Previous month:
April 2009
Next month:
June 2009

Shavuot teaching: in your face!

Here's the teaching I offered during our tikkun leyl Shavuot this year. I give this over in the name of my teacher Reb Elliot Ginsburg, who guided us through this text in his Hasidic Sacred Year class recently. The translation below is my own; parenthetical material is my attempt to keep things clear.

We began with a chant (שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד/ Shiviti Adonai l'negdi tamid / I keep God before me always) and then dove into this text. It's dense but beautiful; I hope you enjoy!

Seeing the Aleph at Sinai / "In Your Face!"

Zera Kodesh, Naftali Tzvi Horowitz of Ropczyce [1760-1827], vol. II, p.40a, Jerusalem, 1971

In the midrash, we read "Anochi/I am Adonai your God" (Exodus/Shmot 20:2 -- this is the first of the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Utterances or Sayings.) The midrash around this verse says, "Face to face God spoke with them on the mountain from amidst the fire." (Deuteronomy/Dvarim 5:4) Said Rabbi Avdumi from Haifa, (quoting Midrash Rabbah), 22,000 angels came down with the Holy Blessed One to Sinai. As it's written (Psalm 68:18) "God rides with his entourage, twice ten thousand, myriads of angels, and the Lord is among them at Sinai in holiness."

Some say "The holy name YHVH is written on their hearts." Another opinion: the Name is within them. Our rabbis teach that the name of Elohim is mixed into each of the angels: Micha-El, Gavri-El. So God says to the people Israel, you will see in the divine Face many faces (or: see the divine Face in the many angelic faces); but don't be of the opinion that there are many gods in heaven! And know that I am one God, as it says, Anochi Adonai elohecha.

This can be explained in the fashion that I heard from the mouth of my teacher, Menachem Mendel of Riminav, who quoted Psalm 62:12 -- "One thing was spoken, two things have I heard." (In other words: God may say one thing, and we hear it in two different ways. Or maybe we hear it in as many ways as we are individuals!) It's possible that when God spoke at Sinai, we only heard the א / aleph (the silent first letter) of the word Anochi from the Holy Blessed One. Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) writes that "A wise man's lips bring him favor" (which is obviously the case with this teacher of mine, who was wise indeed.)

Understand that the holy words of the living God are "like fire, says God, like a hammer that shatters the rock." (God's words come into creation with great power and force. Or, maybe he's comparing his teacher's words to God's words -- since his teacher's words, when they encounter Torah, break it into many beautiful pieces for us to savor.)

We also need to understand what's written in Torah, that "face to face" or "multiple faces, God spoke with us from within the fire on the mountain." But it's also written in Torah that "you didn't see, on the day that Adonai spoke to us within the fire, except for a voice." (So one verse says that God spoke to us face to face, but another verse says we saw nothing but a voice.)

Our ancestors, of blessed memory, wrote sweetly that we should hold God in front of us at all times. They wrote books of wisdom in which the holy and unpronounceable name YHVH is hinted-at by the (silent) letter aleph.

The aleph is written in the form of a vav with two yuds attached. (Picture a slantwise ו / vav, with one י/ yud above it and another below: that's what a printed א / aleph looks like.) In gematria, Jewish word-math, we see that this deconstructed aleph adds up to 26 (vav = 6, each yud = 10) and the holy name YHVH also adds up to 26 (10 + 5 + 6+ 5).

But where this is really hinted-at is in the face of a person: one's two eyes are the two yuds, and the nose is like a letter vav, and in this way the face takes on the form of the letter aleph. This is what it means when it says (in Genesis/Bereshit) that we're created in God's image. The letter aleph is hidden in plain sight on the human face, and since the aleph represents the holy Name, that means each person's face has the holy Name on/in it.

This is the seal of God that is inscribed on the human face, and this is why we are instructed to see the likeness of the Holy Blessed One in one another. And this is why "I keep God before me always" is a fundamental principle in Torah. We are called to see God in each other human being, because God is within us.

And when we were blessed to be among those at Sinai, and heard the voice and "saw" what was spoken, we saw this form of the letter aleph which points to the divine name, and understood it to be the form of their own faces.


1) Do you perceive a tension between the idea that God spoke to us at Sinai face-to-face, and the idea that we didn't see anything but a voice?

