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Rab school update: approaching fall

It's been a while since I've posted a general rabbinic school update here. The summer has offered an amazing ebb and flow of learning, intensity, and energy, all of which have been filtered through my experience of pregnancy and my body's changing needs and capabilities.

In July I spent two weeks in Ohio for a rabbinic school intensive. I blogged a little bit from Kallah (where I took an eco-Judaism course and a course on the writings of the Baal Shem Tov, a.k.a. the BeShT) and from smicha students' week (where I took a hashpa'ah / spiritual direction intensive and a class on using songs, poems, and stories in pastoral care.) After a bit of a break, the eco-Judaism class has started up again as a teleclass (we'll run through the fall holidays); the Baal Shem Tov class will begin again as a teleclass next week and will run through November.

The other summer class on my plate is part two of the fabulous Moadim l'Simcha ("Seasons of Our Rejoicing" -- a class in the Hasidic sacred year which gives us the opportunity to study Hasidic texts pertaining to the festivals and the liturgical year.) That class began in early August and will run until the holidays, with a special bonus session during Chanukah. (Lately we've been reading texts about the month of Elul, full of themes of spiritual preparation for the Days of Awe.) The Hasidut section of my course grid is now full, so this class and the Baal Shem Tov class I'm taking this summer/fall will be the end of my formal studies in Hasidut. That's bittersweet for me -- I finally feel like I'm getting a handle on Hasidic Hebrew, and I love the learning! -- but I'm grateful that the learning I've done to date gives me the tools to continue studying these texts on my own.

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This week's portion: 'God of Carnage' vacation


At every opportunity
they remembered Amalek

who attacked from the rear
without warning.

They had been famished, weary,
and then the screams in the night...

As God was their witness
they would never be victims again.

They put their trust in rebar
and concrete,

distributed machine guns
for teenagers to fondle.

Taking action felt so good.
Was this what God meant?

This fierce attachment
the opposite of forgetting.

No one knows how to blot out
without holding on.

This week's prompt at Read Write Poem, prompt 89: it came from the news, invited us to make use of a newspaper headline. After reading this week's Torah portion to remind myself what its themes are, I spent some time clicking around various online newspapers. I settled on the headline How They Spent Their 'God of Carnage' Vacation. It was a good stretch for me; I don't usually use long (or "found") titles!

I wrote the poem before reading the article (which turns out to be about the cast of a Broadway play temporarily on hiatus.) The poem arises out of the very end of this week's Torah portion. In Deuteronomy 25:17-20, we read:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

What exactly it means to "blot out the memory of Amalek" is, of course, open for debate. Some have argued that it means to wipe out Amalek and his descendants, though that's by no means the only interpretation. For more on this I recommend AMALEK TODAY: To Remember, To Blot Out, by Rabbi Arthur Waskow (who, by the way, was in a car accident last week and suffered broken ribs and leg; please keep him in your prayers.)

Reb Arthur notes the paradox in the commandment to "remember... blot out the memory... do not forget" -- how can we simultaneously blot something out and remember it? As he touches on some of the dark and painful events which have arisen out of the commandment to blot out Amalek, he suggests that Amalek is part of our own family -- indeed, that we can find Amalek within ourselves. My poem tries to play with some of these same questions. I'll leave it to you to tell me whether or not I succeeded!

(You can read the other poems submitted for this prompt at this week's get your poem on post.)


Relationship, work, and self (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2006, originally published at the now-defunct Radical Torah. Note that in the Reform world we're reading parashat Ki Tetze this week -- I think that other Jewish communities may be one portion ahead of us at the moment! But it'll all even out in the end.

A handmill or an upper millstone shall not be taken in pawn, for that would be taking someone's life in pawn.

That line appears late in this week's portion, Ki Tetze. It arises seemingly out of context; the verse immediately preceding it talks about how a newly-wed man is exempt from military service, and the verse after it assigns death as a penalty for kidnappers. But it's possible to see a connection between these three: all center around the importance of an individual life, and the importance of treating a person's life with respect.

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Poems for the new year

In 2003, the same year that I started this blog, I started the practice of writing a "new year's poem" (or, maybe more accurately, an Elul poem -- a poem written during this month of spiritual preparation for the Days of Awe) and Ethan and I began sending them to family and friends as our new year's card each year. The first few years, I went to the copy shop in Williamstown and made print copies of the poem and mailed it on paper. In more recent years we've transitioned to sending out the card via email, and also posting it to this blog to share with the friends who read these words.

