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The place we build for God (Radical Torah repost)

Here's a repost of the d'var Torah I wrote for the now-defunct Radical Torah in 2007. Enjoy!

We're entering a section of Torah which I used to find repetitive and kind of dull, and which I now look forward to ardently: the details of the construction of the mishkan, the portable Tabernacle in which the tablets of the covenant where carried, which the Israelites built (according to detailed instructions) as a home for the presence of God.

Parashat Terumah begins with God's instruction to Moses to tell the Israelites to bring gifts to God, as their hearts move them, and to put those gifts to work in the construction of the mishkan. These are freewill offerings: not tithes, each according to how much a given household can afford, but extravagant gifts of the heart. Give, God seems to be saying, what you most long to see placed in My service. Give your creativity and craftsmanship and compassion. Make a worthy home for My presence in the world.

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This week's portion: the gifts


These are the gifts
leather and linen
silver and gold

each who was moved
returned these riches
to the place

every yearning heart
following the blueprint
these are the gifts

parchment scraped fine
and iron gall ink
commentaries in the margins

words intertwined
so that the tabernacle
becomes one whole

these are the gifts
that make the sanctuary
the presence dwells in us

This week's portion, T'rumah, begins the long and loving series of descriptions of how the mishkan (portable tabernacle) was built. (As an aside: the word "tabernacle" just doesn't do it for me; the Hebrew word mishkan is related to Shekhinah, the immanent and indwelling Presence of God. The mishkan a place where God can dwell. The English word just doesn't have that same resonance!)

I wanted this poem to evoke both the gifts which Torah tells us the Israelites brought for the construction of the mishkan, and the gifts I think we are still bringing today: our words of Torah, and our responses to one another's words, woven together as the pieces of the mishkan were once woven together. This is what constitutes our community.

There are two bits of bilingual wordplay here. I refer to "the place" in part because "the place" (ha-makom) is one of the names we use for God. And the last line of the poem is a shout-out to a line from the portion itself: ".וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם" It's usually translated as  "And they shall make for me a sanctuary; and I will dwell among them," but the Hebrew is deliciously ambiguous. It could as easily say "and I will dwell within them."

This poem is also my response to this week's prompt at Totally Optional Prompts; it's an anaphora, a form which makes use of repeated words or lines as a kind of recurring refrain. (You can read other folks' submissions to the prompt here.)


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Weaving parashat Terumah into our lives (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's Torah portion back in 2006 for the now-defunct blog Radical Torah. Enjoy!

"As for the Tabernacle, make it of ten strips of cloth; make these of fine twisted linen, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, with a design of cherubim worked into them..."

My shul is in the process of commissioning new Torah mantles right now, from a Judaic weaver whose work I have long admired. Her designs will feature the mountains and the trees that make the view from our sanctuary so glorious, along with quotes from the liturgy and from Psalms about trees and mountains. I can't help seeing a resonance between the work she'll be doing, and the work once done by the children of Israel described in this week's Torah portion. With these loops, and cloths, and brilliant yarns, we create a wrapping beautiful enough to protect the words of Torah, one of our primary points of connection with God.

There's a lot of heady commentary on this Torah portion. Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan weaves together Aviva Zornberg's two interpretations of the portion, exploring how the mishkan relates to the episode of the Golden Calf (which hasn't happened yet, in this year's lectionary, but apparently time isn't a linear construct in the mind of the rabbis). Yoni Tuchman writes dense exegesis of the cherubim, and of why we're seeing what looks remarkably like a graven image so soon after the injunction to eschew them.

It is possible to make of this text a metaphysical treatise on the nature of representation and the boundaries of idolatry, but it takes some mental acrobatics. In the plainest sense, on the pshat or surface level, this is a Torah portion about craftsmanship, construction, and cloth.

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It's a gesture of optimism, planting seeds in deep winter. Outside our windows the snows fall, as though we lived inside a snowglobe that God persists in shaking. The beautiful winter world, with its subtle shades of brown and white and grey.

I have a Texan's love for snow. It was such a miracle in my childhood that I persist in finding it miraculous now. It cushions everything, muffles color and sound. Some days I bestir myself to go out in it, and then I marvel at the way the snowy air feels in my mouth and throat, its myriad textures and sounds underfoot. Most days I sit indoors instead, warmed by my laptop and the fire and the aroma of stock on the stove.

