golden bonbons which, unwrapped, each reveal a tight-packed ball of tea leaves which unfurl in the pot.

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Seeking compassion (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's Torah portion three years ago, originally published at the now-defunct Radical Torah.

Because I'm spending this year in a hospital doing chaplaincy work, reading parashat Bo is different for me this year than ever before. This year, the death of the firstborn grabs me viscerally and won't let go. This year, it is all too easy for me to imagine the suffering of the mothers, the fathers, the aunts and uncles, siblings and cousins, of each of those lives lost.

It is hard to watch others suffer. Torah tells us God hardened Pharaoh's heart, time after time, so that the first plagues and the middle plagues did not lessen his resolve. Only when firstborn sons died throughout the land, from the firstborn of Pharaoh himself to the firstborn of those in the lowliest dungeons, did Pharaoh relent and release us from slavery. But Torah is, typically, matter-of-fact in the retelling. It isn't a novel; it doesn't show us what these terrible wonders felt like for the Israelites. What was it like to take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in lamb's blood, and paint our doorposts red, knowing what we were warding away by the act? What was it like to hear the cries of mothers all around us, in every Egyptian household in the land, bewailing these sudden deaths?

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Plagued (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the dvar Torah I posted for this week's parsha back in 2006 on the now-defunct Radical Torah.

This week we're in parashat Vaera. In this portion God empowers Moses to bring plagues upon the Egyptians, and Pharaoh's heart is repeatedly hardened so that the mighty ruler remains unable to understand his culpability or what he could do to change the situation.

This year, the part of the story that reaches out and grabs me is the way the plagues unfold. How did they affect Pharaoh, whose heart was so closed-off from compassion? And, more than that, how did they impact ordinary Egyptians? For instance, take the second one: the plague of frogs.

When seven days had passed after the Lord struck the Nile, the Lord said to Moses, "Go to Pharaoh and say to him, 'Thus says the Lord: Let My people go that they may worship Me. If you refuse to let them go, then I will plague your whole country with frogs. The Nile shall swarm with frogs, and they shall come up and enter your palace, your bedchamber and your bed, the houses of your courtiers and your people, and your ovens and your kneading bowls. The frogs shall come up on you and on your people and on all your courtiers.'"

I have no problem with frogs, one at a time. But in the aggregate, I can imagine them being fairly distressing. That's easier for me to imagine this year than it's ever been before, because at the start of last summer where I live we had a plague of our own.

Continue reading "Plagued (Radical Torah repost)" »

Ladyblog awards

Until today I didn't know Ladyblog ("Classier than tea service. Like Fight Club, but with better hygiene. Slightly more aggro than a cucumber sandwich.") But the editors there just emailed me to say that this blog has been nominated for a LadyBlog award.

"We asked readers and fans to nominate female bloggers in five different categories (conservative politics, mommybloggers, lifestyle, religion, and entertainment)," they tell me, "and then the Ladyblog authors narrowed the nominations down to five blogs in each category." In the religion category, five blogs made the final cut:

Kafir Girl ("We read the Quran so you don't have to" -- the blog of a self-described "Pakistani American ex-Muslim twenty-something atheist")

Conversion Diary ("The diary of a former atheist" who has come to believe in God)

Velveteen Rabbi (If you're reading this, I trust you know my blog! My tagline is, "When can I run and play with the real rabbis?)

Peace for the Journey (the pull quote at the top of the blog is from John 14:27: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you...")

A Holy Experience (The pull quote is Browning: "earth is crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God")

The really neat thing for me is that I've never read the other four blogs on this list. So now I have four new-to-me religion blogs to check out. Anyway, if you're so inclined, check these blogs out and then pop over to Ladyblog to tell them which one you like best. Thanks, Ladyblog!

Ladyblog Award Finalist

This week's portion: charge



And God said to Moses: speak
to Pharaoh and tell him to send
the Israelites away. I will harden
the chambers of his heart
and he will not see the sign
of holiness upon your hand.

