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Ways to redeem one problematic line (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah.

This week's Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, contains one of the most oft-commented-upon verses in Leviticus: 18:22, the verse which declares lying with a male as one lies with a woman to be to'evah. Who among us isn't aware what reprehensible and soul-crushing teachings and behavior that line has been used to justify?

As a passionate liberal and a passionate Jew, I can't ignore the text or wish it away. All I can do is study. And studying it again this week, I realize anew that a clear and close look at the passage shows a far more nuanced text than simplistic or literalist readings would imply.

Continue reading "Ways to redeem one problematic line (Radical Torah repost)" »

This week's portion: you shall be holy


What is done in the narrow places
from which I have freed you
you shall not do
I am Adonai

Do not take one another
for granted
Don't assume that what you want
is right for everyone

Do not stew in your own resentment
if the dishes are left in the sink
You shall not lash out
You shall not be cruel to one another

If you have power, do not lord it over
someone who is powerless
If someone cares for you, do not take advantage
of their empathy

Don't close your eyes
and pretend
that the person you are with
is someone else

Don't make these mistakes
lest your home become inhospitable
and spit you out on the sidewalk
I am Adonai

This week we're in parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. This portion contains the "holiness code," a long series of injunctions about appropriate ritual and sexual behavior framed with the frequent refrain "You shall be holy, as I, Adonai Your God, am holy."

Last year I wrote a sestina arising out of the first part of this Torah portion, and then a poem exploring boundaries which came out of the second part of the portion. (Last year, this parsha was stretched out over two weeks; this year it's a single double-wide portion.) This year, as I read the portion in preparation for writing a new Torah poem, I was drawn to the holiness code, specifically the sexual prohibitions.

One idea I see at the heart of the holiness code is that we are forbidden from transgressing boundaries in ways which would be destructive. I understand the injunctions against uncovering the nakedness of a family member in this way. And I'm struck, always, by the code's framing device with its mentions of what is done in the land of Mitzrayim and how the children of Israel must differentiate themselves from those practices. This year's Torah poem for this portion went in that direction: imagining relational practices which God is here forbidding us from engaging in.

(For another take on the holiness code, you're welcome to check out the Returning to Mitzrayim, the d'var Torah I wrote for Mosaic's Torah Queeries series last year when this parsha fell right on the cusp of Pesach.) When you read the holiness code this year, what sticks in your craw and what speaks to you?


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I've never been in Israel on Yom ha-Zikaron. (The day's full name is "Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel's Wars and Victims of Terror" -- what a name for a holiday.) I can only imagine what it's like when the air-raid siren sounds and everyone stops where they are for two minutes of silence. I imagine people standing on the sidewalk motionless, cars pausing in the streets. Babies fussing. Dogs barking, or taking a cue from their humans and holding still, too, even if they don't understand why.

Remembrance Day leads right into Independence Day, a gearshift from mourning into celebration. It's easy for me, an American who spent most of the Bush years feeling suckerpunched by the ideas that the federal government held dear, to regard Independence Days (my own, and anybody else's) with a skeptical eye. And as for Memorial Day -- sure, we have one of those here in the States, too; I know it's meaningful to veterans and their families. But there hasn't been military in my family since my grandfather, of blessed memory, retired from doing lung surgery at the VA hospital. I don't know anyone who serves in that capacity. It's distant from me, always at a remove.

Not so in Israel. With the exception of the ultra-Orthodox, everyone serves. Everyone has lost colleagues, fellow soldiers, friends. Aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, parents. And since the day is designed too for mourning those who died in terror attacks, it becomes doubly-universal. Everyone knows someone who was wounded or killed when a bus blew up or a café exploded.

Continue reading "Remembrance" »

Notes from the field

Glancing back at recent posts here, I realize I've been doing a lot of Radical Torah reposting, and maintaining my practice of writing a Torah poem each week, and from time to time posting about rabbinic school learning, but I haven't been posting much about the ins and outs of ordinary life.