Over the years that we've had this house, we've slowly been making our mark on the land. The blueberries we so lovingly planted were decimated by the caterpillar incursion, and never really came back. But the berry canes are hardy and strong, to all appearances happier than their wild cousins, and I have high hopes that our fruit saplings will weather this first winter with aplomb. (Really with some pears and some apples. Sorry. Couldn't resist.)

The berries and fruit trees are kind of an anomaly for us, though. As longtime members of a beloved CSA, we haven't generally tried to grow much food. Why would we, when our share of Caretaker's harvest is more than we can eat? But we keep a few herbs in pots on our back deck, and pinch off a bit here and there. About a quarter of our back lawn is made up of wild thyme; we cook with it all summer long, and the scent it generates when Ethan mows is heavenly.

This year we decided it was time to try a proper herb garden. So Ethan started seeds for half a dozen different herbs last week. We tried this once before, years ago. I got as far as tiny seedlings in their little peat pots, and then something went awry. They dried out, or the cat ate them, I no longer remember. So this feels like a leap of faith.

But surely planting seeds is a leap of faith under any circumstances. That these tiny dried dots will yield fragrant foliage to spice and perfume our cooking for a whole season: how can that be true? They're nothing. Pure potential, waiting to be unlocked.

On a day like today -- soft white falls from the sky; we are curled up with laptops and the Sunday Times, the picture of winter domesticity -- it's almost inconceivable that the world will ever be a riot of green. But it will. That's what planting seeds is all about: trusting in the alchemy of soil and water and light, potential and time. There's no knowing what wonders are dormant, waiting for the right moment to sprout.

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Choosing liberation (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2006, originally published at now-defunct blog Radical Torah. Enjoy!

As Rabbi Diane Cohler-Esses notes, the shift from last week's Torah portion to this week's can be jarring. "Going from Yitro to Mishpatim we come down the mountain with a real thud," she writes. "Gone are the salacious family stories of Genesis and the dramatic national birth story of Exodus. Starting with this week’s parsha, sitting in synagogue week after week, one can hear yawns all around. What happened to the joy of sheer story?"

And, what's more, the portion begins with a mishpat -- a mitzvah of justice, a commandment concerning itself with righteousness -- detailing the obligations of slave ownership. Slave ownership? We've just read and relived the story of the Israelites' transformation from slaves into free and covenanted people, and now we're kicking off a long set of legal ins and outs with a rule about owning Israelite slaves?

Well, technically it's a rule about freeing Israelite slaves, though there's an exception which proves it:

But if the slave declares, "I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free," his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life.

Rabbi Cohler-Esses is not alone in observing that this first mishpat places the Israelites -- and, by extension, us -- in a new role. Starting now, the Israelites are responsible for transforming their lives and the lives of those under their care, just as their lives have been transformed. But what to do when someone shies away from transformation?

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Unwrapping the body of Torah

This morning I spent a few hours on the phone with my dear friend Yafa, with whom I lived in Israel last summer. Now we're hevruta partners, working together to decode Hasidic texts for Reb Elliot's class on the Hasidic sacred year. Right now that class is reading excerpts from Likkutei Moharan (the writings of Reb Nachman of Bratzlav) on Purim.

The passage we were assigned to translate uses a series of rich metaphors. Reb Nachman talks about how Torah has revealed facets (that which was inscribed on the tablets at Sinai, e.g.) and hidden facets (Torah's inner mystical depths), which he relates to the parts of the body which are readily visible in the world (hands) and also the parts of the body which are usually hidden (e.g. the thigh, which is kept garbed for all except the most intimate of relationships.)

The text continues from there, but we got sidetracked into talking about the idea of Torah as both hidden and revealed. These Hasidic texts are so dense with allusions that they can be difficult for a modern reader to unpack. Even reading them in translation doesn't always do the trick, because one needs to know when a given word is a reference or a quotation (and if so, what it's referring to, or what other text it's subtly pointing toward.) Reading this material can be frustrating, because it can seem that the point the writer is trying to make is deliberately obscured beneath layers and levels of allusion and allegory. Why not just be clear? But the more I think about it, the more I think that a kind of modern, to-the-point clarity would miss the point altogether.