Recently I got an email from someone who had heard a snippet of one of my poems in a sermon. "Can you send me your poem about teshuvah?" she asked. (Teshuvah is the Hebrew word usually translated as atonement; in my rendering it means repentance or return.) The email made me laugh; I had to explain that I wasn't sure which poem she meant, since I've written many poems on these themes! But I figured the odds were good that she had encountered one of my new year's / Elul poems, since those are the ones I've put the most directly out into the world.

So I collected them, by year, and have put them online. If you're interested, you can find them here:

Velveteen Rabbi's New Year's Poems (2003 & onward)

Please feel free to share them with friends, to quote them in blog posts or synagogue newsletters, to use them in sermons -- whatever feels right to you. But please do keep my name and URL attached to them, so that if they speak to someone new, that someone will know who I am and where to find more of my writing. Thanks, y'all!

Psalm 27

Sleepers, awake! The Days of Awe are coming! It's traditional to hear the sound of the shofar (ram's horn) every day of the month of Elul, as a kind of spiritual alarm clock. [listen: shofar.mp3]

It's also traditional to read psalm 27 each day during the month of Elul. You can find the Hebrew text alongside a (dated but readable) translation here at Mechon-Mamre, but I wanted to share my favorite translation, which was created by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

This version of the psalm can be found on his spoken-word CD of the psalms, which can be purchased at the ALEPH store. He speaks the psalms in direct, clear, prayerful English. I especially love the way he renders this psalm. Listening to him read this psalm is one of my favorite Elul meditations.

Psalm 27, as translated by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

Yah! You are my light.
You are my savior.
Whom need I dread?
Yah, with you as my strong protector who can make me panic?
When hateful bullies gang up on me, wanting to harass me, to oppress and terrorize me
They are the ones who stumble and fall.
Even if a gang surrounds me my heart is not weakened.
If a battle is joined around me my trust in You is firm.
Only one thing do I ask of You, Yah:
Just this alone do I seek, I want to be at home with you, Yah,
All the days of my life.
I want to delight in seeing You.
Seeing You when I come to visit You in Your temple.

Continue reading "Psalm 27" »

Turning potential into reality (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the post I made about this week's Torah portion back in 2006, written for the now-defunct blog Radical Torah. Enjoy, and Shabbat shalom (and while I'm at it: chodesh tov / happy new month, since today is the first day of the lunar month of Elul -- and to my Muslim friends I wish a Ramadan mubarak!)

Then the officials shall address the troops, as follows: "Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another harvest it. Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but has not yet married her? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her." (Deuteronomy 20:5-7)

That war is a necessary part of life seems implicit in Torah. Especially in the latter part of the chumash, there's no shortage of preparing for battle and taking the field against enemies. For those of us who find militarism uncomfortable, who thrill more to the still small voice than to trumpets blaring into battle, this part of our text may seem unbearably martial.

But woven into our text are startling admissions that war is an imperfect answer. Even if the primary narrative presumes war's importance, there's a secondary narrative peeking through. There's a glimpse of that narrative in this week's portion, Shoftim, in the striking address the officials are meant to give to the assembled troops.

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This week's portion: the place


It is written
one who does not rebuild
the Temple in his lifetime

is as though
he had helped
to destroy it.

Can it be
that the sages
pillars of learning

who fail to rebuild
are all

Rather: one who studies Torah
rebuilds the Holy of Holies
piece by piece

each soul has a spark
to contribute
to that holy fire

one who does not know
which teachings are hers
to learn and give over

that one sins
but if she repents
if she grows in wisdom

she will see miracles
behind every corner
this is the true meaning of

"when in doubt
go up to the place
which Adonai has chosen"

when we learn
we ascend
and holiness is restored

In this week's Torah portion, Shoftim, we read "If a case is too baffling for you to decide, be it a controversy over homicide, civil law, or assault — matters of dispute in your courts — you shall promptly repair [literally: ascend] to the place that the Lord your God will have chosen, and appear before the levitical priests, or the magistrate in charge at the time, and present your problem. When they have announced to you the verdict in the case, you shall carry out the verdict that is announced to you from that place that the Lord chose..."

I recently translated a text from the Hasidic rebbe known as the Bnai Yissaschar which culminates in this verse. He rereads the verse in a gorgeously creative way. When I sat down to work on this week's poem, his teaching was reverberating in my mind, so I decided to try to present his teaching as a poem. It's possible that this works better as a prose teching than as a poem; I'll be curious to know what y'all think (especially if any of y'all happen to know the Bnai Yissaschar text which I'm rendering here!)