On the upside, I think it's thanks to the copious Radical Torah reposting that I've found this blog listed from time to time in the Biblical Studies Carnival (here's a relatively recent edition.) That's nifty because it's connecting me with a world of bibliobloggers whose words and work I hadn't previously known. I love the Venn diagram of the internet, how even the religion blogosphere is divided and subdivided into so many communities which interrelate.

On the downside, I'm aware that perhaps not all of y'all who read this blog are all that psyched about divrei Torah, and I worry sometimes that the rabbinic school posts I'm making these days are a bit too heady for popular consumption -- I'm aware that most people just aren't as enthused as I am about esoteric snippets of Hasidic commentary, bizarre though that may seem to me! It occurs to me that when I began this blog in 2003, I felt like an outsider to the rabbinic establishment. These days, as I move through my fourth year as a rabbinic student, I'm becoming an insider to some parts of the rich world of rabbinic scholarship. The change has been a blessing for me, but I don't want to lose the folks who've been reading VR since the early days. It's something to ponder.

But life isn't all school, not even for me. I'm grateful that spring is upon us. We hit the fish fry recently for the first time this season. The forsythia bush in our back yard burst into brilliant yellow flame a day or two ago, and now tiny leaflets are creeping their way up the raspberry canes and the smallish trees. I drove to Albany today for a meeting with my chaplaincy supervisor from a few years back, and was amazed that the trees there are a week ahead of the ones at my house.

This past Shabbat I noticed that the willow tree outside the window opposite where I sit in shul is leafing, long chartreuse fronds coming to life. Thanks to a warm spell, the last few nights we've slept with the windows open, marveling at the cries of spring peepers eager to find their mates. The two hyacinths I planted a few years ago -- gifts in a flowerpot one Passover -- have bloomed again, as has the Passover orchid my sister gave me one year after I led seder at her house.

I'm beginning to think about summer. I don't know yet whether the class I'm planning to teach at Kallah is going to run; I hope it does, because I'm excited about it (and it would help pay my way), though if it doesn't fill up, I'll be able to choose another class to take for credit in the ALEPH rabbinic program, which is a silver lining. July seems far away, though.

There's been a lot happening in the lives of people I love, both good things and bad. The great-uncle I visited in January (shortly after my miscarriage) took a nasty fall right after my visit and now spends most of his time sleeping. My best friend's baby, the first child I ever really spent time with in early infancy, will turn seven months old this week. I've been exploring various professional and academic options lately -- more good options than I can possibly fit into a single life. It's hard to say no to wonderful things, even when I know my plate is already about as full as I can handle. But I'm grateful to have an over-full life. It's a good problem to have.

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Health -- and connection with God (Radical Torah repost)

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

Parashat Tazria-Metzorah is upon us again, and with it, descriptions of rashes, discolorations, and affections of the skin which render a person tamei.

One of my teachers talks about taharah and tumah in terms of the ability, or lack of ability, to be close to God. In the days of the Temple, the various experiences which rendered one tamei (including birth, menstruation, sickness, and contact with death) prevented one from approaching the place where the Presence was understood to dwell. A priest was required to judge whether or not the tumah was contagious, or was under control, or had abated enough that the person could re-enter holy space.

I used to read this all prescriptively. As in, these words aimed to tell us what to do and what not to do. In that sense, it's pretty foreign to me, for a variety of reasons. But lately, I've been reading it more descriptively -- as a text which describes something about our limitations and our possibilities. And when I read it that way, it resonates in some interesting ways for me.

Continue reading "Health -- and connection with God (Radical Torah repost)" »

This week's portion: like God



When a woman carries a grain of rice
invisible inside her rounded belly

when she has to pee every half hour
though her bladder isn't under pressure yet

when her breasts grow tender to the touch
and exhaustion wipes her across the floor

when baggy shirts become insufficient
and strangers start darting glances

when people want to rub her belly
as though she were a good-luck Buddha

when her back aches, when what's inside
shifts, kicks her in the ribs, somersaults

when she goes on long walks, eats spicy food
has vigorous sex at 39 weeks, anything

to move them through the narrow place
into whatever liberation is coming

when a woman makes it through labor
(however many hours, drugs, incisions)

when a woman gives birth to an infant --
even the air around her crackles

euphoria and overwhelm and tears
settle in for a month, maybe two

of blood and bodily fluids, tiny fingernails
and eyelashes, everything she thought she knew

changed by the enormity of being like God
and shaping new life in her compassionate womb.