2) What is the difference between having God "on your heart" and having God written "on your face"? Is one more internal than the other?

3) What are the ethical implications of seeing God in every human face?

4) How might we live with "I keep God before me always" as a mantra or motto?

Technorati tags: , , , , .

Standing again at Sinai

My shul and the shul up the road joined forces again to spend Shavuot together, singing and noshing and learning well into the night. This year we had nine lessons on tap:

  • The many faces of Torah - Rabbi Pam Wax

  • Maimonides and Jewish teachings on saving a life - Bill

  • Akdamut and Sacred Melodies - Cantor Lisa Arbisser

  • The changing meaning of the land of Israel in Jewish thought - Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser

  • A philosophical lesson on the akedah - Jesse

  • The Music and Poetry of the Book of Psalms - Cantor Bob Scherr

  • A lesson on Brit Milah - Joan

  • Water and Revelation: Let's Go Down to the River to Pray - Rabbi Joshua Boettiger

  • Seeing the Aleph at Sinai (a.k.a. "In Your Face!") - me

(As in years past, when lessons are taught by congregants I'm listing them by first name only, in case anyone has privacy concerns. Clergy who teach lessons get whole names, since I figure our names tend to be pretty public anyway.)

I'll post my own lesson momentarily, in case anyone's curious; it's a gorgeous text and I was delighted to be able to teach it! In a happy coincidence, I exchanged email recently with a leader from a synagogue in Buenos Aires, and sent him both the Hebrew text and my English translation, so I think this same text was taught in BA on Shavuot eve, too. What a delightfully small world it is sometimes.

Our tikkun wrapped up around 3ish, and by the time we were through with our brief closing ceremony (passing the Torah from person to person, each cradling her for a time, and then reciting a kaddish d'rabanan to seal our study) it was 3:30. The rational thing to do would have been to come home, but some of the Bennington folks were planning to last all night and urged me to join them! So I drove up to Bennington with them and settled into Vi's lovely home (all bright colors and artwork everywhere) and we talked about our Omer journeys and then listened to the last of Reb Nachman's Seven Beggars folktales. And by the time that ended, the sky was lightening and it was dawn.

It's been years since I've actually stayed up all night on Shavuot; I expect I'll regret it later today, at least physically. But there is something amazing and unique about the feeling of learning Torah all night, opening myself to the insights which arise in new ways in the dark, especially knowing that so many others around the world were doing the very same thing. Chag sameach, everyone -- I hope your holiday is sweet.

Technorati tags: , , , .

12 Torah Tweets

Rabbi Shai Gluskin (@rabbishai) is one of the most avid twitterers I know. He recently created Torah Tweets, a place for those who twitter Torah to self-aggregate. (About that.) He launched it just in time for Shavuot, which begins tonight at sundown; he's also been promoting the pre-Shavuot project of twittering as much Torah as we can during the day leading up to the festival, as a way of celebrating Torah and getting ourselves intellectually and spiritually ramped-up for the holiday. In 140-character bite-sized pieces, naturally.

I haven't been on Twitter very long -- only a few months, which makes me quite a newcomer to the medium. It's weird to be such a late adopter, but I resisted it for a long time. I didn't see what was so interesting about answering the question "what are you doing?" But once I started poking around Twitter, I realized that a lot of people use the medium in creative ways (e.g. not just to offer updates on sitting in traffic or ordering lunch), and also that it's a fun way to keep in touch with some of my friends who don't blog -- and to see a different facet of some who do.

Anyway, I'm digging it a lot. I like writing within the constraints of the form (like writing haiku -- predictably I twittered a lot of haiku when I was starting out, though the frequency of those small poems has decreased as I've found other ways of writing small) and I like the conversational quality that the medium encourages. Anyway: today I've been making a ton of tiny Torah posts! In case any of you who read this blog aren't on twitter (or happen not to be following @velveteenrabbi), but are curious about the kinds of tiny teachings one can twitter, beneath the cut you'll find a dozen of today's #Torah tweets from me.

Enjoy, and may your Shavuot be sweet!

Continue reading "12 Torah Tweets" »

OCHO #24: Twitter Poets

Early this month, Collin Kelley posted about poets on twitter, and a list of poets who twitter quickly accrued.

