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Yom Kippur 5770

1. I wear my prayer shawl at night

Kol Nidre is the only night of the year when we wear our tallitot (prayer shawls). Usually the prayer shawl is worn only for morning prayer. But Yom Kippur is considered by the tradition to be one long day filled with light. On this one night of the year, we don tallitot just before the Kol Nidre service (before evening has fallen) and we wear them throughout the day. We don't make the blessing when we don them again in the morning, because in a spiritual sense, it's as though we never took them off. We spend the whole night and day wrapped in holiness, enfolded in Presence.

2. Knocking

When we recite the vidui (confessional prayer), we can knock on our hearts ("anybody home?"), we can gently massage our hearts (to get them to open), we can tap harder to break what needs to be broken-open in us. Only we know what kind of knocking we need.

On Yom Kippur we focus on all the places where we've missed the mark in the last year, all the ways in which we've failed to live up to who we know we can be. We ask ourselves: if this were the day of my death, if the work of my life had to stand as it is right now, through what would I be remembered?

But at the same time, on Yom Kippur we are incredibly close to the Holy One of Blessing. The gates of repentance are open to anyone who approaches them with an open heart. There is an infinite source of love available to us, and we are always already forgiven. We just have to come knocking.

Continue reading "Yom Kippur 5770" »

One last post before Yom Kippur

I'm off to Elat Chayyim / Isabella Freedman today to spend Yom Kippur on retreat. Earlier in the summer I was sad that I didn't find a student pulpit within driving distance of home (my doctors would prefer that I not fly during my third trimester), but now that the chagim are upon us -- and now that I see where my energy levels are in week 30 of the pregnancy -- I'm grateful to have the gift of a holiday when I can sink into my own experience and do my own internal work. There will be many years ahead when I get to return to serving others during this time of year.

Before I go, I wanted to point y'all to two posts I've made here during this season in years past:

  • Grab-bag of resources for Yom Kippur -- A post filled with resources for those who might be celebrating Y"K on their own, or who might want some personal/spiritual material for reflection to augment their more traditional observance.

  • Thirteen ways of looking at Yom Kippur -- About my last Yom Kippur at Elat Chayyim, two years ago. Thirteen short thoughts / meditations on the holiday; I hope they add light to this solemn day.

I wish all of you a g'mar chatimah tovah -- may you be sealed in the book of Life for a good year to come.

This week's portion: recording


God doesn't talk to us anymore
and the old recordings
sound tinny and dated

when we replay Moshe's speech
about awe and vengeance,
God's arrows drunk with blood

it wobbles in our ears
a wax cylinder impression
of ancient thunder

now if we hear the voice
it bubbles up from within
like the call of a thrush

like a stream in the forest
which even in winter
does not freeze

anyone can listen
if they will be still
notice what's unfolding

This week's portion, Ha-azinu, mostly consists of a long praise-poem recited by Moshe to the people of Israel. Like other Biblical praise-poems, this one makes much of God's might; it also makes much of God's vengeance. Neither of these is necessarily a comfortable way of understanding God for many liberal Jews today.

Indeed: the bloodthirstiness of the praise-poem in Ha-azinu feels very far away to me, a relic of a much earlier paradigm and an earlier moment in our evolving understanding of God. So the images which rose up for me when I began to write this week's Torah poem came out of earlier paradigms of technology, modes of recording voices which may sound thin or foreign to our contemporary ears. (There was a stanza in the first draft likening reading this Torah portion to watching a flickering black-and-white silent film in this era of high-definition TV and IMAX, but I decided not to mix aural and visual metaphors.)

I'm curious to know how you respond, both to the poem in the Torah portion and to this contemporary response. Do either of them speak to you?

(ReadWritePoem folks, apologies; I couldn't find any way to make this week's Torah poem fit the tall tales & whoppers prompt! But if you're interested, you can read other people's responses to that prompts in the comments of the Get Your Poem On post.)


Walking the Walk (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote back in 2006 for this week's Torah portion. This is the last of the weekly Torah portions; the final portion in the Torah is read not as part of the regular weekly cycle, but on Simchat Torah (the festival of "Rejoicing in the Torah"), immediately followed by the first portion in the Torah.

This also marks my last Radical Torah repost, since I've now reposted all of the divrei Torah I had published at that now-defunct blog. Thanks for reading!

And when Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, he said to them: Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching. For this is not a trifling thing for you: it is your very life[.]

As our journey through the Torah scroll approaches this year's ending and concomitant new beginning, I've been thinking about what it means to take Torah seriously, as Moses here instructs us to do. What does it mean to "observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching," to understand Torah as "our very life"?