For him power is close at hand:
all he has to do is speak
and his people obey. By design
no one questions. To send
his workers away would take heart
he doesn't have to spare. Harden

yourself against them; harden
your compassion. You are my hand
in the world; I'll hold your heart
in safekeeping as you speak
truth to power, as you send
this nation into turmoil, a sign

of my disfavor. Bind me as a sign
upon your arm, learn to harden
your eyes, your speech. Send
locusts and lice, every hand
scratching in agony! Speak
to Pharaoh of freedom, your heart

bursting to serve. Brave heart,
take courage: I will be your sign.
My voice emerges when you speak.
For history's sake I will harden
his hearing and stay his hand.
The world must know it is I who send

you on this errand, I who send
Israel out from here, every heart
yearning to be free. Hand by hand
you'll build new signs
of my mercy, but first: harden
your tremulous voice, and speak.

Tell Pharaoh I send you as my sign.
His heart cannot help but harden.
My hand pulls your strings: now speak!

This week we're in Va-era. God tells Moshe about the names through which God has been known, offers lineage for Moshe and Aharon as if to enshrine their position within society and within this story, and then tells Moshe to go to Pharaoh and demand that Pharaoh let the Israelite people go. From there we move into the tale of the first several plagues, with the refrain that Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he would not let the people go.

The idea for this week's Torah poem came from a footnote in Everett Fox's The Five Books of Moses translation. Fox notes that the episode where God reminds Moses of his mission (to speak to Pharaoh and seek liberation for the Israelites at God's command) "contains a virtual glossary of Exodus words." He lists eleven of these recurring words; I chose the first six in his list and used them as teleutons for a sestina. I haven't written a Torah sestina in a while, and I love the way this form lets me play with the words which repeat in the Torah text too.

One of the mysteries in the story is why God chose to harden Pharaoh's heart. One traditional answer is that God hardened Pharaoh's heart in order to create the situation in which the Israelites' dramatic, peoplehood-solidifying Exodus might take place. Another is that Pharaoh's heart was inclined toward hardening because of who he was. Because of the cruel and unethical choices he made every day, his heart was already weighted with misdeeds, and a heart which has already begun to calcify tends to continue in that direction.

But Pharaoh's hardened heart leads to deep suffering on the part of his people: plague after plague, ending ultimately in the deaths of the first-born sons, a sick reflection of how he had ordered the Israelite firstborn sons murdered at birth. Killing begets killing -- it's almost karmic, and it's a horrific set of images. In our day can we be wiser than Pharaoh, more attuned to the voices of liberation, so that our earth need not be ravaged and our sons need not die before we accept the need for freedom to come?


ETA: the folks at readwritepoem launched a sestina challenge right after I posted this. Hooray for my favorite form! The other submissions are linked in the comments of this post.

Edited to add, 2: this poem is now available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.


Praise, poetry, and prayer at the inauguration

That's a YouTube video of the prayer offered by the Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson, Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, at the beginning of the inauguration festivities on Sunday. From his prayer on Sunday to today's inaugural poem, it's been an amazing few days for me as someone who cherishes the transformative potential of language. In this post I want to explore the poetry and prayer of the various invocations and benedictions, President Obama's inaugural address, and Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem.

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Terra Nova

A while back the Best American Poetry folks staged an Inaugural Ode contest. To be eligible, a poem had to consist of four quatrains, include at least three words from a prescribed list (honor, integrity, faith, hope, change, power), and make use of a line from one of the poems in The Best American Poetry 2008.

The BAP post Inaugural Poems in the News tells me that the Associated Press invited ten poets to write and record their own inaugural poems. Those poems are here, some accompanied by little recorded videos of the poets reading their own work. I especially like David Lehman's poem, and Yosef Komunyakaa's -- maybe especially because Komunyakaa ends his poem with an arctic image, and my submission to the Inaugural Ode contest takes its imagery from polar exploration.

I do feel like the United States under an Obama presidency has the potential to be a kind of terra nova: rife with unexplored potential and new possibilities. May we have the courage and the perseverance to embody those possibilities in the years to come.


For the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

As this cold day dawns you stand at the prow
gazing over the ice. It creaks and groans
but your sixth sense will tell us where the floes
will let us through. Terra incognita awaits

and bright sundogs gamboling across the sky
and nightfall, though who wants
to think about that now? I have faith
you'll read the compass even when the needle wobbles.