First of all, the rabbis who wrote these texts spoke to an audience who would have recognized the quotations. They didn't have to puzzle over references as the modern reader might. (Imagine someone 500 years from now trying to read a 20th-century text which makes use of poetry references ranging from Chaucer to Mary Oliver, alongside quotations from widely-known tv shows, the kind of things that are so embedded in our pop culture consciousness that we hardly notice they're references anymore. This putative future reader might recognize that "shall I compare thee to a summer's day" and "beam me up, Scotty" were both quotations, but would she necessarily know that one came from Shakespeare and one from Star Trek? If she did, would she know who Shakespeare was, or the difference between classic Trek and Trek: Next Gen? and so on.) Some of what distances the modern reader from these texts is a profound shift in context and background knowledge; they didn't necessarily mean for all of this to be opaque.

But some of the metaphors are intended precisely to be opaque -- just opaque enough to obscure what's beneath, and to make one want to figure out how to lift that veil. As I translated a line which compares the Torah to a thigh, hidden from view, it hit me that the eros in Reb Nachman's metaphor is not coincidental. For these scholars and writers, the Torah is a beloved, adored and cherished. Her truths are veiled in metaphors, just as a woman's body is veiled in clothing. For a commentator, there's joy in cloaking a pearl of Torah wisdom with metaphor, precisely because there's also joy in opening up the metaphor to reveal what's concealed inside. The thicket of allusions isn't an accident. It's there because it gives the writer, and the reader, the opportunity to savor both the beauty and intricacy of the garment...and the uncovering of the beauty which lies beneath.

This stuff is so dense, so intertextual, so self-referential that it requires quite an investment of time and energy on the part of the modern reader. (I'd like to see a good hypertext edition of one of these texts -- quotations could be hyperlinked, and every time one moused-over a word, a window could pop up containing other usages of the word, references to other texts, explications of symbolic resonance, etc. It would be a gorgeous art piece, though probably hard to read, and the audience would be, alas, limited.) But I wish I could convey the sheer glee of reading through to the end of a passage, seeing how it's all tied together, and going "oh, wow, I didn't see that we were going there, but now I get it."

I know there are words I'm missing, layers or levels of interconnection which won't be fully clear to me until this class meets and we go over this material aloud. But I'm starting to get glimmerings of understanding, and they whet my desire for more. It amazes me sometimes that over the centuries we have made so many beautiful things out of Torah. The rich and varied weave of the fabrics the rabbis have created befits the beauty of what lies beneath.

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This week's portion: like a feast


Understand, when I say
we saw a sapphire floor
beneath the Holy One's feet

I don't actually mean
we sat at a banquet table
and clinked glasses with God.

What we stood on was like
a floor but not a floor
like the sky but not the sky

the likeness of a feast
as we are made in
the image and the likeness.

And during our ascent
no two people witnessed
the same vision: one saw

a bearded man on a throne
one a woman robed in splendor
one a shimmer of sound.

And then Moshe was called
to ascend to a place
none of us could even see.

He went into the fire
and we came back, certain only
that nothing will be the same.

This week's portion, Mishpatim, begins with a long series of mitzvot, from how to treat slaves to how to appropriately punish accidental murderers. Toward the end of the portion, in chapter 24, God invites Moshe to ascend God's holy mountain along with Aharon, Aharon's sons Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel. It's a fascinating scene, and one which has sparked all kinds of commentary...including, now, this week's Torah poem.

The Torah text says that Moshe et al saw the God of Israel, and that beneath God's feet was the likeness of sapphire, like the sky for purity. That turn of phrase caught my eye. The word for likeness which appears in this passage is the same as the word used at the beginning of Genesis when Torah tells us that the earthling was created "in the image and the likeness" of God. We are made in God's likeness -- which is not to say that we have any idea what God "looks like," only that we are somehow reflections of divinity. Just so, I imagine, this experience was the "likeness" of a banquet -- whatever that may mean.