I can tell you what it doesn't mean: it doesn't mean taking Torah literally, because reading Torah literally and attempting to believe its many contradictory statements as factual reality would no doubt make one's head explode. It doesn't mean reading only the easy bits of Torah, or the fun bits, or the bits that make immediate and intuitive sense.

It doesn't mean skipping over the boring or confusing parts, or the parts that contradict other parts. It doesn't mean accepting anybody else's interpretation, necessarily, but it also doesn't mean always feeling compelled to come up with your own, either. It doesn't mean watching other people engage with the text while remaining at a safe distance, comfortably aloof.

Continue reading "Walking the Walk (Radical Torah repost)" »

The pause before change

I tend to think of the equinoxes and solstices as happening on the 21st of the months in which they occur. There's a simple reason for this: my birthday is March 21, and when I was growing up I was told that my birthday was the first day of spring. (Of course this is only true in the northern hemisphere. To anyone reading this in the global South, my apologies for the boreocentrism.) I loved the idea that spring began on my birthday, and it fascinated me to think on the equinoxes, everywhere in the world gets 12 hours of daylight. (There's a lovely image of this at Wikipedia if you'd like a visual aid.)

I've since learned that technically the equinoxes and solstices don't always fall on the 21st of their requisite months. (This year, for instance, the September Equinox falls today, on September 22.) Also that it's not exactly true that everywhere in the world gets exactly 12h of light on the equinoxes. That equinox page tells me that "during the time of the September and March equinoxes many regions around the equator have a daylight length of about 12 hours and six-and-a-half minutes. Moreover, the day is slightly longer in places that are further away from the equator and the sun takes longer to rise and set in these locations."

But even if it isn't scientifically exact to think that the equinoxes are cosmic balance-points, when the earth is perfectly poised between one season and the next, on a spiritual level this idea still really works for me -- especially coming, as this one does, during the Days of Awe. I like to think that today our planet pauses, perfectly aligned, before beginning to tilt again.

The equinoxes (and solstices) are times of year when I'm especially conscious of changing light. Today the earth's tilt is vertical, neither toward the sun nor away from it; tomorrow we begin to shift. In my hemisphere, this is the official first day of autumn. Though in south Texas where I grew up that didn't really mean much, in New England where I've lived for the past seventeen years the outside world is already visibly changing. High places in my region had their first frost a couple of nights ago. (We didn't, here at our house, but it was a near thing; it's coming soon.) The angle of light at my desk has changed. While most trees here are still green, here and there a branch or a whole tree is alight with red or gold, the first flames of fall.

This shift puts me in mind of other shifts which are on their way. By the time we reach the first day of winter -- even if he is late in coming, as many first babies are -- my son will have emerged from my body and entered the world. This is the last season before his birth.

[T]he ancient book of Jubilees tells that on the night of the autumn equinox, Abraham looked up to the stars to try to see the future. At that moment, the Holy One spoke to him. As the nights grow longer, we spend time telling the stories of our ancestors and remembering our traditions. From this, we learn who we might become.

That's from Yom Kippur and the Autumn Equinox: A Comparison by Rabbi Jill Hammer, published at Tel Shemesh in a year when the two days were right up next to one another. It was from Reb Jill that I first learned the traditional Jewish blessing recited on the equinox (which can be found in Talmud:) ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם עושה בראשית / Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam, oseh vereishit. (Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of all being, who makes creation.)

The precise moment of equinox today has been calculated to fall at 21:19 UTC, which will be 5:19pm here in my time zone. I haven't decided yet whether I'm going to go outdoors and make this blessing at that moment, or whether I will find a time which arises organically out of my day when I can go outdoors, breathe deeply of the autumnal air, and bless the Source Who fills and fulfills all things. Either way, today is a hinge-point between what has been and what is coming. What, in your life, is poised on the cusp of change?

Previous equinox posts: in 2008, the poem Equinox; in 2007, the microessay Equinox, which was published at qarrtsiluni.

Reading Hannah anew

The most powerful moment of my Rosh Hashanah came about in this way: I arrived at the synagogue early for services on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah so I could set up for the childrens' service (and, if there were time, run through my assigned Torah verses a few more times.) While I was there getting ready, the rabbi got word that the congregant who usually reads the haftarah in English couldn't make it, which meant we needed a pinch-hitter. He asked if I could do it. I said sure. Someone handed me a sheaf of English pages; I glanced at them, confirmed that every page seemed to be there, and tucked them into my machzor.