I see you in profile as if sharpened and stenciled.
If you ask us to trudge until the sennegrass
rubs our chapped feet raw, if you tell us change
can be found just over the next jumbled ridge

we will walk. And what we find there will warm us
like a primus lamp in a reindeer-hide tent
because of how you gently, seriously reach
to hold our frozen hands to your beating heart.

"I see you in profile as if sharpened and stenciled," from "Faithful" by Dara Wier.


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The Gaza war: so many worlds destroyed

Black humor is good for getting through a crisis. Thank God for the members of Israeli satire troupe Eretz Nehederet ("A Wonderful Country" -- read more in this 2006 New York Times article.) One of their most recent creations is the faux hiphop group X-Plain and their parodic video for "Someone Throws On You til [a rocket]", which you can watch (Hebrew and English, with subtitles) here:

(Hat tip Shahar Golan.) This is an expert parody of hip-hop videos which aim to put forth a political message. It's also a powerful critique of הסברה‎ (hasbara), "explanation" or "propaganda" which seeks to argue the case of one side. So much of what I've encountered online about this war has been hasbara -- one side trying to convince the other that their narrative is right. That we are the good guys and they are the bad guys, whoever "we" and "they" might be. That we are David and they, Goliath -- even though from where they sit, it looks the other way around.

I've been trying to figure out how to write about the crisis in Gaza. Watching it unfold has been heartbreaking. Spending last summer in Jerusalem gave me a clearer sense for how small the country is, and how interconnected. As I talk to my Israeli friends whose friends and family are called up to serve in the army in times like these, I feel afraid with them. I feel compassion as I read the stories of those who live in Sderot, who spend their days under constant fear of rocket fire. And I feel devastation as I read the stories of those who live in Gaza, whose lives have been upturned or destroyed by the war.

Ehud Olmert said recently that "The conditions have been brought about that enable us to say that the aims of the operations have been reached." [Source.] Reading this "mission accomplished," my mind boggles. What aims could the "operations" have had, to have been accomplished in this manner? It looks to me, from here, like what was achieved was a lot of bloodshed and suffering which will give rise to more bloodshed and suffering.

Continue reading "The Gaza war: so many worlds destroyed" »

Opening our hearts and our eyes (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the dvar Torah I wrote for this week's portion in 2007 for the now-defunct Radical Torah. Enjoy.

This week's Torah portion -- Shemot, the beginning of the book of the same name -- contains a lot of good stories. One of them begins like this:

Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, "I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn't the bush burn up?" When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: "Moses! Moses!" He answered, "Here I am."

The most remarkable thing for me, in this snippet of story, is not the sneh, the bush that burned but was not consumed. It's the moment where Moses takes notice of the bush, and says to himself, "hang on, this is incredible, I've got to stop and pay some attention to this." The moment where Moses' eyes are opened, his consciousness expanded, because he's both willing and able to see the wonder that's right in front of him.

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The rabbi as citizen in the midst of world crisis

This morning I attended a panel discussion called "Being in the World, Being With God: The Rabbi as Citizen in the Midst of World Crisis," featuring my beloved teachers Rabbi Burt Jacobson, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, and Rabbi Tirzah Firestone.

Reb Burt spoke about the Baal Shem Tov and how the BeShT saw his role as a communal spiritual leader, and moved from there to speaking about our obligation to confront tyranny in all its forms. "If it is permissible or even required for a religious leader to confront God's evil, then all the more so it is permissible and required for religious leaders to confront the tyranny of human authorities," he said. He spoke to us about the need to play a role in the restoring of American liberties, and reminded us that even though we have elected Barack Obama to be our next president (baruch Hashem!) our work is far from done.

Reb Arthur (who I profiled in Zeek a few months ago, and who recently started posting five-minute videos to YouTube -- see Gaza Shalom Salaam) spoke about the several world crises we're in, about a theology of these crises, and about what we as rabbis might be able to do. He named the crises: the ecological crisis, the financial crisis, and the danger (if not already reality) of war between Islam and what we call the West. He spoke about theology and power and empire and the desperate need for transformation. "There has to be a new Jewish paradigm to deal with the new paradigm of the planet and the human race!"