At the very end of the portion, Moshe ascends even higher. ("Come up to Me on the mountain and be there," God urges, and Moshe does.) That's where the portion ends: with Moshe atop the mountain for forty days and forty nights, that span of time denoting the fullness of something which grows to fruition. What internal mountaintop are you ascending now? What new insights do you want to bring back down?

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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Review of God is a Verb

In my spiritual direction class, we've each been asked to choose a book to review for our classmates. Off the list we were given, I chose Rabbi David Cooper's God is a Verb, and am sharing my review here as well because I thought some of y'all might dig this book too. There's a passage about the myriad ways of interpreting Torah which just knocks me out; it might merit its own post someday...

Early in his journey into engaged Jewish practice, Rabbi David Cooper discovered both the joys of pilpul (dialectical Talmud study, which fed his brain) and the need for sitting still (which fed his need to be "surrounded by the presence of the Divine at all times.") The desire to answer questions of why we are here and how we can transform our world for the better led him to the study of kabbalah.

Kabbalah, he writes, cannot be comprehended solely by intellect. It is not a "system," but a way of life. Cooper's approach to kabbalah refracts classical kabbalistic teachings and Hasidic stories through the prism of Jewish renewal. But renewal, he cautions, does not mean jettisoning what came before. "The move toward renewal does not mean the wholesale elimination of the 'old way, but the apprisal of everything from a fresh, honest perspective," he writes.

Not surprisingly, Cooper begins his exploration of kabbalah with a description of Rabbi Isaac Luria's cosmogony (story of how the universe came into being): the shattering of the vessels which had contained God’s light. He offers the Lurianic teaching that "[e]very particle in our physical universe, every structure and every being, is a shell that contains sparks of holiness. Our to release each spark from the shell and raise it up...these sparks are raised through acts of lovingkindness, of being in harmony with the universe, and through higher awareness."

One mode of raising sparks is the study of Torah. One of my favorite passages in God is a Verb speaks of Torah study thus:

The literal account of the five books of Moses is almost impossible to appreciate without assistance. Hundreds of commentaries exist, and, as we might imagine, many offer interpretations that contradict others. Nobody agrees that there is a definitively "correct" way to read the Torah. In fact the oral tradition suggests that there are at least 600,000 different interpretations, representing the number of those who received the Torah through Moses at Mt. Sinai.

This is what makes the study of Torah so interesting. If we simply accept the literal meaning of what it says, then it is merely a book with many unusual stories. If we engage it, however, work with it and use a variety of methods to analyze the text, it yields hidden clues that lead us on to further investigation. Study like this, a continuous give and take, becomes a mystical relationship between the text and the one studying it.

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New blog: Israel's Back Yard

There are a bunch of posts I'd like to write, among them an exploration of a sweetly lyrical chunk of Kedushat Levi (the Torah commentary of Hasidic master R' Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev) and a post about weekday davenen last summer and now -- but I'm buried in schoolwork today! This morning began with a dash to town for Torah study, then a dash back home for my liturgy class, and now I'm finally settling in to work on some translations for my next hevruta meeting and an outline for a short paper due next week.

But I got an email recently alerting me to the existence of a new blog, and I wanted to pass the link along to those of y'all who may be interested. The blog is called Israel's Back Yard, and it focuses on testimonies from checkpoints in the West Bank. It's written by an Israeli human rights activist, and has been running for more than a year in Hebrew. This is the new translated-into-English version.

The FAQ page offers answers to some questions about what the blog aims to do. Of the work of monitoring checkpoints, the author writes:

I am not there to ensure human rights. Freedom of movement is a basic human right. If that is taken, there is nothing to ensure anymore. The soldiers may be polite to the Palestinians, they may do everything to expedite the queue, they can even hand out fountain pens and flowers, for all I care. As long as the checkpoint is there, the freedom of movement isn’t.

I am not there to ensure human rights, I am recording the disenfranchisement of those very rights, for the sake of others. I am a witness, so you can't say you didn't know or it isn't happening.

For many years I claimed ignorance about the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. I didn't want to look at it closely, it was too painful. I rationalized this by telling myself that all news sources are biased in one direction or another, and that from my comfortable Diaspora home I couldn't possibly know or understand what was happening over there anyway.