Because this is the internet and because collaborative joint projects are fun, the list of twitter poets quickly turned into a call for submissions as Collin and Didi Menendez decided to put together a special issue of OCHO dedicated to Twitter Poets. And that issue just came out! It's available for free (as a download or to read online) at issu, and a print-on-demand issue will be available in hardcopy soon. I'm pleased to announce that one of my poems appears there.

OCHO #24 (@ issuu) - read it online or download

or, order a print copy (coming soon) - OCHO #24 (The Twitter Edition)

I especially like Marie-Elizabeth Mali's "I Celebrate the Husband" (p. 24), with the line "I plunge greedy hands in -- my green / my fear -- and never come up empty," and Stacie Boschma's "Why My Mouth is Always Filled With Feathers" (p. 22) which begins "There are crows in the sky like poems."

Thanks for bringing this cool project so quickly to fruition, Didi and Collin. I'm jazzed to be a part of it.

Technorati tags: , , .

Vortex: a radiant node or cluster

Lately I've been cleaning out my study. I've had this same study for ten years, and I have packrat tendencies, so the cleaning-out is long overdue. The cleaning and reorganizing has been deeply satisfying. It's allowed me to rid the world of a lot of dust bunnies, and to throw things away, which can be pleasantly cathartic. More than that, it's allowed me a chance to rediscover and sort my books (poetry over here, rabbinic texts over there) and to excavate my memories and hold each one up to the light for a while.

During one day of cleaning, I spent a solid hour immersed a pile of notebooks from my years at Bennington. They're plain narrow-ruled spiral-bound notebooks, which were also my journals of choice for a number of years; they doubled as a place to take workshop notes, so now they offer a record of the experience on two levels at once.

I don't write much about Bennington here, but it was pretty formative for me. Next month will mark ten years since I graduated. I can't imagine when I'll ever wear my master's hood again, not being the sort of academic who routinely marches in commencement ceremonies, but Bennington was an amazing experience. It was an apprenticeship in learning to take myself seriously as a writer. If there is good in the poems I'm writing now, ten years later, credit is surely due to the writers with whom I studied there.

There's something powerful about immersing in old journals. It's amazing how quickly the old emotional dynamics come spinning back. One of the first scribblings I read was "Vortex: a radiant node or cluster," which was written on a blackboard the day my cohort arrived at Bennington. That was the phrase that Liam Rector, of blessed memory, used to describe the Bennington experience. A vortex, in Ezra Pound's locution, was something "from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing." Bennington was a vortex, for sure.

Reading these journals feels like stepping back into that vortex. The emotional ups and downs of having my work critiqued. The interpersonal politics of the residency experience: when I felt securely-planted and when I felt peripheral. And, of course, the rushing waters of my ordinary life, within which the residencies were contained. From being newly-engaged, down the long road to becoming married. The ups and downs as my parents and I began to navigate new ways to relate. Buying our first house, in which we still reside.

I couldn't have imagined, then, that I would be in my fourth year of rabbinic school now. My relationship with Judaism was complicated in those years. But many of my best poems from those years were my Judaic poems. I had an advisor who counseled me to try writing prayers or psalms -- advice I wasn't ready to take then, but have long since taken to heart.

An oft-mentioned statistic at Bennington during my years there was that ten years after graduation, most MFA-holders are no longer writing regularly. Though the poem a week I'm committed to now (sometimes I write more, but sometimes not) is scant output compared with the times at Bennington when I wrote a poem a day, I'm grateful that poetry is still one of the primary ways I interact with the world. And I'm grateful to have created a place at Velveteen Rabbi where I don't entirely have to separate my Judaic interests from my literary ones.

I think the dual passions feed and inform each other. Those years of intensive immersion in poetry will, I hope, make me a better rabbi... and these years of intensive immersion in Judaic studies and rabbinics are, I hope, making me a better poet. As I re-shelve my books, there are well-defined sections of the library for Judaic subjects (liturgy, Talmud, Zohar, Hasidut) and for poetry -- but there are also shelves where the two interrelate and intertwine. That's the kind of integration I aspire to now: to read (and write) Jewish texts with an eye to their poetry, and to read (and write) poetry with the Jewish sensibility that's central to who I am and what I do.

Technorati tags: , .

Getting back on the wagon

I don't know how it happened, exactly, but this spring I fell off the prayer wagon.