I love the idea that when we learn Torah, we are rebuilding the Temple in a cosmic sense, contributing to the restoration of the world's wholeness and the increase of the world's holiness. What about this idea, or this week's Torah poem, speaks to you?


What we know, what we don't know

It's interesting to think about the axes on which we differ. Scanning the Jewish participants in our retreat, I have some sense for where we're coming from. I know the names of our seminaries, the difference between HUC (Reform) and RRC (Reconstructionist) and YCT (Orthodox.) It's interesting to see who comes to prayer and what siddur (prayerbook) they use, who wears a kippah (all of the Jewish men, though none of the other Jewish women), what subjects rise up at mealtimes among and between us: one rabbinic program versus another, experiences in Israel and the West Bank, internships and high holiday pulpits.

But meeting the Muslim participants on this retreat, I realize just how much I don't know. What are the differences between their forms of Islam? What are the implications of how they dress, or of which scholars or sources they cite? I don't know enough to know what I don't know. I'm working with three other students (two of us Jewish, two Muslim) to plan the session on "Difficult Conversations" for our final morning together, and as we began today to brainstorm a list of what we imagine the difficult conversations between our communities might be, I was chagrined to discover how many of the same negative stereotypes each of us has heard about the other.

But I can tell you that tonight, at our storytelling session, almost every one of us had a story about love and family and grandparents to share while we noshed on warm cookies and cold milk. That I've seen Jewish students diagramming Hebrew grammar on the blackboard for Arabic-speakers. That I sat last night on a park bench overlooking a lake with a Muslim woman, and I shared a favorite Biblical text (psalm 27, which we'll soon be reading daily during Elul) and she shared a favorite Qur'anic text (an excerpt from surat An-Nur), and then we saw the lawn fill up with fireflies, little blessings of light.

The days are long and dense. We've heard two amazing scholars present on the Joseph/Yusuf story in the Torah and Qur'an (and later realms of commentary), and we have two more to go. I'm looking really forward to the other presentations, and to digesting some of what we've learned and sharing it here in time. But almost more than that, I'm looking forward to mealtimes tomorrow -- to seeing who I wind up sitting with, and what we wind up talking about, and what I'm able to learn from my fellow participants about who we all are. הנה מה טוב ומה נעים / Hineh mah tov u-mah nayim: how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters can sit and learn together.

Posted from the Garrison Institute, home of RRC's first Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Religious Leaders.


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The God we know (Radical Torah repost)

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

In this week's Torah portion, Re'eh, Moses warns the Israelites against giving in to the temptation to worship "other gods whom you have not experienced" (elohim acherim asher lo-y'datam.) Even if that urging comes from "your brother, your own mother's son, or your son or daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your closest friend" -- if any of these dear people entices you to worship another god "whom neither you nor your fathers have experienced," Just Say No.

Like most of Torah, this text presumes that other gods exist; they're just not appropriate loci for worship. (Ah, monolatry.) "Pray to the God you know," Moses seems to be saying. "Pray to the God Who brought you out of Egypt -- the one your ancestors knew, the one you know so intimately and so well."

But how many of us have really experienced God? How many of us have that kind of personal knowledge? And what can we do to make that knowledge a relevant part of our spiritual lives again?

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This week's portion: ear


If a fellow ivri
serves seven years

and won't leave
pierce his ear

let the needle
pin him to the lintel

and keep him
in perpetuity

on Sinai we learned
we serve

the Holy One
Blessed be He

the ear
which failed to hear

deserves the injury
let it bleed

This week's portion, Re'eh, contains instructions about what to do if an Israelite who has been an indentured servant for six years chooses in his seventh year to remain in servitude instead of going free.

I spent part of this week transcribing a recording of a session I had attended at the Rabbis for Human Rights conference back in December -- Rabbi Gordon Tucker on the dignity of work and indignity of slavery -- in which this passage is mentioned. I wrote this week's poem with his teachings reverberating in my ear.

Ivri, which means "boundary-crosser," is the word which we render in English as "Hebrew." I think it's significant that these verses of Torah speak about how one Israelite can choose to remain in servitude to another. These aren't verses about war-captives serving as slaves, but about the choice to subjugate oneself to one's fellow.