Last year I made a promise to myself and to God that I would open my eyes and ears. Those of you who read this blog last summer while I was living in Jerusalem have some sense for how much I found there to love, and also how much I found which pains me deeply. Anyway: this blog exists to help prevent people like me from closing our eyes. For that, I am grateful.

If you're interested, I recommend the first post: Checkpoint 101: with photos.

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Purim: accepting the highest Torah

You may remember that I'm taking a class called Moadim l'Simcha ("seasons of rejoicing"), a class in the Hasidic sacred year. We're studying the round of the year through the prism of Hasidic texts, beginning with where we are now in the year, e.g. the lead-up to Purim. In last night's class, we read a few short texts by the Sefat Emet, a.k.a. Reb Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter. These are texts about the deep spiritual teachings of the holiday of Purim -- which is not historically a holiday in which I find a lot of resonance, so it's been fascinating for me to dip into these Hasidic teachings which uncover some really beautiful stuff here.

I liked our first text so much I thought I'd share it with y'all. Here's one paragraph from the Sefat Emet on Purim; the italicized material is translation, the plaintext is my own commentary. Full disclosure: many of y'all may find this a bit, hm, esoteric? :-) But I think it's really lovely, and it's giving me a whole new perspective on a holiday I've never liked all that much, so -- if the notion of unpacking a dense paragraph of Hasidic prose-poetry about Purim appeals to you, read on.

We read in the Gemara: "Raba said, it is the duty of a man to mellow himself on Purim until he cannot tell the difference [between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordechai']." (Megillah 7b)

One thing which is lost in translation is that the word I'm rendering as "mellow," לבסומי/lib'sumei, is related to בסמים/b'samim, spices, as in the spices we savor at havdalah to keep our souls intact as Shabbat departs. So while it seems initially that the Gemara is talking about the obligation to drink until one can't tell the difference between the good guy and the bad guy in this story, a discerning reader may suspect that there may be something else going on here.

I've heard words to this effect from the holy mouth of my grandfather, my teacher -- that one must ascend high above the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

His grandfather taught him that this notion of becoming mellowed (or, one might say, spiced or perfumed) is really about ascending to a place above our constructs of good and evil. We're not just talking about getting wasted; we're talking about a kind of mystical ascent to a new level of understanding.

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Poems in Frostwriting

I'm delighted to be able to say that four of my poems appear in Issue 2 of Frostwriting, a relatively new literary journal out of Sweden.

I learned about the journal because one of my old friends from Bennington, William Males, is on the editorial staff. And it's a joy for me to see many dear Bennington names in the poetry section of this issue: poems by my friend and mentor David Lehman, poems by my friend Carolyn Scarbrough ("Hospital Lunch" reminds me very much of my chaplaincy days), and work by Kathy Douglas and Celeste Guzman Mendoza, among others.

I have four poems in the issue: Lunar eclipse, Tzav pantoum, Knowledge, Threshold. The occasion for the lunar eclipse poem is presumably obvious. Longtime readers may recognize the pantoum, which was written as part of my ongoing series of Torah poems. The two other poems are part of a series of poems I've been working on -- I'll have more to say about them, and that series, here in a few weeks, so stay tuned.

Anyway: deep thanks to the editorial staff at Frostwriting for publishing my work! I hope y'all will check out the journal and read the beautiful work included in its pages.

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What is revealed (Radical Torah repost)

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

This week's Torah portion, Yitro, invites us to join our ancestors in preparation, purification, and encounter. We're invited to follow Moses toward the place where God will descend into creation -- to follow Moses inward, into the Sinai of our hearts -- and to cluster together as a community at the base of the mountain, to hear the unfolding of revelation.

At this moment in our story, the Israelites have just been freed from slavery. They are probably feeling overwhelmed, and maybe scared, and almost certainly fragile. And this is when God speaks to them -- not when they're well-rested, settled in a new place, or prepared for a new chapter in their lives.

I can relate to that. I imagine most of us can. Maybe you've left a difficult job, or made a challenging transition. Maybe you're out of the hospital and the longed-for world seems too bright, your nerves too raw. Maybe you don't know why you're at the base of this mountain, but you are, and now there's a Voice speaking directly to your core in a way that makes you tremble, a way you know you'll never forget. We're all in this together, but what each of us hears comes through her or his ears alone.