And Reb Tirzah spoke about Israel/Palestine. Her remarks were very personal, and they moved me deeply. I want to point you to "In the Shadow of Zion," an essay that she wrote on this subject which has been published in Tikkun and in the Arab Washingtonian. That essay begins:

This past year I have had to face the underbelly of my love of Zion. Like so many American Jews, I had been raised with the unquestioned narrative about Israel's righteousness, its humane practices, and the moral high ground upon which its policies are based. The painful deconstruction of these beliefs began with a journey through the Occupied Territories, where I encountered the shocking effects of my people's fear.

I saw a land sliced by concrete and barbed wire, a snaking wall 450 miles long. Yes, there has been good reason for fear—genuine security threats that have come through the gates and checkpoints. Nevertheless, I found myself questioning the holding back of women in labor, children in need of emergency blood transfusions. I heard stories, not only from Arabs, but from Israeli soldiers who struggled to "carry out orders" while innocent women and children died before their eyes.

In Judaism, saving and defending life trumps almost all else. But does this only apply to Jewish life?

Regardless of your stance on Israel and Palestine, I hope you'll read her essay. And you can read more of Reb Arthur's words at The Shalom Center, and here are more words from Reb Burt as well.

I honor all three of these teachers for their commitment to wakening and raising the holy sparks of transformation in the world. They are inspirations to me.

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Unexpected song

I followed my room-mate Aura to a table at the far end of the mezzanine where I had eaten dinner with a few of my Biblical History classmates and our professor a few hours before. She had gathered half a dozen people from DLTI III (the cohort before mine in the two-year liturgical leadership training program I loved so much) who graciously invited me to hang out and sing with them.

The first song we sang after I sat down was actually one of mine -- "The Talmid," a filk of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer" which I wrote for the PANIM interdenominational rabbinic student retreat a few years ago! (Each rabbinic program delegation did a skit spoofing their seminary; this filk was ours.) How amazing, to hear these awesome people singing my song.

And we sang Leonard Cohen ("Hallelujah") and Nick Lowe ("What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding" -- which reminds me of the Colbert Christmas Special now.) And some riotous Beatles tunes which had us in hysterics. And a beautiful melancholy waltz melody for "Adon Olam." And something gorgeous by Danny Maseng, and half a dozen things I've already forgotten, though we sang them in extraordinary impromptu harmony.

I left reluctantly after about an hour, knowing I would be wincing when my alarm went off for shacharit. As I walked back to my room I passed a table of people intently studying texts, and a handful of different little conversations on couches and in corridors. It was a moment of unexpected harmony and grace, the kind of thing I know I'll remember long after I've left the Boulderado for another year.

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May their memories be a blessing

Two luminaries of my Jewish world have died within the last week: Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield and Rabbi Alan Lew. I didn't know either one personally, but I knew their work, and many of the people I hold dear are broken-hearted at these two passings.

Rabbi Hirschfield (who went by Reb Aryeh -- here's more about him) was known as a songwriter and teller of tales. Many melodies and niggunim that I know and love came from, or through, him. He was ordained by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in 1985; he was part of the rabbinic lineage I hope someday to join. He died last week in Mexico, where he had traveled with his family to celebrate his son's wedding. His funeral was today.

Rabbi Lew (here's his page at Beth Sholom, and here's his speaker's bureau page; I wonder how long either link will continue to be online?) was a pillar of the Jewish meditation world. I blogged about his book This is real and you are completely unprepared a few years ago, and in the very earliest months of this blog I wrote a bit about his book One God Clapping (here.) His writings about Zen, meditation, Judaism, and teshuvah continue to be a powerful source of change in my life. His funeral will be on Thursday.

If you'd like to know more about these men and their work, I've got a few links for you. Here's a beautiful interview with Rabbi Lew at Religion & Ethics Newsweekly: Cover: Rabbi Alan Lew; and here's a Beliefnet article, Time of Spiritual Emergency: Rabbi Alan Lew explains that the High Holiday season is an archetype of our lifetime journey of the soul. And here's an article by Reb Aryeh: Jewish Renewal: Tradition and Innovation for the Here and Now. (If you can play RealAudio files, you can listen to some of his music here.)