This week's Torah poem is also a response to Read Write Poem Prompt #87, which invited us to choose a vowel sound and highlight that sound in our poems this week. Hopefully when you read the poem (or when you listen to the recording) you can guess which vowel I wanted to work with! As always, I welcome responses both to the substance of the poem and to its form.

ETA: You can read other people's responses to the prompt by going to this week's Get Your Poem On post -- many poets have left links to their responses in the comments thread there.


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An interview at Read Write Poem

The folks at Read Write Poem recently revamped their website completely, turning it into a much more dynamic online community for poets and lovers of poetry. (If you're interested, you can learn more about the project, and for details on the new features I recommend the post the new read write poem: bigger and better.)

One of the new features is a series of interviews with regular RWP participants, and they graciously asked me for an interview with me! That interview has just gone live, and here's a tiny taste:

What's the most important thing a poem does?

Sanctifies the ordinary. By which I mean: A poem can cut a new facet into something mundane, which allows that ordinary thing to refract amazing light. The light was always there; we just don’t see it, most of the time. Poems can offer us new ways of seeing.

You can read the whole thing here: participant spotlight rachel barenblat. Thanks, RWP folks!

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Approaching Elul...and Ramadan.

The full moon of the month of Av is waning. A few days ago Tu b'Av passed almost unnoticed, though it's the reason why we're studying some gorgeous texts about joy and dance in my class on Hasidic Texts & The Sacred Year tonight. (Tu b'Av is the 15th of the month of Av, e.g. the full moon of this lunar month, and was once a joyful festival. As MyJewishLearning notes, in post-Biblical times it was a day of joy, and before the fall of the second Temple in 70 CE it was a holiday of matchmaking -- women wore white, and there was dancing and perhaps romancing in the fields.)

So now the moon is shrinking. When it vanishes and then reappears, a new lunar month will be upon us -- an important one for both Jews and Muslims. Like last year, this year the Muslim holy month of Ramadan overlaps with the Jewish month of Elul. The Muslim calendar moves around the solar calendar each year; the Jewish calendar operates on a Metonic system which ensures that our fall festivals remain in the fall and our spring festivals in the spring (in the northern hemisphere, anyway -- sorry, southern hemisphere folks) so it's relatively rare for the Jewish calendar and Muslim calendar to coincide in this way.

The name "Elul" can be read as an acronym for a phrase from Song of Songs, ani l'dodi v'dodi li, which means "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine." That phrase can be read as an assertion about human beloveds, and also about our relationship with God -- I am my Beloved's, and my Beloved is mine. Elul is a month to reconnect with God. It's considered the appropriate time to begin doing the inner work of discerning where our relationships (with ourselves, with others, with the divine) need a bit of repair before the Days of Awe roll around at the start of Tishri. For Jews, Elul is a month with intense spiritual focus.

For our Muslim cousins and friends, of course, so is Ramadan. (If you're not familiar with Ramadan, or if you're looking for access to what the experience of observing the month might be like, I highly recommend Hungry for Ramadan, a blog at Beliefnet where my friend Shahed Amanullah of AltMuslim blogged about each day of Ramadan in 2007. He writes beautifully about what the month is like for him.)

The practice of fasting during Ramadan has no direct parallel in Judaism (we have fast days too -- both "full fasts" like Yom Kippur and Tisha b'Av, and "minor fasts" which extend only from sunrise to sunset -- but they come one at a time, not for a solid month.) Still, I love knowing that both of our religious communities will be engaged in prayer, study of sacred texts, and the practice of trying to keep God at the forefront of our consciousness during the next cycle of the moon.

During the three days immediately leading up to Elul and Ramadan, I'll be on a retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Religious Leaders run by the Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives at the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College. The Jews in the group are all rabbinic students; the Muslims are scholars and community leaders. We'll be doing a lot of learning together (studying texts from both the Tanakh and the Qur'an) and, I hope, creating community connections both within each delegation and between the two groups who are gathered. What a great way to spend the final days of the month of Av: engaging in a ramp-up to Elul and Ramadan, this year a doubly holy month.

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This week's portion: not by bread


Not by bread alone
but by God's words

not by righteous indignation
but by compassion

not by chastisement
but by longing

not by insistence
but by meeting face-to-face

if you want to live
if you want to inherit

if you want streams
to irrigate your arid heart

if you want to bear fruit
to taste what's rich and sweet

remember the paths
where God has walked you

This week's portion, Ekev, includes a verse about how the Israelites ate manna in the desert, a food not known to them or to their forebears, as part of God's plan to show them that one does not live by bread alone but rather by what God decrees. (The verse can also be read to suggest that we live not by bread alone but by the words of God's mouth -- that is, that God's words are the sustenance which truly gives us life.) That verse gave rise to this week's Torah poem, which also hints at several other images from Deuteronomy chapter 8 as it unfolds.