Not wholly, you understand. I was still making it to Shabbat services, and still sanctifying my day with a myriad of tiny prayer practices: waking up with the blessing for gratitude, saying the blessing for the body as I tend to my morning medical needs, blessing the food that I eat, saying a prayer of gratitude each night for the day now ending. But the discipline of regular daily prayer fell away from me, or I from it, somehow.

My schedule changed and I was no longer able to make it to the weekly telephone minyan with my classmates. My life intensified and I started scrambling to get things done. I can offer explanations and excuses, but what they boil down to is this: I let it slide one day, and the next, and soon that new state of being (not-praying, and feeling vaguely guilty about it) came to seem normal.

Regular prayer is like regular exercise, in that when I'm doing it I feel great about doing it and I want to continue...and when I've lapsed from doing it, the effort of beginning the regimen again can seem insurmountable. Spiritual muscles need stretching as much as physical ones do, and when I fell out of the habit of working them, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by the fact that I'm not managing to do it anymore... instead of taking the simple step of just starting again.

It took a phone call last week with two of my classmates to jolt me out of my spiritual lethargy. We got to talking about spiritual practice and how to rejuvenate it -- how to bring it back to life if it becomes stale, and how to jumpstart it if the rhythm has lapsed -- and one of my friends reminded me not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Just put on tefillin and say a prayer or two, she urged.

So I did. And just like that, I was back in the swing of it again.

I haven't picked my siddur back up. Not yet. What I've been doing is putting on my tallit and tefillin and stepping outside on the deck. I sit on one of the purple wooden Adirondack chairs that Ethan built a few years ago, and I look out over the valley, and I let the prayers rise up in me naturally. This morning it was a handful of the morning blessings, the prayer which praises God Who speaks the world into being, a psalm, and then short chant versions of the three blessings surrounding the shema (and the shema itself) and a walking-meditation amidah during which I walked slowly out to our lilac bush and back, speaking quietly with God as I went.

It's a stripped-down service, but the matbeah tefilah (the structure or frame of the liturgy) is there. It gives me tangible, embodied connection with God again, in the whisper of my summer tallit against my skin and the comforting wrap of my tefillin straps. And it reminds me to take a few minutes out of my day to mindfully connect with gratitude, with wonder at light and love and redemption, and with the God Who is always there to listen if I'll just pick up the metaphysical phone and give a call.

Technorati tags: , , .

Portable holiness (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var I wrote for this week's portion in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah. I also delivered it as a Friday night sermon at Temple Beth El, my parents' congregation, on the occasion of the Shabbat before my mother's birthday.

Late in this week's Torah portion, B'midbar, we get a fascinating description of how the Israelites prepared the Mishkan, the tabernacle, for travel.

When it was time to break camp, the Torah tells us, Aaron and his sons would take down the screening curtain and cover the Ark with it. They would cover that with leather, and then with a cloth of pure blue. The table and its accoutrements -- bowls, ladles, jars, tongs and fire-pans, libation jugs -- would be wrapped in cloths of blue, violet, and crimson, and then in tahash, a yellow-orange leather sometimes translated as dolphin skin. Everything precious in the sanctuary, in fact, was wrapped first in cloth and then in skin, and loaded onto a set of carrying poles for easy transport.

These mentions of fabrics and skins may remind us of the Torah portions we read earlier this spring, which described in loving detail how the Mishkan should be constructed. An astonishing quantity of text is dedicated to the tabernacle and its details. In this week's portion, we learn that the instruments of sacrifice were wrapped not just in cloths but in b'gadim, garments -- a word that ordinarily denotes what people wear. These pieces of the sacrificial system were treated with the same respect as human beings! How can these passages speak to us today, so many centuries distant from a model of interaction with God which required libations and blood, incense and gold?

Continue reading "Portable holiness (Radical Torah repost)" »

This week's portion: head by head


Take a census
family by family
listing the names
every female, head by head

record them in their groups
all those in the community
who can weave wool
and spin tales

do this with women
alongside you, each one
the recognized head
of her ancestral house

count each girl and woman
able to plant seed
and nurture new growth
to turn grain into bread

each one who can teach
the ways of her mothers
imagine if our Torah said this
how different our story would be

This week's portion, Bamidbar, begins with instructions to take a census of the Israelites, head by head, each man attached to his ancestral household. In some ways it's a peculiar locution, given that Judaism has historically operated in terms of matrilineal descent. (Today the Reform movement accepts patrilineal descent as well, though it's still a controversial subject in many quarters.) The tradition traces Jewishness through the mother, but this census takes note of men and their fathers -- no mention of the women at all. That's the disjunction out of which this week's poem arose.