Fast-foward: the children's service has gone fine, my leyning went without a hitch, and now it's about to be time for me to read the haftarah. I will read the whole thing in English, interspersed with brief sections of chanting by our visiting student cantor. I unclip my sheaf of pages and realize that at the top of the first page, it says "Haftarah for Rosh Hashanah - Second Day." But it is not the second day of the festival; it is the first day. Cue a moment of panic. What scanty preparation I did was for the wrong portion; how did I not notice that? Never mind; I know that the text of the haftarah can be found in the machzor, so I turn to it there, and I begin to read the text cold, without any preparation at all.

I've heard this haftarah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah almost every year of my life. I know perfectly well that there's a fascinating thread which runs through both readings for this morning: in the first one we learn about Sarah conceiving Isaac and then banishing Hagar and Ishmael from Abraham's tent, and in the second we hear the story of Hannah, who was barren, and who cried out to Adonai and then bore a son. I should have known that the text I was about to read was steeped in the theme of women's bodies and women's longing.

But somehow, in the flurry of the morning, I had completely forgotten what story I was about to read until I started reading it. Here's how it begins:

There was a man from Ramathaim of the Zuphites, in the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives, one named Hannah and the other Peninnah; Peninnah had children, but Hannah was childless. This man used to go up from his town every year to worship and to offer sacrifice to the Lord of Hosts at Shiloh. — Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the Lord there.

One such day, Elkanah offered a sacrifice. He used to give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he would give one portion only — though Hannah was his favorite — for the Lord had closed her womb...

I think that's when my voice started to quiver.

(If this isn't familiar -- or even if it is -- you can find the story here: Haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah. That link takes you to I Samuel 1:1 - 2:10, though in my shul we only read the first chapter of I Samuel, which can also be found in bilingual edition here at Mechon-Mamre.)

Unlike Hannah, I have not known infertility -- though I have many friends who have, and I have grieved with them from a distance. Unlike Hannah, I did not spend the first years of my marriage yearning for a child; Ethan and I have been blissfully happy together just the two of us, making our life together along with our extended families (both blood and chosen.) But in the year since last Rosh Hashanah we have decided to try to conceive; conceived once, and lost the pregnancy; and then conceived the son who is now spending his third trimester in my womb.

These facts completely change this story for me. Before now, I resonated with the part of the story where Hannah pours out her heart silently to God. Many call this the first example of private petitionary prayer in the Jewish lexicon, and I have always loved the fact that (in our sacred story) it was a woman who invented this form of communication with God! Now, standing in front of my community with my burgeoning belly pressed against the lectern, the story takes on a completely different cast. I understand Hannah in a new way. Given the muffled sniffs and hasty blowing of noses I'm hearing from around the sanctuary, I think that I may be transmitting some of this new understanding to everyone who is listening, too.

I make it through the haftarah without crying, but it is a near thing.

I don't know what this haftarah reading will feel like next year, when (God willing) I will have a nine-month-old in my arms. But reading it aloud this Rosh Hashanah was an incredibly powerful experience for me, an unexpected gift.

Eid mubarak!

Tonight at sundown, as Jews mark the end of Shabbat with havdalah and celebrate the transition from the first day of Rosh Hashanah to the second day of Rosh Hashanah, our Muslim friends and cousins will be celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan.

To all of my Muslim friends and readers, I wish an عيد مبارك / Eid Mubarak, a blessed end to the festival of Ramadan.

And to my Jewish friends and readers, I wish a continuing שנה טובה תכתבו / shanah tovah tikatevu -- may you be inscribed for a good year to come.

(And to everyone's not your holiday season, but I hope you're having a lovely week!)

Nava Tehila melody for psalm 27, verse 8

From Nava Tehila, the Jerusalem Jewish Renewal congregation which I love so much, comes the following melody for one of the lines of Psalm 27.

Yoel from Nava Tehila singing psalm 27, verse 8. If you can't see the embedded video, you can find it here.

The words are:

Lach amar libi bakshu panay
Et panayich HaVaYaH avakesh

"Havayah" is a reordering of the letters of the Divine Name, which is used often when people do not want to pronounce the name but do wish to mention the letters. It means "all existence," and is a feminine term. The rest of the Hebrew text has also been feminized; this is the form of address one would use in speaking to a woman rather than to a man. You might choose to understand this rendition of this line of the psalm as being sung to the immanent divine Presence of God (Shekhinah) rather than to the masculine transcendent (Kadosh Baruch Hu.) Or, not! Up to you.