This week's Torah portion, Tazria, begins with verses about how when a woman bears a male infant she will be tamei for a week and will remain in a state of "blood purification" for 33 days. (The meaning of that phrase, says the JPS Torah Commentary, is unclear.) If the baby is a girl, the period of tum'ah and the period of blood purification are each twice as long. "She shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the Temple sanctuary until her period of purification is completed."

This is a challenging passage for many women I know. (Rabbi Deborah Zecher's d'var Torah for this portion offers insights both into its challenges and into how she reconciles herself with the text.) Torah's treatment of women and our bodies is not always what contemporary women might wish for, and to many, this passage feels foreign and uncomfortable at best, especially when tamei is translated as "unclean" or "impure."

When I sat down to write this year's Torah poem for this parsha, I wanted to honor the reality that a woman who gives birth is at the end of one story (the story of the pregnancy and all of its mysterious impacts on her body) and the beginning of another (the story of motherhood, whether new or renewed.) I understand tum'ah as a kind of spiritual and emotional charge built up by contact with life and death. In that context, I can buy that a woman who has given birth comes out of the experience changed, at least for a while.

The Hebrew word for womb is רחם / rechem; the Hebrew word for compassionate is רחמן / rachaman. Every time we call God Ha-Rachaman, "The Compassionate One," we're also subtly hinting at the existence of God's womb. (Kind of brain-breaking if one presumes that the word "God" is masculine, isn't it?) The ability to nurture new life in the womb and then bring it forth into the world is something women have in common with God -- at least on a metaphorical level. For me, thinking of the nameless new mother at the beginning of this Torah portion as being "like God" removes some of the sting this Torah portion might otherwise hold.



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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Meeting "impurity," and being changed (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah.

Parashat Tazria- Metzora used to make me really uncomfortable. I bristled at the notion that bearing a daughter creates twice as long a period of impurity as bearing a son. I couldn't relate to the alleged correlation between eruptive conditions and spiritual impurity. The obsession with pure and impure seemed basically unrelated to the Judaism I know and love and practice.

Over the last year, though, I've started to understand this question of taharah and tumah (loosely, and arguably poorly, translated as "purity" and "impurity") in some new ways. What changed my sense of these concepts (and, by extension, this double-wide Torah portion)? Joining my shul's chevra kadisha (volunteer burial society), and doing an extended unit of CPE.

In other words, coming into direct contact with sickness and with death.

Continue reading "Meeting "impurity," and being changed (Radical Torah repost)" »

Our mouths are the crucible for refining Torah

"God's words are pure words, silver refined in a crucible on the earth." (Psalm 12, verse 7.) Midrash tells us that in the days of David, even babies knew how to expound on the 49 facets of taharah and tum'ah, purity and impurity. The midrash explains how to find purity: through the power of divine speech. All things that are created are drawn forth through 10 utterances; the purity associated with divine speech is therefore found within them.

This is the Sefat Emet, from his commentary on parashat Emor, which we've been studying in my Moadim L'Simcha ("Seasons of Our Rejoicing") class on the Hasidic sacred year. The text is dense and allusive, but bear with me: this passage is going to go somewhere really gorgeous.

In the Hasidic understanding, 49 is the number of "gates" or "facets" of impurity (I blogged about that during the lead-up to Purim -- teasing out another Sefat Emet text, actually.) One interpretation of this puzzling midrash about babies suggests that someone who's really attuned can render the divine word into 49 different levels of purity or impurity, and in the days of King David, everyone was so steeped in Torah that even babies could spin interpretations to knock your socks off. Though the word tinok, a baby, literally means one who is suckling. Maybe the midrash is speaking metaphorically about one who is nourished by the Torah.