Here's some of what I hear.

Listen up! I am the Eternal force for transformation Who brings you forth from Mitzrayim, from all of your tight places. Everything and anything that you perceive, with your narrow consciousness, to be confining -- the prison of your body, the constrictions of your life or your obligations -- can be opened. I am that which opens, which liberates you from slaveries.

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Step into my parlor...

Photo by kimonomania; found on flickr.

I've always loved going to the beauty parlor. It's such an old-fashioned term, "beauty parlor." Or "beauty shop" -- I use the two interchangeably. (Is one more of a southernism than the other?) I don't consciously subscribe to a notion of beauty in which beauty is something which must be purchased, and yet...

My favorite moment is when I settle in to the shampoo chair and tip my head back into the sink and close my eyes. The sounds of conversation wash over me. There's something physically delicious about it: hands working shampoo and conditioner into and out of my hair, massaging my scalp. But there's also something emotionally satisfying about it, too, for me. Feels like comfort.

I used to go with my mother to the beauty parlor on Olmos. I don't think the place exists anymore. While my mother had her hair done I would draw pictures, or link piles of brightly-colored curlers into long chains. I made dragons out of curlers. The women who worked there must have been very patient. I don't ever remember them getting annoyed with me. Maybe it was fun for them to have a nutty little kid around.

My grandmother used to go to the beauty parlor every week. There was a lady who ran a small private beauty shop out of her house; there she would get her hair set beneath one of those ubiquitous bubble-dome dryers. In my memory her manicured nails were always mauve. I think the beauty parlor was one of the few places my grandmother used to drive, back when she still drove: in her big white car with the black bench seats. It smelled like leatherette and tic-tacs.

When I settle in to have my hair washed, I always think "there should be a bracha for this." (I have the same thought on the rare occasions when I spring for a pedicure, usually right before going to Texas, or on the first warm afternoon of early spring when I can't stand wearing heavy boots one day longer.) It's something I do just for myself, and I want to savor it. Is it silly to think of my haircut appointments as "self-care"? They do leave me feeling cared-for.

I always feel a little bit sheepish once my hair is cut, when the stylist asks whether I use mousse or gel at home when I blow my hair dry. I'm too low-maintenance for any of that; I don't even own a hair dryer! I wonder sometimes whether the stylists get together and roll their eyes at people like me. But I love hearing the snick of the scissors, watching the small curls collect on the plastic smock. When I step outside, my head always feels so much lighter, even if she only trimmed an inch or two away.


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This week's portion: the deal



Three months out
we enter the wilderness,
a new landscape of the heart.

The deal is this, Moshe says
coming down from the hilltop
luminescent like the stars:

we owe compassion
to the widow and orphan
kindness to the stranger

in return we become
a nation of priests
treasured like gemstones.

Assent rumbles through us
like an earthquake, though
no one quite understands.

Moshe instructs us
to wash our clothes, stay away
from the mountain, get ready.

Every heart beats
please let me live up
to whatever is coming.

This week's portion, Yitro, includes the story of the revelation at Sinai. It's a foundational story, and over the centuries Jewish commentators have hung meaning on practically every crown of every letter in the text.

Rereading it again this year, I'm struck by the text's insistence that we entered the wilderness of Sinai on the third new moon after going forth from the land of Egypt. What does that mean, exactly -- to enter "wilderness"? Where had we been for those first three months, if not in wilderness? How did the quality of the experience shift at that moment? Out of that question, this week's poem began to arise.

The poem takes place before the theophany itself -- before the sounding of the great ram's horn, before the thunder and lightning, before God comes down onto the mountain and Moshe goes up to meet God there. Before God speaks to the people en masse, and the people hear. Before all of these things, when Moshe offers his prefatory remarks, the people respond "All that God has spoken, we will do!" But God hasn't yet spoken to them. What a remarkable leap of faith, to respond in that way.

There's an anticipatory quality to this part of the story. If I were in that story right now, how would I be feeling? If you imagine yourself into the story, how does it feel for you?