Technorati tags: , , , , .

Reb Zalman reads the book of Ruth

The book of Ruth is traditionally studied at Shavuot. (I've blogged about this before: Ruth: Returning where we've never been.)

If you're interested in hearing the story of Ruth told in a unique way, allow me to recommend a set of YouTube videos of my teacher Reb Zalman. There are seven of them in total, adding up to 35 minutes, and you can find them here. Here's part one:

The Book of Ruth told by Reb Zalman - part 1.

This is a recent video, filmed last year; Reb Zalman translates the text on the fly, occasionally chanting a line or two and offering his own interpretations. Though the text is traditional, his rendering is very much his own, and it is lovely.

This was taped at the new home of Elat Chayyim (the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center.) Given that Reb Zalman and many of my friends (seen when the camera pans the room) are wearing tallitot, and that there's a Torah scroll wrapped in front of Reb Zalman in front of the room, I'm guessing this may have been part of the extended Shavuot morning Torah service.

Reb Zalman will again be teaching at Elat Chayyim this Shavuot; would that there were two of me and I could attend! Instead I'll be here, celebrating Shavuot with my own community. Still, hearing him give over this lovely interpretation of the text makes me miss the retreat experience a little less.

Technorati tags: , , , , .

Anticipating Shavuot

Shavuot is coming up fast: next Thursday night, a mere ten days from now. I just put together the lesson that I'll be teaching at our tikkun (late-night study session): a gorgeous short Hasidic text about what we heard / saw at Sinai, which contains implications for how we should treat one another and how we should live mindfully. It's the final text that we studied in my Moadim l'Simcha (Hasidic sacred year) class. I've excerpted part of my translation of it, and put it together with some discussion questions. It's a really beautiful piece of writing; I'll post it here after our tikkun is over.

Of course, if you're in or near northern Berkshire, you're welcome to join us. This year, like last year and the year before, my little shul is joining forces with the Reconstructionist shul up the road. We'll meet at the Williams College Jewish Religious Center at 8pm for a short and sweet evening festival service, and then transition into learning and schmoozing and noshing. Nine different community members are teaching lessons this year, on all sorts of Torah subjects. We'll have some teaching about psalms, some music, some teachings about the land of Israel, some teachings about water and revelation, some teachings about Torah as lover, and some teachings about the akedah and about circumcision -- among others!

Usually we start learning around 9 and we wrap up between 1 and 2. So not an all-nighter, by any stretch, but it runs late enough into the night to feel unusual, to open up the possibility that we might be opening ourselves to wisdom which comes from beyond us, which is part of what Shavuot is all about.

Also, naturally, there will be cheesecake. Because eating dairy on Shavuot is a well-established custom. Why? Well, unsurprisingly, there's no single accepted answer to that question. I like a couple of the reasons that offers -- that the Torah is likened to milk and honey, and that in gematria (Jewish number-math; remember that Hebrew letters are also numerals, so each word has a mathematical value) the word for milk (chalav) equals 40, as in the 40 days that Moshe spent atop Mount Sinai. Also, the gematria of the word for cheese is 70, which corresponds to the saying that Torah has seventy faces. To these, I would add simply that cheesecake is yummy.

(If you do decide to join us for our learning, bring something to snack on -- but kosher foods only, with an OU hechsher, to preserve the kashrut of the JRC. Me, I'm probably bringing fresh fruit. Easier that way.)

Technorati tags: , , , .

The importance of tending the earth (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 Behukkotai begins with a promise and a threat. The promise: if we follow God's laws and observe God's commandments, we will get rain in its season, our silos will overflow with abundance, we will know peace, and God will dwell in our midst. The threat: if we don't obey and observe the commandments, well... we should expect misery, consumption, fever, defeat, the skies to be like iron and the earth like copper, no produce nor fruit, wild beasts devouring our cattle, and even when we eat bread we shall not be satisfied.