The 49 gates or facets of purity and impurity can also be read as the 49 days of the Omer, the days we count between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation. (I've blogged about counting the Omer in years past; here's Rabbi Shai Gluskin's excellent explanation.) And the 10 utterances? Kabbalistically, these are the 10 sefirot, the ten facets or aspects of God. During sefirat ha-Omer (the counting of the Omer) we move through the prism of seven of those sefirot. God speaks the world into being through ten utterances, but the highest three are like a dog whistle -- they resonate on a level we can't perceive. Our experience is mediated through the lower seven sefirot, and those are what we move through as we count the Omer: a week of chesed/lovingkindness, a week of gevurah/boundaries, etc. These are our 49 gates.

All things are created by means of these 10 utterances. And we draw from them, and find purity in them. It's humanity's obligation to awaken that purity. This is what "silver smelted in a crucible on the earth" means. Through living in corporeality, on the earth, one can clarify this silver. The mouth of a person is a kiln for refining the letters of Torah.

That's the line that really knocks me out: a person's mouth is a kiln for refining the letters of Torah.

Continue reading "Our mouths are the crucible for refining Torah" »

Holiness, wildlife, keeping awake (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote about this week's portion back in 2007, originally published at Radical Torah. Enjoy!

I have a sister-in-law who teaches biology at a prep school. She has played host to a bizarre variety of creatures. Once, I’m pretty sure, she had a tarantula in a terrarium. For a while she kept snakes. And these days, her lab is home to some kind of spiny lizard, who puffs himself up every time anyone who might demand attention enters the room.

I thought about all of these erstwhile pets while reading this week’s Torah portion, parashat Shmini, which details a list of animals the Israelites are permitted to eat (and forbidden from eating), and then an even longer list of animals whose very presence (especially when dead) transmits tum’ah (ritual impurity) even by touch.

Next week we’ll look again at how Torah regards childbirth as an automatic conferrer of tum’ah. Even liberal Jews who may not structure their lives or worldviews in terms of taharah and tum’ah can parse the notion that birth and death charge our spiritual lives with a kind of dangerous energy that can take a while to dissipate. But what’s the big deal about touching your neighborhood gecko, millipede, or furry spider? What is this stuff doing in our Torah?

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This week's portion: clear


When you enter
be clear as a glassy lake

senses alert
to every scent and sound

no wine shall cross your lips
no intoxicants, nothing

to loosen your limbs
or slur your speech

God demands presence
not distraction, not the

continuous partial attention
you give everyone else

if you can't promise that
don't come

In this week's portion, Sh'mini, we read about Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu who brought "strange fire" before God and died as a result. This challenging parable has been interpreted in different ways. Some read it as an indication that our mode of worship should be unchanging. Others note that God's next instruction to Aaron is not to enter the tent of meeting under the influence of intoxicants; were his sons drunk when they came before God? Some read Nadav and Avihu's death as punishment, others as reward; Aaron must have grieved their loss fiercely, but the text only tells us that he was silent.

(As contemporary commentaries go, I'm especially fond of this week's d'var Torah from Temple Emanuel in New York, written by Sherry Nehmer, which presents the curious case of Nadav and Avihu as a Sherlock Holmes story. Those among y'all who read my twitter feed saw this link yesterday; sorry for the repeat, but it's just too good not to share in both places!)

For me this year, this is a story about how a genuine encounter with God is dangerous. In today's world we may not fear the bolt of divine lightning, but it might behoove us to take seriously this idea that truly coming before God can be spiritually risky. Really opening ourselves up to an encounter with the holy is a scary endeavor. We may come to understand things about ourselves which are difficult to face.

This week's Torah poem arose from Leviticus 10:8-9, "And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying: Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die." God, it seems to me, wants us to be wholly present, our minds least sometimes. I'm curious to know how the poem, and how this verse, reads to you. What do you take away from this strange and painful story this year?


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Sex, Gender, and God at Zeek

The spring 2009 print issue of Zeek magazine is on the theme of Sex, Gender, and God. Guest-edited by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, the issue features essays by Jo Ellen Green Kaiser ("Do We Still Need Jewish Feminism?"), Rabbi Elliot Kukla ("Lepers and me"), Rabbi Julia Watts Belser ("Speaking of Goddess") and Judith Plaskow ("Why Feminist Theology Matters"), among others. Also poems by Eve Grubin and Alicia Ostriker, and visual art by Elyse Taylor, Bara Sapir, Rachel Kantor, and many others.