The other leap I make in this poem is turning the imagery of the promised land into internal imagery. This week's text describes streams and rivers (unparalleled richness in a desert landscape) as well as many kinds of fruits and crops (and even hills rich with iron and copper ore.) But the notion of promised land is a complicated one for me. So instead of following the pshat (surface meaning) of the Torah text, I've chosen to read it also as a text about the richness of the internal landscape of the heart, which is available to us if we are mindful and walk in God's paths and remember.


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What we crave (Radical Torah repost)

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

This week's Torah portion, Ekev, contains some of the most stirring language in Torah: the exhortation to feel satisfaction and to offer blessing after we have eaten, a reminder of what God demands of us (that we revere God and walk in God's paths), the gorgeous passage that forms the latter part of the Shema. But reading the parsha today I am struck by a line that talks about other people's gods:

You shall consign the images of their gods to the fire; you shall not covet the silver and gold on them and keep it for yourselves, lest you be snared thereby; for that is abhorrent to Adonai your God.

This week's descriptions of conquering and plunder -- God sending a plague against the wicked inhabitants of the land so that the Israelites might dispossess them -- may not resonate for us in this day and age. But these words about coveting and ensnarement, I think, have a lot to teach.

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Braced for surgery

As Ethan notes, he's about to go offline for a month -- maybe longer -- because tomorrow he's scheduled for his second vitrectomy. (For those who are curious, here's his explanation of the process, written last year.)

This is the same surgery he had last year (this time, they'll be operating on the other eye.) The good news is that the first vitrectomy was successful, and this time we know what the recovery curve might look like. (Last time, they just didn't know how long he would be incapacitated by the surgery, and told him he might be able to drive again after a few days; this time, we know it will be at least month before he can read again, and that he won't be behind the wheel of a car anytime soon.)

Even though it's easier to face with some advance awareness of what we're in for, the prospect of surgery is never comfortable, and neither is the recovery. Thanks for understanding if I'm a bit slow to answer email or moderate blog comments over the next few days -- even though there's relatively little I can do to make this easier for him, my attention needs to be focused here at home for a while.

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Preserving summer

String beans, curried green tomatoes, jam.

In a summer which has been so marked with rain (I learned on NPR yesterday that this is the wettest summer on record since we began measuring rain count in this region back in 1827; the rainfall this year is twice what is normal) a day like this most recent Shabbat -- blue skies and sunshine -- feels like an actual honest-to-God miracle.

The wet season hasn't been easy on the farmers who run Caretaker Farm. A potato blight (the same one famous for destroying Ireland's crop during the great potato famine) has decimated our potatoes, and another blight has taken the tomatoes. (For more on that, here's the NYTimes: Late Blight Fungus Threatens Tomato Crop. Some of the potatoes were harvested early despite their tininess; the tomatoes were harvested green and the vines which had been so lovingly nurtured from seed, transplanted, staked, weeded by hand were cut down. Lettuces too seem to be suffering from lack of sun, so we only brought home a single small head, alongside a bag of loose baby lettuce leaves.

But even so, our farm share bag was groaning: with corn, green and purple peppers, carrots, kohlrabi, bright-stemmed chard. Plus there were out-of-bag goodies, too. It's the time of year when we're invited to go down to the fields and pull up green bean plants and strip them of their bounty -- a bit earlier than usual, I think, again because of the rains -- so we went down to the muddy fields and picked a few bags of green beans, chatting with friends in the rows. And because the chalkboard said "Ask us about cucumbers for pickling," we did, and we came home with a burlap bag containing the equivalent of a five-gallon bucket of beautiful nubbly cukes. They have the most amazing fragrance -- it's too subtle for me to notice if I only have one or two, but when I plunge my hands into the burlap bag and breathe deeply I am overwhelmed by one of the scents of August in the Berkshires.

We spent the rest of the weekend putting up some of our incredible bounty. Ethan made a handful of amazing salads from that list of 101 simple salads for the season; we'll eat them all week, which will be especially useful when we return from his surgery in Boston midweek. Meanwhile, I worked on putting things up for the longer term.

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