Then, the Torah tells us, "shall the land make up for its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies." In other words, the commandment God is so desperate for us not to break -- the one which, broken, will yield not only destruction and sorrow for us, but a self-healing process on the part of the wronged party -- is the one from the start of parashat Behar, about ensuring a sabbatical year for the land.

Continue reading "The importance of tending the earth (Radical Torah repost)" »

This week's portion: borrowed


You are a stranger
resident with God

even the body you wear
is borrowed

a temporary sublet
from the Holy One

when the rent comes due
out you go, whether

or not you feel
ready, whether or not

you were enjoying
where you were

hush, says the messenger
pressing one finger

to your philtrum
and just like that

everything you knew
is forgotten,

all you can do
is wail.

This week we're in parashat Behar- Behukkotai, a double portion which contains all kinds of great stuff, including material on the Jubilee Year and the need to let our land rest.

The verse that leapt out at me this week is Leviticus 25:23, "But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me." What does it mean that we are strangers resident with God? That idea mixed, in my mind, with a conversation we had in my Hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) class last week about people who work as midwives for the dying, helping them through the physical and emotional processes of letting go of this life, and from the intersection of those two notions this poem arose.

If the reference to a messenger is baffling, remember that this is the language Torah uses for what we might call angels. There's a story which holds that in the womb, we know all the Torah there is to know -- but at the moment of birth, an angel presses a fingertip to our mouths and we forget everything in order to re-learn.

Is this a poem about death, or about birth? If you have an answer, feel free to weigh in; I'd love to know how the poem reads to you.


Technorati tags: , , , , .

The bonfire of the expansive heart

I ought to be lighting a bonfire tonight, since we've entered the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer. In Hebrew, the number 33 is spelled lamed-gimel; the two letters together are pronounced Lag, and the 33rd day of the Omer is called Lag b'Omer. And on Lag b'Omer, people light bonfires. Why? Well, it depends on who you ask.

One interpretation of the chronology in Torah holds that on this date, manna first began to fall from the heavens for the Israelites in the desert. Lag B'Omer (celebrated with picnics and rejoicing) can be understood as a commemoration of that happy miracle.

Another story (found in the Talmud) holds that 24,000 of the students of the great sage Rabbi Akiva died from a plague during the counting of the Omer because they failed to give one another proper respect (or, in Reb Zalman's interpretation, they failed to see the chen, divine grace, in one another.) Many traditional Jews observe limited mourning customs during the first 32 days of the Omer, in remembrance of that plague; Lag b'Omer marks the day when the plague came to its end, and hence, we celebrate.

An alternate interpretation holds that the students died as part of the Bar Kokhba revolt against Rome. We spend the first 32 days of the Omer mourning their deaths...until the 33rd day of the Omer, when we rejoice that the massacre finally ended. (The killing may have come to an end, but the outcome of the war was pretty bleak; the name Judea was erased from Roman maps, the study of Torah was prohibited, and Jews were barred from entering Jerusalem. Oy.) Fearing of reprisal from Roman authorities, the sages of the Talmud didn't want to mention the failed rebellion by name, so spoke of a "plague" instead.

Some Jews celebrate the yarzheit (death-anniversary) of the sage Shimon bar Yochai on this day; he was a student of Rabbi Akiva's, and it is to him that the Zohar -- germinal work of Jewish mysticism -- is traditionally attributed. In this understanding, we light bonfires to symbolize the way his teachings illuminated the night.

It interests me that these are the stories we tell about this minor holiday. Today is a day for remembering how important it is that we see the grace in one another, and honor one another's learning. It's a day to remember the dangers of following messianic figures into violent rebellion. And it's a day for celebrating illumination: not just the literal illumination of burning sticks and logs, but the metaphysical and spiritual illumination embodied in the wisdom of Torah and the Jewish mystical tradition.

In honor of that tradition, I want to offer a Hasidic teaching which relates to Lag B'Omer. It has nothing to do with the plague, or the rebellion, or anyone's yarzheit, but it's my favorite teaching about the holiday, hands down. This comes from a Hasidic rabbi called the B'nei Yisaschar (R' Zvi Elimelech of Dinov.) (You can find a version of it in this post The illumination of a good heart; I've learned it from my teacher Reb Elliot.) It's about the importance of having a good heart.

Continue reading "The bonfire of the expansive heart" »

The bodies we are (Radical Torah repost)

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

The Lord spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God.