My contribution to the issue is an interview with Rachel Adler, author of the classic Engendering Judaism. Rachel and I spoke about how Engendering Judaism is still a radical text, how she came to self-define as a theologian, and what gives her hope for the future of Jewish liturgical creativity, among other things. Here's a taste:

ZEEK: You write, "Engendering Judaism requires two tasks. The critical task is to demonstrate that historical understandings of gender affect all Jewish texts and contexts and hence require the attention of all Jews. But this is only the first step. There is also an ethical task." This puts me in mind of Rabbi Akiva's response to the question of which is greater, study or action: "study, if it leads to action." What kind of action do you hope our continuing study of these issues will spur us to undertake?

ADLER: Understanding that gender practices change according to social and historical context means that we could intentionally reenvision and reshape gender practices. What would we want to create? A world where no female babies die of malnutrition because they are fed last? A world where no women are disadvantaged simply because they are women and not men? A world where women entering a profession such as law, medicine or, for that matter, the rabbinate, doesn't cause masculine flight to some other profession? Or the activity of women in congregations or in the pulpit doesn't make men take their marbles and go home? A world where there are many shades of gender and sexuality, not just two?

The whole interview is available in the print edition of the magazine. You can subscribe to the print edition of Zeek here. Thanks to everyone involved with putting out the issue; I hope y'all enjoy!

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Song for the seventh day

In my Moadim l'Simcha class ("Seasons of our Rejoicing" -- the class on the Hasidic spiritual year) we've been reading a difficult but beautiful text from Netivot Shalom by Rabbi Shalom Noach Barzovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe. (For those who are curious, there's a partial translation of Netivot Shalom online here.) The text we're reading is a commentary on parashat Beshalach, the Torah portion which contains the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and the "Song of the Sea" which the Israelites sing on the far shore. Traditionally, that song is studied on the seventh day of Pesach, which in the rabbinic understanding is the day when the Israelites actually took the leap of plunging into the waters.

The Slonimer writes that there are three levels of emunah, "faith" or "trust": the emunah of the heart, the emunah of the mind, and the emunah of the body. And the highest of these is the emunah of the body. When we fully embody our faith in God, then the divine presence dwells in us, and that is when we are able to sing the song our redemption song. (I blogged about this a few years ago in a post called Embodied trust, after reading part of this text in translation. In this class we're reading the text in the original, which is more challenging but proportionally more rewarding, too.) Beneath the extended-entry tag I'd like to unpack this text a little further, and share some of what touches me in it.

Continue reading "Song for the seventh day" »

Why innovative prayer isn't "strange fire" (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah.

Parashat Shemini contains one of the most striking short stories in all of Torah: the death of Nadab and Abihu.

Now Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before Adonai alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from Adonai and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of Adonai. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what Adonai meant when He said: / Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, / And assert My authority before all the people.” / And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:1-3)

It’s a harrowing tale, particularly for those of us who favor the occasional liturgical innovation. Orthodox rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch famously drew an analogy between Nadab and Abihu and Reform and Conservative leaders who presume to make changes in Jewish tradition. It’s easy to read this as a parable of why Jewish religious practice needs to stay the same: because the Holy Blessed One smites those who dare to make changes in the determined order of things. Easy…but simplistic. And limited. And arguably incorrect.

It’s disingenuous to claim that there’s only one way to reach out to God in Judaism when even the most cursory glance at the tradition shows this isn’t so. Prayer, the “service of the heart,” long ago replaced the old sacrificial system as our primary mode of drawing-near to God. Change is possible, because change has come to pass. What’s more, change can be fruitful. There may have been only one correct way to offer sacrifices, but there are a great many valid and appropriate ways to pray.