The English translation is:

To You my heart has said: I turn to seek you,
Your Face / Presence is what I'm searching for.

Thanks, Reb Ruth & Nava Tehila folks, for this beautiful tune.

Korach: fruitful tension between paradigms (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the final post in a series of four back divrei Torah which should have been published in July! This was written in 2007 for the now-defunct blog Radical Torah.

This week, in parashat Korach, Korach dares to argue that all of the community is holy and therefore the Kohanim don't deserve a monopoly on their priestly role. In response, the earth opens up and swallows Korach and all of his followers. This is one of the most fascinating, powerful, and problematic stories in Torah. It draws me and repels me in nearly equal measure.

If you're looking for insightful commentary on Korach, allow me to recommend Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman's Korah and Determinism, which explores questions of predestination, awe of heaven, and free will by reading Korach through the lens of the Ishbitzer Rebbe. I brought that text to my weekly hevruta group, and after a close reading of Rabbi Chipman and the Ishbitzer, we wound up talking about how each of us sees the story of Korach, and how our understandings have changed over time.

I've long identified with Korach, who can be read as a proponent of democracy, of grassroots activism, of empowerment. The entire people is holy, he says; power shouldn't be consolidated in the hands of an élite; each of us should be able to draw near to God. We aspire to holy community, don't we? And what could be more holy than a community in which everyone takes responsibility for her or his own relationship with God? That's part of why I entered rabbinic school -- in order to learn how to empower people to fully inhabit their relationship with Jewish tradition and with God.

It's easy to read this story as a conflict between Korach -- the wild figure who finds holiness in all people and who insists people can relate to God on their own -- and Moses and Aaron, the staid and stodgy representatives of the status quo, promulgators of hierarchy and order. Given that dichotomy, I've always been more of a Korach type. (Except, of course, that Korach is ultimately swallowed up by the earth -- not exactly the kind of future I'm looking for.)

Funny thing, though. As I settle more firmly into rabbinic school, I'm starting to relate more to Aaron and to Moses. My inner Korach still calls out for an egalitarian commitment to the holiness of the whole community -- but now he's answered by the growing voice of my inner Moshe.

Continue reading "Korach: fruitful tension between paradigms (Radical Torah repost)" »

The hubris of Korach (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the third in a series of four out-of-season divrei Torah, originally written in 2006 and  published at the now-defunct Radical Torah. (I should have posted this in July, but I was on the road and forgot!)

This week's Torah portion is a doozy (surely that's the technical term) -- parashat Korach. Korach, whose challenge to Moses' authority resulted in the earth opening to swallow him and his followers. In the whole Torah only five portions are named after people, and this is one of them.

For many contemporary Jews, this is not a comfortable story. It's uncomfortable because it seems to suggest that a behavior with which we are intimately familiar -- criticizing religious authority, and agitating for the increased ability to participate fully in shaping religious life -- is abhorrent to God. Of course, that's a simplistic reading, and it's far from the only message we can derive from this tale.

Continue reading "The hubris of Korach (Radical Torah repost)" »

Jewish-Muslim retreat chronicled at Zeek

Our closing ritual will involve both blessings and bread, and the organizers have decided that we should have challah, so they task one of my fellow retreatants with the job of making some. Somehow she intuits that I am the kind of person who bakes bread. (Is it the Birkenstocks? Something in my demeanor? Or is it my pregnant belly -- do I just look the part of earth mother these days? One way or another, she correctly identifies me as a bread baker.) So the two of us, and a South Asian Muslim man, go downstairs into the retreat kitchen and deck ourselves with matching white aprons so we can begin a batch of challah.

Our Muslim friend looks uncertain at first. In his household, he tells me, he just washes dishes; his wife makes the naan. The kitchen has a big fancy mixer, but we're making a small batch (the standard two loaves) so I decide to do everything by hand. I teach him how to lift and press down the dough, and turn it, and lift and press again. The flour is bright against his hands and the dough makes familiar sounds as it slaps against the stainless steel countertop. It smells like yeast, like Shabbat, like home.

On our last day, after the closing ceremony is over, we three congratulate each other on the beautiful thing we have made.

That's an outtake from an essay I wrote about the first Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Leaders, which was organized by the Department of Multifaith Studies & Initiatives at RRC. (I made one blog post while at the retreat: What we know, what we don't know.) My editor at Zeek felt that the challah scene, while pretty, didn't need to be in the essay. She was probably right, but I didn't want to lose the memory, so I'm sharing it here.