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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Green on Hasidism; the Degel on descent

It felt weird, not having a Hasidut class anywhere on my slate this fall. Nu: this spring I'm making up for that deficiency; two out of my four courses are Hasidism-related! So you can expect to see some Hasidic teachings filtering into my posts over the next few months again, starting now, with some of the lovely ideas in Rabbi Arthur Green's essay "Hasidism," found in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought (ed. Cohen and Mendes-Flohr) and with a teaching or two from the first Hasidic text we were asked to translate for my class in the Hasidic sacred year.

At the heart of Hasidism, writes Arthur Green, is the experience of the all-pervasive presence of God. "[T]he divine is everywhere, even -- and perhaps especially -- where we least expect to find it."

Ein od milvado, usually translated as "there is none beside God," is in Hasidism reframed as "there is nothing beside God." Not just a statement of theological uniqueness (no other "gods" can compare) but a statement of radical monism: everything is God. From this the Baal Shem Tov derived his teaching that our "wayward" or distracting thoughts are no distractions "since the very thought that distracts is itself a thought of God." (This is a teaching to which I frequently return...especially when my mind wanders during prayer.)

Reality may appear to be in constant tension between yesh (being) and ayin (nothingness), between immanent and transcendent, between Shekhinah (divinity manifest in creation) and hokhmah (in the Hasidic reworking of the classical Kabbalistic paradigm, hokhmah is the most transcendent part of God which we can aspire to comprehend) -- but in reality the two are always already one. The apparent binarism of thing/no-thing is illusion.

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Earth and whole stones (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion in 2006 for the now-defunct blog Radical Torah.

Much energy and imagination have been devoted to the question of why the aseret dibrot, the utterances given at Sinai, are followed by the instruction to make altars out of earth or whole stone, not stone which has been cut.

In his commentary on the phrase "an altar of earth," Rashi writes, "the altar must be attached to the ground; it should not be built on columns or some other foundation." In other words, the altar -- our mode of communication with God, according to the understanding of that time -- must be rooted in the earth. God is commanding us to "ground" ourselves. And on the matter of uncut stones, the usual explanation is that metal implements suggest or imply swords, which shorten or curtail life -- an action in direct opposition to the enlivening altar. (Well, enlivening for us; not so much for the animals being sacrificed. But we'll let that go.)

The real point of Exodus 20:22 is how to approach and connect with God. And there's much to learn here, even (or especially) in this post-sacrificial age.

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Resources for Tu BiShvat

My friend and colleague Reb David Seidenberg has a beautiful post at The Jew and the Carrot today in celebration of Tu BiShvat (which begins tonight at sundown): Letting the fruit ripen: the blessings of Tu BiShvat. He writes eloquently about the earth-centered spirituality of the Tu BiShvat seder:

Unlike what we do now to our rituals in too many suburban synagogues, when the Kabbalists turned Tu Bish’vat into a spiritual celebration of the Tree of Life, they didn’t forget agriculture and the earth. Rather, for the Kabbalists, a fruit tree was both the ultimate metaphor and manifestation for both the Tree of Life and for the way God’s blessing is manifest in the world. It was and is an image of God, in the full sense of that phrase, uniting heaven and earth through its branches and roots, giving freely of its energy and gifts through its fruit...

Over at his own site,, there's a beautiful section of resources for Tu BiShvat, including a one-page haggadah, instructions on how to run a kabbalistic Tu BiShvat seder, and a blessing from the first published Tu BiShvat seder, the 17th century text Pri Etz Hadar ("Fruit of a Goodly Tree") accompanied by a meditation and instructions for how to use the blessing.

If you're considering having a Tu BiShvat seder tonight, I want to highlight what Reb David says at the beginning of his JCarrot post: this can be a seder which is "truly free-form and creative, without any rules about what we are supposed to do or say." The idea behind the seder is simple: to eat fruits and nuts, and in so doing, to elevate the act of eating into an act of consciousness of the divine flow which fills the fruits of earthly trees and which runs through the cycle of the seasons.