Continue reading "Why innovative prayer isn't "strange fire" (Radical Torah repost)" »

A field trip into Easter

Six years ago, I attended Easter services in Williamstown for the first time. Our friend Bernard was here that year and needed a place to worship. He was far away from his home church of St. Kizito's in Nima, Accra, and he'd had a rough Holy Week, which had included the death of one of his sisters and the  robbery of his house back home. Easter that year fell on his birthday, so we offered to take him to church and then out for a birthday/Easter brunch...but Ethan came down with the flu, so I gathered a couple of friends and we took Bernard to daven at St. John's.

Going in to the experience, I felt oddly nervous. I was worried that I might stand out as an obvious outsider -- and worried too that I might blend in, that it might be spiritually dishonest of me to "pass." Mostly I worried about whether I would feel comfortable. In college I sang with a madrigal ensemble which often performed in churches during Holy Week, and on one memorable occasion the sermon was about how the Cross is meant to be a "stumbling block to the Jews." (I don't remember where that was; only that I ran out of the sanctuary in tears, and that the most ardent Christians in the a cappella ensemble followed me to offer comfort, bless them.)

Anyway. On Easter morning in 2003 I parked my car down the block from the church and emerged to see the rector of St. John's standing outside. He'd just come from the early morning service, and was getting ready to do the 10am. He saw a friend across the street, beamed a hundred-watt smile, gave him two big thumbs-up and called "He is Risen!"

In that moment, I knew I was going to be just fine.

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Meditation on dew

Image courtesy of flickr user PentaxFanatiK

On the first day of Pesach, our daily liturgy changes subtly. There's a place in the amidah -- the standing prayer central to every Jewish service -- where we recite a one-line prayer for rain during the winter, and a one-line prayer for dew during the summer. This is the day when we mark that shift, and we commemorate it by reciting a special prayer called tefilat tal, the prayer for dew.

What follows is a tiny meditation on tefilat tal, the prayer for dew.

In my community we no longer daven musaf on Shabbat or festivals. Today this will be our musaf: this chance to stand before God -- whatever we understand that term to mean: God far above, or God deep within -- and together recite tefilat tal, the prayer for dew.

Geshem and tal: rain and dew. We pray for each in its season, geshem all winter and tal as summer approaches...not here in the Berkshires, necessarily, but in the land of Israel where our prayers have their roots.

In a desert climate, water is clearly a gift from God. It's easy for us to forget that, here with all of this rain and snow. But our liturgy reminds us.

Through the winter months, during our daily amidah we've prayed "mashiv ha-ruach u-morid ha-gashem" -- You cause the winds to blow and the rains to fall! We only pray for rain during the rainy season, because it is frustrating both to us and to God when we pray for impossibilities.

Today we recite a special prayer for dew -- and from here on out, during the daily amidah we pray "morid ha-tal," praising God for creating life-giving dew. As we daven this prayer, notice how it feels to return to the word "tal" which ends each line; this prayer mirrors the Arabic poetic form called ghazal, and that repeated end-word is like a refrain.

Throughout the Psalms, dew represents blessing, a gift from God.

Dew is sustenance which arises as if by magic. Overnight, something mysterious occurs and when we wake water gilds the grasses and the fields. (Of course, the scientific processes are well-understood -- I'm sure it has something to do with temperatures and condensation -- but I prefer to think of dew as a mystery.) Dew represents divine grace: omnipresent, mysterious, blessing everyone equally no matter who we are.

The imagery of tefilat tal is sweet. We ask God to let dew drop sweetly on the blessed land, to let dew sweeten the honey of the hills. Sweet water is required in order for us to inhabit the land -- both the land of Israel, and this land of the Berkshires where we have made our home.

I see the prayer for dew as a chance to practice gratitude for everything necessary and wonderful and ineffable which sustains us. Maybe it's the literal dew you'll find in a few months on the strawberry leaves at Caretaker Farm, where I see so many friends on Shabbat once summer gets underway; maybe it's something more metaphorical. What is the dew for which you are most grateful?

What does it mean to you to rise and be grateful for dew?