No one who has a defect, Torah tells us in parashat Emor, may offer the korbanot, the offerings which draw us near to our Source. No one who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no one with a broken limb, neither a hunchback nor a dwarf, no one with a growth occluding his eye, no one with a scar. No one who has suffered from scurvy or had his testes crushed. Such a one may eat the the bread set-apart to God, the holy and the most-holy -- but he may not draw near to God.

These verses make up a kind of list-poem, an incantation of physical maladies, bookended with the refrain reminding us that anyone who has a defect of any kind must not play a role in making offerings to God. This is forbidden, and would profane the holiest place.

It's tempting to read these verses allegorically. No one who is blinded to the difficult realities of suffering, one might say -- no one who is unwilling to walk a mile in the shoes of another -- no one who twists her being into imbalance may be permitted to make offerings to God. No one who understands himself to be irredeemably broken. No one hunched by anxiety and fear, no one shrunken of spirit, no one whose vision is impeded by the unwillingness to see. None of these people may act as priests on our behalf, because they do not allow themselves to be whole.

That's certainly one way to read this passage. It's one I even like. But it doesn't feel like enough.

Continue reading "The bodies we are (Radical Torah repost)" »

This week's portion: fix


God fixes the festivals
like gems in a crown

God places them definitely
and more or less permanently

God puts them in order
like a woman adjusting her hair

fixed like a black and white image
coming out of a chemical bath

fixed like a game whose winner
is always already known

God makes them stable
converts them into useful compounds

these are God's fixed times
which God tells us to proclaim

but we're the umpires
ain't nothing 'til we calls 'em

In this week's Torah portion, Emor, we read, "Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions." (Lev. 23:1-2.) The text goes on to list Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot and the counting of the Omer, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.

The idea of the fesivals as "fixed times" intrigues me. Shabbat happens on its own rhythm, week after week; every seventh day is Shabbat, a time for rest and connection with God. This rhythm mirrors what we read about in the beginning of the book of Bereshit (Genesis) -- six days of creation and the seventh day of rest. But the festivals are something different; God asks us to observe them, or to declare them, which suggests to me that on some level, we participate in making them what they are. It's our observance that makes them festivals.

Anyway, the notion of God "fixing" the festivals is what gave rise to this week's Torah poem. The last stanza comes from a joke about three baseball umpires in conversation. The first one says, "I calls 'em as they are." The second says "I calls 'em as I see 'em." And the third one, of course, trumps the first two. Does that resonate for you, as a way to think about the moadim?


Technorati tags: , , , , .

Making our offerings count (Radical Torah repost)

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

In this week's Torah portion, Emor, we read a series of instructions pertaining to grain-offerings. When the Israelites enter the land, they are instructed to bring the first sheaf of harvest to the priest, to be elevated before Adonai. Then begins a period of counting:

And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering — the day after the sabbath — you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week — fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord.

We're in such a period of counting even now. From Pesach to Shavuot, the festival of our liberation to the festival of God's revelation, we count seven times seven weeks. On the fiftieth day our ancestors brought grain to the Temple in Jerusalem. Because we are no longer grain farmers, and no longer operating in the old sacrificial paradigm, we bring the offering of our open hearts to a meeting with God wherever in the world (wherever in all the worlds) we are.

Continue reading "Making our offerings count (Radical Torah repost)" »

An encounter with the Dalai Lama

Photo courtesy of the NY Daily news; found here.

The Dalai Lama is the reason I'm in rabbinic school.

Well, kind of. Rodger Kamenetz's The Jew in the Lotus -- the true story of a group of rabbis from across the denominational spectrum who went to India to meet with His Holiness, to share the Jewish people's secrets of Diaspora survival -- is the reason I'm in rabbinic school. Or at least, the reason I'm in this rabbinic school. Lotus is where I first encountered the Jewish Renewal teachings of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Wanting to learn more brought me to the old Elat Chayyim. And the rest, as they say, is history.

My friend David gave me The Jew in the Lotus my sophomore year of college. (Yes, the same David who gave me my set of tefillin a few years ago. We go back a ways.) So it seemed eminently appropriate that when His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama came to Albany, I should get to go with David to see him speak, at the Palace Theatre, an easy walk from the Capitol.