That said, if you're the kind of person who likes to have a written roadmap for your ritual experiences, here are a few. At NeoHasid there's a one-page haggadah and a double-sided study sheet featuring dozens of texts (Hasidic, kabbalistic, and midrashic), both available at One-page Haggadah plus more links. COEJL (the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life) has a page of Tu BiShvat resources including a sample Tu BiShvat haggadah. And a few years ago I put online my own haggadah for this holiday's seder, which can be downloaded here: Haggadah for Tu BiShvat [pdf].

May our celebrations of this New Year of the Trees inspire us to treasure the trees among whom we live, to experience gratitude and joy as we eat of their fruits, and to become ever more conscious of the flow of divinity which connects us with the tree of life.

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"Different Strokes" published in The Women's Times

If you live in the Berkshires or bordering regions in Vermont, Connecticut, or NY, pick up the February issue of The Women's Times and you'll find an essay by me in its pages. Every February TWT does an issue focusing on health; this year they asked me to write an essay about my strokes and their aftermath, seen from the vantage of two years out.

(I'm pretty sure the essay is also in the Pioneer Valley edition; PV readers, can you confirm/deny?)

Many of the observations in the essay may ring a bell to longtime readers of VR. Because the piece begins with the strokes and moves forward through time until now, I touch on several of the stages of my recovery (both physical and emotional) which I chronicled here.

Writing the essay gave me a good opportunity for reflection on the strokes and their lasting implications. Thanks, TWT. (And if any of y'all do read the essay, I'd love to hear your thoughts! Feel free to leave a comment below.)

March 2009 ETA: the essay is now online here.

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Water from the rock (Radical Torah repost)

And here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion in 2007 for the now-defunct Radical Torah! Enjoy, y'all.

This week we're in parashat Beshalach, in which the Israelites pass through the Sea of Reeds and begin their wandering in the wilderness. Late in the parsha, the people camp at Rephidim, where there is no water, and the people begin to grumble. Moses cries out to God, "What shall I do with this people? Before long they will be stoning me!" God offers this in response:

Pass before the people; take with you some of the elders of Israel, and take along the rod with which you struck the Nile, and set out. I will be standing there before you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock and water will issue from it, and the people will drink.

The two obvious questions arising out of these verses are, what does it mean that God will be standing there on the rock, and what does it mean that God tells Moses to strike a rock with his staff?

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Getting ready for the New Year of the Trees

There's always something a little bit funny to me about celebrating the new year of the trees when the trees where I live are leafless and resting quietly beneath snow. This year we haven't seen the ground since -- oh, sometime in the fall, I don't even remember when! It's been sparkling white for a while now. (My favorite kind of winter. If it's going to be cold, it should be cold and beautiful and crisp, like this.)

Much of the Diaspora literature on Tu BiShvat talks about how at this time of year the almond trees are blooming in Israel. (There's a glorious photograph of almond trees in bloom here at Israel the beautiful.) I grew up in south Texas, where trees will start to bloom soon; I remember the exquisite profusion of mountain laurel blooms in March, sweet as honey. So I can imagine trees flowering now...but only in another climate zone, another world. Not here in New England, where all is white.

But our tradition talks about this as the time of year when sap begins to rise in the trees, feeding them for the year to come, and that feels true to me here. (I just checked my favorite sugar shack to see when they're going to start their annual tradition of maple breakfasts; not this weekend, but next.) All around the Berkshires, trees will start sprouting tin buckets -- and their less-picturesque but easier-to-handle descendant, clear plastic tubing running from tree, to tree, to tree, to a basin somewhere downhill.

And the tradition names this as the time to remember our connections with the Tree of Life: with Torah ("she is a tree of life to all who hold her fast," Proverbs 3:18), with the divine emanations which stream forth into creation (which the kabbalists connected in an organic pattern called the Tree of Sefirot.) These resonate with me at this moment of deep winter. What better time to study the wisdom of our tradition than when we are tucked inside our warm houses like seeds waiting to sprout?

Honestly, I like celebrating the New Year of the Trees when the trees around me are dormant. It offers me a reminder that winter is finite. That spring is coming, subtly, in the hidden rising of sap beneath bark. The hidden rising of shefa, divine abundance, even when the world seems cold and inhospitable, when things long-hoped-for seem far away.

Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees, falls on the Gregorian calendar this coming Sunday night and Monday. Read previous years' Tu BiShvat posts here.

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