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Sun salutations

The sky was still dark when we gathered in the parking lot of Mount Greylock Regional High School. There was a Box o'Joe in the back of my rabbi's car, and we crowded around it as though at a tailgate party, warming our hands on our cups.

Once we had all gathered -- maybe fifteen adults, and half a dozen children of varying ages -- we walked down the road to Green River Farms, and crossed route 7 to enter their apple orchard. There are connections between Pesach and apple orchards -- see Reb Arthur Waskow's Charoset and Sex: A Recipe, in Zeek -- so it seemed appropriate. This apple orchard is dormant, a tight weave of bare trees dreaming of spring.

I got to read one of my favorite poems aloud. I've encountered it before in ritual settings but it's never seemed so perfect as it did today:

i thank You God for most this amazing

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

-- ee cummings

Happy birthday, sun!

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A poem for Pesach

Pesach is almost upon us! Tomorrow I'll wake up early for birkat ha-chamah, detour to Pittsfield to pick up a dozen haggadot from Staples, and then high-tail it for Boston to have seder with my sister and her family.

As a holiday gift, I offer one of my favorite Pesach preparation poems. (This appears in my haggadah, so those of you who use the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach may recognize it from previous years...) I doubt I'll be online at all tomorrow, so: for those of you who celebrate, may your Pesach journey be sweet!


Breakfast on kosher macaroons and Diet Pepsi
in the car on the way to Price Chopper for lamb.

Peel five pounds of onions and let the Cuisinart
shred them while you push them down and weep.

Call your mother because you know she’s preparing
too, because you want to ask again whether she cooks

matzah balls in salted water or broth, because you can.
Crumble boullion cubes like clumps of wet sand.

Remember the precise mixing order, beating
then stirring then folding, so that for one moment

you can become your grandfather.
Remember the year he taught you this trick

not the year his wife died scant weeks before seder
and he was already befuddled when you came home.

Realize that no matter how many you buy
there are never quite enough eggs at Pesach

especially if you need twelve for the kugel
and eighteen for the kneidlach and another dozen

to hardboil and dip in bowls of stylized tears.
Know you are free! What loss. What rejoicing.

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A poem that makes me weep

My friend Megan sent me the link to a poem which knocks me right out. It makes me weep. In honor of national poetry month, in honor of this amazing poem and the surely amazing poet who crafted it, I encourage all of y'all to go and read.

The poem is by Dr. Mohja Kahf, born in Damascus and now a professor in Arkansas. (Here's a NYTimes article about her for those who are curious.) To me it reads as contemporary creative midrash (and perhaps also a form of tafsir?) It takes this story which is central to each tradition (though told differently, understood differently, by "us" and by "them") and on the hooks the story provides, hangs a new narrative which changes everything. This is transformative work, on every level.

The poem begins:

All Good

     They see it as far-off,
      but We see it as near
      Quran, The Ways of Ascent 70:6-7

Out in the blue infinitude
that reaches and touches us
sometimes, Hajar and Sarah
and Abraham work together
to dismantle the house of fear, brick
by back-breaking brick.
With a broom of their own weaving,
they sweep the last remains
away. They sit down for a meal
under the naked stars.

Ismaïl and Isaac come around shyly,
new and unlikely companions.
Hajar introduces them
to her second and third husbands
and a man from her pottery class
who is just a friend.
Hajar's twelve grandchildren
pick up Sarah's twelve at the airport.
The great-grandchildren appear,
set down their backpacks,
and tussle to put up the sleeping tents,
knowing there will be no more rams,
no more blood sacrifice...

Read the whole thing here. Holy wow.

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Exiting Mitzrayim

One more quick Blessing the Sun note: Nava Tehila, the Jewish Renewal community of Jerusalem (about whom I have posted before; here's my review of their latest cd) has posted music for the blessing of the sun. At that website you can stream audio-only or you can watch them perform the tunes via YouTube. Whether or not you're planning to learn their music in time for Birkat ha-Chamah, it's beautiful stuff and well worth a listen.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs has posted a pdf designed to be a haggadah bookmark, which contains a short text about exiting the Mitzrayim (narrow place) of despair in these dark financial times. It's here: Escape from the New Mitzrayim [pdf].