Continue reading "An encounter with the Dalai Lama" »

Slingshot Hiphop

Our local single-screen movie theatre, Images Cinema, just screened Slingshot Hip-Hop, a film about Palestinian hip-hop made by Jackie Reem Salloum.

The trailer for Slingshot Hiphop.

Longtime readers of this blog know that I have complicated feelings about Israel and Palestine. I spent last summer in Jerusalem, and came to really love the city while I was there. I have dear friends in Israel, as well as family. I'm committed to Israel's continuing existence. And I'm also committed to the hope of a sustainable independent state of Palestine alongside it.

While I was living in Israel last summer, I made a concerted effort to engage not only with the things which delighted me about Israel (the history, the community, the wonder of hearing my language of prayer as a living tongue on the streets), but also the things I knew would make me angry and sad. I spent a day with the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, and went on a a day trip to Bethlehem and Hebron, both of which were powerful and heart-wrenching.

The trailer for Slingshot Hip-Hop gave me two expectations: first, that the film would highlight the injustices faced by Palestinians in a way that would upset me, and secondly, that the film would likely paint Palestinians as purely victims, and Israelis as the monolithic bad guys, which would also upset me. Any one-sided portrayal of either side necessarily ignores the complicated realities of both communities, and this film looked likely to be pretty one-sided.

But I believe it's important to hear each side's story as each side tells it. Which means I feel an obligation to encounter both Israeli narratives and Palestinian narratives, even when they make me uncomfortable. Besides: I like a lot of hiphop. So we went to see the film.

Continue reading "Slingshot Hiphop" »

A taste of far away

Argentina's Ruta Nacional 40 is legendary. It runs most of the length of the country, a distance of more than 3000 miles. A recent article in La Nación [Spanish] notes that the task of paving the remaining dirt stretches has a hefty price tag. When we spent a day driving RN 40 last month, we drove past some paving machinery, though I don't remember seeing anyone at work. I was glad we got to drive some of the original road before it got paved over, anyway.

That day offered up some of the most exquisite vistas of our trip. We started out in the town of El Calafate; our destination was El Chaltén, which Lonely Planet told us is Argentina's newest settlement, built in recent years to ensure sovereignty over that particular patch of mountainous land, since the Chilean border isn't far at all.

It took us three or four hours to drive from one town to the other, and most of that time was spent on RN 40. The drive was extraordinary. Great sweeping plains which drew the eye to distant mountains, some capped with snow. Here and there, glacial lakes, a surreal shade of mint-green or aquamarine-blue, like tropical seas wildly out of place. Between them, the rushing waters of glacial streams. From time to time, turnoffs for estancias, usually little more than signs pointing offroad to tell us that someone owned property here, that there might be a house if one turned and drove far enough. Maybe.

Continue reading "A taste of far away" »

Four Seasons

I wrote this essay five years ago, an exercise in writing about the seasons with a tight word count (each section is 250 words exactly.) Sent it off to a bunch of magazines, never got anywhere with it. I remembered it again today, and figured I'd dust it off and post it here, in quiet celebration of May Day. Happy May Day, all!


May in western Massachusetts is always cold. This is what I can't bear to remember all winter. Even in April I pretend that May will be warm, but it never is. May's saving grace is the change in color palette. From March's delicate trellis of ice on snow and April's raw grey sky to the absurd chartreuse the trees display when they first wave their fragile handkerchiefs.

One of the first heralds of spring on our land is the garlic mustard. Its spindly shoots are already a foot high by May Day. Its scalloped leaves burst forth gleaming. Outside my window, a garlic mustard thicket sprouts beside a large rock, fronds waving their tiny white flowers.

Last year at this season a friend, a botanist's son, took us on a guided ramble across our hillside. We chewed obediently on a birch twig, and noted which wild raspberry canes would and would not bear fruit. Garlic mustard, we learned, is not native to the Berkshires; it is a pest, an invasive interloper which outcompetes what would otherwise fill that niche.

We should tear it out, our friend advised, bending down to rip stalks free as we walked. For a while, I followed suit. But I find now, as spring takes hold of our winter woods, that I am not expunging the garlic mustard. I'm not local, either; I don't know what should be, only what is. I'm soft-hearted. I can’t bear to lose the first leaves, balm to my color-starved eyes.

Continue reading "Four Seasons" »