The essay I wrote about that retreat experience has just been published. It's called Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan and Elul, and I hope that if you have any interest in Jewish-Muslim relations you'll go and read it and then let me know (either there or here) what you think. Here's how it begins:

It is a sticky August evening in Garrison, New York. I'm sitting on a park bench at a retreat center with a woman I've only just met. I'm wearing capris, a tank top, and my rainbow kippah. She's wearing a turtleneck and long dress with her hair tucked under a scarf. Our assignment is to teach each other a favorite text from our own holy scriptures. She is a Muslim and I am a Jew.

I'm proud of the essay; I feel like I did a good job of capturing some of what the retreat felt like for me. (If you were there, I'd especially love to hear whether my remembrances resonate for you!) You can read the whole thing here. (Edited in 2011 to say: that original piece has lost its formatting and is hard to read, so I've reprinted the essay on my own blog: Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan and Elul.)

If you enjoy the essay, you might also enjoy A Jew and a Muslim Go Upstate, by my fellow retreatant Mona Eltahawy, which tells one of the same stories that I tell in my piece!

As Elul and Ramadan draw toward their natural closing, I remain incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to attend this retreat. God willing and inshallah there will be a second retreat next year; this was an amazing experience which I hope more members of both of our communities will be able to experience. For now: go and read, and enjoy.

As an added note: I want to thank the Henry Luce Foundation, who funded the retreat, for making it possible for me and others to attend the retreat free of charge. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity.

Achat Sha'alti (One Thing I Ask)

A while ago I posted about Psalm 27, the psalm which is traditionally read daily during the month of Elul leading up to the Days of Awe. Verse four of that psalm is part of my daily practice at this time of year, because I know and love a tune for that verse.

My very first visit to the old Elat Chayyim, back in August of 2002, included the transition from the month of Av to the month of Elul. Once Elul had started, we began closing our morning services by singing this simple melody for this one verse of psalm 27. We sang these words in Hebrew and in English:

Achat sha'alti me'eit Adonai, otah avakesh (2x)
Shivti b'veit Adonai, kol y'mei chayay
Lachazot b'noam, b'noam Yah, u'l'vaker b'heikhalo (2x)

One thing I ask, I ask of You, I earnestly pray for (2x)
That I might dwell in Your house all the days of my life
Knowng the beauty, the beauty of You, and to dwell in Your holy place! (2x)

I've never known who wrote the melody, and my initial digging online yielded a bunch of question marks. So I emailed the ALEPH student community, and learned that in a book of sheet music called Songs of the Chassidim I put out by Velvel Pasternak many years ago, the melody is attributed to one I. Katz. (If you know anything about him/her, please do share!)

Anyway, I promised to teach it to a friend, and after I recorded it for her, it occurred to me that perhaps some of you might enjoy it too. So I'm enclosing it here. If you can't see the embedded mp3 player (below), here's a direct link to the mp3: [achatshaalti.mp3.]

It's not a fabulous recording by a long shot, but it should be enough to learn the melody from, if you like.

Singing this song, I find myself thinking about the significance of the words. What does it mean to ask to dwell in God's house? One of my favorite interpretations of the first line of the ashrei ("Happy are they who dwell in Your house") holds that each of our bodies can be God's house if we approach embodied experience with mindfulness. (I learned that from Rabbi Phyllis Berman.) So then am I asking God for the ability to remember that I'm always already dwelling in God's house, that my body is holy? And what does it mean to say "all the days of my life" -- why kol, all? One interpretation holds that "the days of my life" would mean daytimes, but "all the days" means days and nights, too.

As we count down these last days of Elul, I'm finding comfort in knowing that this is only the beginning of our journey. If you haven't been able to make time during Elul to do the inner work of figuring out where your course needs correction, take heart: the new year, with its chance to kick your spiritual processes into high gear, is just around the corner...

Compassion and fear (Radical Torah repost)

Here's another out-of-season d'var Torah, this one written for parashat Shlakh-Lekha in 2007 and originally published at the now-defunct Radical Torah.

In this week's parsha, Shlakh-Lekha, we read about the spies sent to investigate the land of Canaan. They go forth and scout the land, and what they find there distresses them. Enemies abound; the people are powerful, the cities are large and fortified. Even the grapes they cut down are enormous: so large they have to be carried on a frame, by two grown men, as one might carry a deer. They say, "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have seemed to them."