Donations to the Reb Aryeh Legacy Fund can be made through Congregation Pnai Or of Portland. I don't know of a similar fund being established in the memory of Rabbi Lew, but if I hear of something I'll update this post.

May their memories be a blessing for all of us.

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Two amazing things have already happened to me today. One was leading shacharit with my friend Deb. We began planning the service at the Rabbis for Human Rights conference last month, and worked together over email and phone and then in person yesterday afternoon. Our service felt very deep to me, and very sweet. Because of some physical stuff that's been going on, chanting the blessing for God Who makes our bodies with their many openings and closings was a powerful experience for me. So was offering, as our word of Torah learning, this week's Torah poem. There was a lot of weekday nusach (which I love!), many rounds (in which Deb and I both revel), and a lot of beaming. Afterwards people said incredibly kind things, which has left me a little bit reeling.

Then came the celebration of liminality -- the private ceremony for incoming students and outgoing students. Our circle has grown in the years I've been here; today we were at least seventy people, maybe more, and it was extraordinary to sing the new students in, watching each of them progress beneath the chuppah held by four of our colleagues and then join us in the circle. The ceremony is private -- for students only -- and it always involves the giving of blessings to the new students and to the musmachim (those who will be receiving smicha later today). Every year, each smicha student asks a current student to come and offer a personal blessing just for them.

My first year here, when I was new to the program, this ceremony blew me away. And I remember being a little bit awed by the personalized blessings which were offered by current students to the outgoing musmachim. I didn't really know the folks who were getting smicha in 2006, and I yearned for the kind of closeness I saw between the musmachim and the friends they had asked to offer blessings on their behalf. Today I had my first chance to serve in that role: I entered the circle and gave a blessing to my dear friend Miri (soon to be Reb Miri!) and both of us wept tears of joy. She was one of my room-mates at Elat Chayyim during the summer of 2005 when I attended smicha students' week as a prospective student. It is amazing to watch her step over this threshold -- to watch all of my dear chevre crossing over, becoming who they are becoming.

The smicha ceremony will be in half an hour. I can't wait to be there -- to watch the magic of transformative language do its work as each of my friends truly becomes something new -- to cry and sing and dance and rejoice as the Jewish community gains ten extraordinary new spiritual leaders. It hasn't been an entirely easy weekend, but being here with my community is a real blessing.

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This week's portion: becoming


But Moshe said to God
Who am I to go to Pharaoh?

And God said
I will be with you

I am becoming who I am becoming
it is time for you to do the same

everyone else walked right by
but you saw the miracle burning

Pick up your staff now
and make yourself ready

The journey ahead is long
and generations will comb their stories

to learn how you tied your shoes
and how to lead the people

with compassion and with vision
as you are about to do.

For the ALEPH musmachim, 15 Tevet / 11 January 2009

In this week's portion, Shemot, we read about Moshe at the bush which burned but was not consumed. God introduces God's-self to Moshe as Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, a construction which means something like "I will be Who I will be" or "I am becoming who I am becoming." And then God gives Moshe instructions: go forth to Pharaoh, and free the Israelites from Mitzrayim, from the narrow place in which they are living.

This afternoon, ten of my dear friends and colleagues will receive smicha from ALEPH. (I wrote about the first ALEPH smicha ceremony I witnessed three years ago this month.) This week's Torah poem is a commentary on the portion; it is also meant as a benediction for them as they fully embrace their calling. Knowing them is a real gift for me, and I wish them endless blessings on their continuing journey.

Moshe's journey won't be easy. We've read this story before; we know what lies ahead, the ups and the downs. But in this week's portion, in this moment, let us pause to savor this most astonishing experience. Who knows how many others walked past the embodied miracle of that bush, never taking the time to notice the incursion of the miraculous into ordinary consciousness?

May we all be more like Moshe: humble, and alert, and ready to take up the work which so needs doing. Amen.


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This week's portion: instead of sons


Asenath longed for daughters
to whom she might teach

the ways of her mothers
but Joseph's God had other plans.