I've been thinking lately about what constitutes the personal Mitzrayim from which I need liberation this year. I want to be liberated from feeling myself constricted by things that are tough: the economy, finances, health problems plaguing people I love. Facing the economic nightmare is difficult. Facing the reality that we live in fragile bodies which don't always work is difficult. When I'm at my best, I think I can respond to these truths with equanimity and grace. But lately I've struggled with overwhelm, which is self-perpetuating. It's hard to wake up with modah ani ("I am grateful before You...") on my lips when I'm feeling like the tough stuff is hemming me in.

Again I return to the distinction between ontology and epistemology, between the way things "actually are" and the way I perceive them to be. The ontology of the situation isn't likely to change anytime soon, and beyond that, it's not under my control. I can't change the world financial situation. I can't change the reality that we live in bodies which break. What I can change is my reaction to things-as-they-are. I can change how I experience them, by committing myself to recognizing that I can feel expansive, liberated, grateful even though the world isn't always an easy place to live.

Everything hangs on that even though. I have to find a way to feel grateful for the innumerable blessings in my life even though other things are tough. I have to find a way to understand (again) that I'm always already liberated, that the freedom we celebrate at Pesach is always real. That's what redemption means. We speak in our liturgy about God Who redeems us from slavery -- that's always ongoing.

In every generation we're commanded to see ourselves as though we, ourselves, had been liberated from Mitzrayim. This year, I think my Mitzrayim is the feelings of overwhelm in which I've allowed myself to become constricted. Pesach offers me a reminder, and an opportunity, to commit myself to breaking free. (If this way of thinking is fruitful for you, I'd love to see others' responses to the question of "from what do you need to be liberated this year" -- as comments on this post, or as posts on your own blogs.)

That said: as much as I love the reading of the Pesach story which holds that we can understand the  Exodus as a parable of self-actualization and liberation from internal constriction, there's a danger in that reading. One can become so absorbed in navel-gazing that one forgets that the entire world is in need of redemption. Rabbi Jill's haggadah insert reminds me of that. She writes:

By giving tzedakah, by working for policies that will create opportunity for everyone, and by helping to create a more just society, we too can make the divine presence evident among us, even – or especially – in difficult times, and will lift ourselves collectively out of the narrowness of Mitzrayim.

The Exodus was a corporate experience. Our story tells us that the Israelites and a "mixed multitude" left Egypt together, fleeing constriction and heading toward a new life of liberation and covenant. My own personal story of liberation each year has to be balanced with an awareness of our communal story of liberation -- and with the obligation to act to help lift others out of constriction, too.

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Priestly ordination: hearing, doing, walking (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah.

סמכ: the root means "lean, lay, rest, support." It's a laying-on of hands. We use it today for the ordination of rabbis, but in this week’s Torah portion we see the word's older usage, in the description of how Aaron and his sons became the first Israelite priests.

It's an intense ceremony. It requires Moses, and Aaron, and Aaron's sons; vestments and anointing oil; a bull of sin-offering, two rams, and a basket of unleavened bread; and the witnessing power of the entire community, gathered at the Tent of Meeting. Three animals will be leant-upon, then slaughtered, then consumed by mouth and by fire. Of these sacrifices, perhaps the strangest and most intense is the ram of ordination — leant-upon, slaughtered, and its blood used as paint upon Aaron and his sons' right ears, thumbs, and big toes before the fat parts of the ram (and the breads from the basket) are held up as an elevation-offering and burnt.

Earlier in the portion we read that we are absolutely, positively not to eat blood; it belongs to Adonai, and anyone who eats it is to be cut off from his kin. Blood is a symbol of life-force in a visible and visceral way. As we will learn, contact with blood makes us tamei, charged with the power of spiritual impurity. And here, blood is used to mark Aaron and his sons as priests for all time.

I imagine it was still warm when Moses painted it on. According to God's instructions he anointed each man with blood in three places: the ridge of his right ear, his right thumb, and his right big toe. Why these three places? What can we learn from this esoteric ritual which will speak to our lives?

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