Hearing this report, the people quail in fear, and rail (again) at their leaders for having brought them out of Egypt. They threaten to pelt Moses and Aaron with stones. In the midst of this wailing, God too becomes incensed, and contemplates disowning the children of Israel -- but Moses argues on the Israelites' behalf, and instead of striking them down, God decrees that none of this generation will live to see the land which they have been promised. None, that is, save Joshua and Caleb, who returned from the scouting trip with full faith in God.

The Israelites have experienced two great miracles -- the parting of the Sea of Reeds, and the revelation of Torah at Sinai -- but, faced with the prospect of moving into a strange place where they may have to struggle for survival, they panic. They're clearly not ready to take the leap of entering the land. And how does God respond to their fear? By threatening to wipe them off the face of the earth! Only when Moses argues, with great kavanah, that God should be merciful does God relent (with that beautiful phrase, selachti kidvarecha, "I pardon, as you have asked," which we recite each year during Yom Kippur)...but the punishment is still harsh: the entire generation will die before the Israelites can reach the culmination of their wandering. Doesn't that seem like a little much?

Continue reading "Compassion and fear (Radical Torah repost)" »

Read Write Prompt #92: Release


Indian summer: fat bees alight
on goldenrod and clover.
The crickets in our backyard
chitter their endless song.

Like the cat, I wouldn't mind
curling up in a patch of sun.
But every sound I hear
becomes a shofar blasting

awake from your sleep!
Time to stretch spiritual muscles
too-long unused, to extend
like a leggy weed.

Inside every shrunken husk
is a spark of holiness, seed
of a world still waiting
to be born. Crack me open.

This week's prompt at ReadWritePoem is a cluster of words. I fit four of them into this short poem, which is (not surprisingly) on seasonal themes. As we move through the last few days of 5769, everything reminds me of the impending holidays.

There's a kabbalistic teaching that the world we know is filled with sparks of holiness, remnants from a cataclysmic shattering at the moment of creation. In the Hasidic understanding, our job is to find the sparks of God hidden in the husks of materiality and to uplift them one by one. In so doing, we participate in the redemption of all things.

Of course, as autumn continues to race toward us headlong (in my hemisphere), the notion of a seed hidden in a withered husk takes on physical resonance as well as spiritual resonance. So this poem ends with an image meant to partake in both of those sets of ideas.

ETA: You can read other people's responses to this prompt at this week's Get Your Poem On post.


Little picture, big picture (Radical Torah repost)

All year long I've been reposting old divrei Torah ("words of Torah" -- teachings, mini-sermons, homilies), originally published at the now-defunct blog Radical Torah. It's come to my attention that in the flurry of excitement around my July rabbinic school travels, I missed two weeks' worth of Radical Torah reposts. Whoops!

This week there is no weekly Torah portion -- this coming Shabbat will be Rosh Hashanah, so we'll be reading the special Torah reading assigned to that holiday -- so I'm taking advantage of the gap week in the usual lectionary cycle to post the divrei Torah which I missed posting in July. Apologies for the out-of-season posts!

Here's the first of those back posts: the d'var Torah I wrote for the Torah portion Shlakh-Lecha back in 2006, originally published at the now-defunct Radical Torah.

At the very end of this week's Torah portion, Sh'lakh, there's a fascinating juxtaposition of passages. First, four dramatic verses concerning an episode in which the Israelites, in the wilderness, come across a man gathering wood on Shabbat. He is placed in custody, and God instructs Moses to have him put to death, so the Israelites take him outside the camp and stone him.

Then, five dramatic verses instructing Moses to tell the Israelites to put tzitzit, fringes, on the corners of their garments. These fringes, God says, shall be a reminder of all of God's commandments, that we might do them, and not instead follow our heart and eyes in our (idolatrous) lustful urge. The passage ends with the familiar refrain that Adonai is our God who brought us out of Egypt to be our God.

But did God bring us out of Egypt to instruct us in such punitive measures as stoning to death individuals who dared to collect firewood on Shabbat? How can we reconcile the stoning of the man in the first passage (who, as far as the overt text is concerned, was given no chance to repent or change his ways) with the ethical injunction toward righteousness in the second passage, when that stoning may not look righteous to our modern eyes at all?

Continue reading "Little picture, big picture (Radical Torah repost)" »

In your mouth and in your heart (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.

Where is this thing called Teshuvah located? the Torah asks. Well, it isn't in heaven, so please don't say, I can't do this thing because I don't know how to get to heaven. And it isn't across the sea, so please don't say, I can't do this thing because I don't have a steamship ticket. "Rather it is exceedingly near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, so you can do it." Don't look off in the distance, and don't look outside yourself either, the Torah is telling us, look at your own heart. Don't look out the window; look at the window itself.