In dreams her grandchildren nightly
crossed the sea of reeds again

and again she woke gasping
with the impossible hope

that they would remember Egypt
kindly, and their foremother

who had hoped for a girl
who would stay close to home

instead of boys who belonged
to someone else's story

which would unfold without
her memory, without her bones.

In this week's portion, Vayechi, we read about Joseph taking his sons to see Jacob as Jacob lay on his deathbed, and about the blessings that Jacob offered to Joseph's sons and to all of Jacob's sons. Reading the portion, I couldn't help noticing the invisibility of the women in this part of the story; there's one mention of Jacob's beloved Rachel, who died in childbirth, but aside from that there are no women here at all.

So in this week's Torah poem, I found myself exploring Asenath, the daughter of Poti-phara, Joseph's Egyptian wife (about whom we know nothing at all except for her name and the name of her father.) I wonder what it was like for her to marry into this family...and I wonder whether she realized that someday Joseph's bones would be carried out of Egypt, while her bones would be forgotten altogether.

No recording this week; sorry, gang, I'm on the road and haven't had time/space to make the recording. (As usual, if anyone reading this wishes to record the poem, feel free.)

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Our first four days of hashpa'ah

My small stone heart. Apologies for the blurry cameraphone picture.

The first intensive of the ALEPH Hashpa'ah program will end tomorrow at 2pm, just in time for the Shabbaton to begin around 4. I've been trying to figure out whether/how I can write about the hashpa'ah intensive; it's been an amazing few days, but I'm finding it surprisingly difficult to describe.

I can tell you that there are nineteen of us in the program: some rabbis, some rabbinic pastors, the rest student clergy like me. I can tell you that we've been meeting at the Solstice Center, a ten-block walk from the Boulderado, in a carpeted room with a big round skylight. That our group includes half a dozen people from my DLTI cohort, as well as several other people I already knew, so walking in for the first time already felt like coming home.

Our faculty this week has included two rabbis and a psychotherapist, each of whom has spoken at length about how she came to be a spiritual director and about how she does the work of spiritual direction. We've experienced some amazing davenen with fundamental principles of hashpa'ah woven in: holy listening, speaking directly to/from the heart, sacred silence. We've done some powerful work in hevruta, delving into our spiritual autobiographies and exploring what called us to this work. Today we attempted our first sessions of hashpa'ah, and then talked about what worked and what didn't and where we tripped ourselves up and where we feel like we actually connected with the presence of God.

But all of this feels like I'm talking around what we've been doing, not about it. The truth of the matter is, most of what we've been doing has been personal and spiritual and kind of tough to verbalize. The internal work is (and needs to be) confidential; the "professional development" piece isn't all that blogworthy without the emotional and spiritual underpinnings which I either can't discuss without breaking confidentiality, or can't figure out how to describe without sounding purple and overblown.

It's been a really good intensive so far, though. I'm getting a lot out of it, and I think that spiritual direction work will be a meaningful piece of my rabbinate. I'm looking forward to our spring semester (we'll fill two sections of a telecourse called "Issues in Hashpa'ah," so I'll get to hear at least half of my classmates' voices on a weekly basis) and to the summer intensive. Based on my experiences with DLTI, I'm guessing that week two will quickly become even more intense than week one because we'll have all of this week's relationships and experiences to build on.

For now, I'm looking forward to our last session in the morning -- and to seeing how the learning we've done over these incredibly dense four days will percolate in me and through me in months to come.


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Carrying our bones (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion in 2007, originally published at the now-defunct Radical Torah.

At the beginning of this week's portion, Vayehi, we encounter Jacob on his deathbed:

Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob's life came to one hundred and forty-seven years. And when the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, "Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty: please do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place."

It's a striking last request, and his son Joseph makes a similar one at the very end of the portion (and the end of Bereshit): "When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here." On one level, it's a very physical thing to ask: don't bury me here in a foreign land. Take my bones out of here. Settle them in the place I consider home." On another level, it's a request with a lot of emotional resonance. What our forefathers may have been asking is something like, "Don't leave me behind. Don't forget me here. Carry me with you when you go."

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