So writes Rabbi Alan Lew in This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared. The Torah verses he's citing fall in this week's Torah portion, Nitzavim-vayeilech, right after an exhortation to return to God with all one's heart and soul.

Who among us wouldn't return to God, given the chance? Even if we're not sure what "God" means, or what "return" would look like. Maybe the urging to return to God speaks to us of relationship with the Source of all that is; maybe we imagine a kind of whole-hearted homecoming, an entry or re-entry into the presence of the Most High. Maybe it makes us think of returning to our truest selves. One way or another, it sounds grand, doesn't it?

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This week's portion: milk


God has never told me to write a poem
or spoken to me from within a cloud
or led me into the land, goat's milk
and date honey mingling in my mouth.
That crackly old-time connection is lost
and I don't know that it will return.

This time of year, everything's about return:
yellow schoolbuses inscribing their poem
on curving roads, one sandal lost
and forlorn on the beach, wisps of cloud
racing across the sky. In our mouths
honey gilds apple wedges pale as milk.

When the baby cries, the mother's milk
descends. Both yearn to return
to connection. But what if his mouth
doesn't know how to suck, if her poem
has nowhere to flow? Don't let my pregnancy cloud
the issue: I'm talking about us, lost

and wailing for God in the night, lost
and fearful that the source of milk
has dried up and disappeared. The cloud
of unknowing offers no comfort. Return
to Me
the shofar demands, a poem
without words to carry in our mouths.

Torah isn't over the sea, it's in our mouths
and our hearts -- so why do we feel so lost?
Have we forgotten Moshe's poem
and its endless reprises? We milk
our alienation for all it's worth; return
seems as implausible as walking on cloud.

But God is never just in the fire, the cloud:
God is as near as our heartbeats, our mouths
and our hands. Elul's waning moon says "return
to your source; all who wander are not lost --
we'll leave the light on for you, milk
and cookies and a bedside poem..."

Even in the cloud, you're never lost.
Let your mouth taste the milk of repentance
and return, bearing your poem in your hands.

This week we're reading parashat Nitzavim- Vayelekh -- a double Torah portion, almost at the very end of the book of D'varim.

I haven't been linking to last year's Torah poems (you can find all of them linked in my Divrei Torah index) but rereading these portions this year, I remembered that the Torah poem I wrote for Vayelekh last year is one of my favorites, so I'll point to it again: This poem (Vayelekh).

It's been a while since I've written a sestina, and the repeated words and concepts in this double Torah portion seemed like a good fit for the form. (Alas, I wasn't able to make this week's ReadWritePoem prompt fit with this week's Torah portion. You can still read other participants' responses at the get your poem on #91 post.)

I'm trying to remember where I first heard the notion that "when the baby cries, the mother's milk descends" applied to our relationship with God; I think it was probably at DLTI, though I don't seem to have blogged about it. It's certainly central to the way I've been taught to understand prayer. Not surprisingly, it's a resonant metaphor for me these days.

The idea that Torah isn't over the sea, but is in our mouths and hearts, comes from the first half of this week's Torah portion. The idea that God instructed Moshe to write a poem and teach it to the children of Israel comes from the second half of the Torah portion. Both are powerful for me during this season of teshuvah, as Rosh Hashanah draws ever-closer.


Beyond words

In my Wednesday morning study group with the local cantor and rabbis, we've started studying some Sfat Emet (a.k.a. R' Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger) -- one of my favorite Hasidic masters. Yesterday morning one of my colleagues brought translations of some of the Sfat Emet's writings on Rosh Hashanah, which, as it happens, we just translated in my class on the Hasidic sacred year. One of these texts is about the transcendent power of the shofar. Reading it again with my colleagues, I was struck by something which I find both powerful and a little bit bittersweet. Here's the text, interspersed with explanatory commentary; my realization comes at the end of the post.

"Rosh Hashanah" can be interpreted to mean, before divine life-force differentiates.

This is wordplay: "Rosh Hashanah" is usually translated as "Head of the Year," but he's reading shanah as related to nishtaneh, which would make shanah mean something like change or variegation. In that sense, Rosh Hashanah is not only the head of the year (e.g. the New Year) but also the source from which all changes flow, the unity which precedes variegation.

When the Holy Blessed One sends divine vitality into this world, it enters the domain of time and the natural world.

He's talking about the primordial moment of creation, which in a sense is ongoing. Divine vitality streams directly forth from God in a unified stream, but when it enters creation, it differentiates: time enters the picture, as do the natural laws of the universe as we understand them.

Rosh Hashanah is the source and the beginning, prior to this division. And in its source, it's without material form.

Rosh Hashanah, being the anniversary of creation, represents a point of access for us: on this day we can connect with the source of all things, prior to any differentiation. God is without form, but when God's vitality flows into the world, that vitality fragments from unity into multiplicity. Most of the time we live in multiplicity, but Rosh Hashanah is our chance to touch unity.

The Midrash quotes the verse, "Forever, God, your speech will stand in the heavens." (Psalm 119: 98) And it is said in the name of the Baal Shem Tov, "the sayings of God live and endure." In truth, we find that the root of every thing, what sustains every thing and gives it being, is the source which forever flows through/from the sayings of the Holy One. Each thing is an outgrowth of this source and flows from it.

God's speech is eternal. More than that: God's speech is what continues to create and sustain everything that exists. Everything in creation has a "root," a holy point which perennially draws vitality from God's unending word.

Now, the sounds of the shofar: they are voice sounding without speech. Speech is a division; it is what pure voice divides into, in order to cause movement and differentiation, so that sounds become separate and distinguished from each other. But voice by itself is singular and unique. It cleaves to its source.

The sound of the shofar is primal, an outcry without words. Speech necessarily divides: consonants from vowels, this word from that word, this idea from that idea, speaker from listener. But the cry of the shofar "cleaves to its source" -- it's not separated from its origin, it's not alienated or alienating the way that language always inevitably is. A wordless cry represents unity of purpose, thought transmuting directly into sound.

On Rosh Hashanah, the divine flow of life-force is intimately connected to its root, as it was before any differentiation. Our task is to attach ourselves to this innermost source of divine energy. (SE 5:138)

What struck me, reading this again today, is what this glorification of the shofar might be said to imply about our liturgy. The Days of Awe are marked with an awful lot of prayer: the basic liturgy for weekday is expanded into the liturgy for festivals, which in turn is expanded into the liturgy for the High Holidays. Our liturgical tradition grows by accretion. In every generation there are new prayers, poems, meditations which become so beloved that we can't imagine not adding them to the prayerbook. As a result, our observance of these days can feel encumbered, encrusted with the weighty spiritual jewels of centuries of accumulated wisdom.

But the sound of the shofar cuts through all of that. For all the importance we give to the words, the sound of the shofar obviates words altogether. It goes beyond words. It's like an air raid siren, like a baby's piercing cry, like the wordless shout of lovers. And precisely because it goes beyond words, it takes us back to a place which is beyond words -- that place of complete unity which is the rosh (source) which existed before any shinui (change or differentiation.) That, the Sfat Emet says, is what we're meant to be doing on the day of the New Year: attaching ourselves to "this innermost source of divine energy," cleaving to the undifferentiated life-force of creation.

What's bittersweet about that, of course, is that most of us in my line of work love words. (As a rabbinic student and a writer, I'm doubly guilty of this!) The words we use represent so many centuries of hearts and minds, so much creativity, so many different ways of thinking about and speaking to and reaching out toward God. But if we're realistic, we know that many (most?) of the people who show up in shul during the Days of Awe don't have much attachment to the verbiage. Indeed: the verbiage may be exactly what keeps people from connecting with the deep themes of the holiday. In the end, what speaks most to people is that primeval sound of the ram's horn, that wordless cry that takes us beyond all the words that we can utter.

Petition (a prayer for selichot)

This coming Saturday, when Shabbat has come to an end, it will be time in my community for selichot, a service of prayers which we recite to prepare ourselves for the coming Days of Awe. (You can learn more about selichot here at; there are study resources at this S'lichot-URJ page, and for something completely different -- from a Reform resource to an Orthodox one! -- you might try this essay at Aish called Slichot and the 13 Attributes.)

A while back, my friend Jan (not this Jan, but this Jan) asked whether I'd written any prayers for selichot. I hadn't, but made a note to try to write one during Elul this year. I humbly offer that prayer here. Feel free to use it, share it, daven it, and respond to it in whatever ways you feel moved.

If you do share it, I ask that you please keep my name and blog URL attached so that people know where else to find more of my work; thank you kindly. And if you have other creative selichot readings to share, feel free to post links in comments...


Compassionate One, remember
we are your children

help us to know again
that we are cradled

during these awesome days
of changing light

we want to return
to your lap, to your arms

remind us how to believe
that we are loved

not for our achievements
but because we are yours

as the moon of Elul wanes
and the new year rushes in

hear us with compassion
enfold us, don't let us go