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August 2009
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Spiritual direction from both sides now

This month I begin seeing spiritual direction clients -- a.k.a. "directees" or, in Hebrew, mushpa'ot. (The name for a spiritual director in Hebrew is mashpi'ah; the two words share the root שפע which denotes divine abundance or flow.) As I've mentioned this milestone to people in my life, many have asked, "what exactly is spiritual direction?" And I've thought: aha! A blog post is in order!

Spiritual direction is a relationship, a process through which one person helps another discern the presence of the sacred in their life. This discipline exists in many religious traditions (I know, for instance, that Jesuit priests in formation are required to be in spiritual direction -- as are ALEPH rabbinic students.) In my corner of the Jewish world, this relationship is called hashpa'ah (which, again, derives from the root meaning abundant flow from God.) In the words of my training program, "Hashpa'ah is the traditional term for the relationship with a spiritual director or mashpia who offers guidance and teaching on matters of Jewish faith and practice, and on a personal relationship with the Divine."

(As the wikipedia entry on spiritual direction notes, this Hebrew term is common in the Chabad-Lubavitch community and also in the Jewish Renewal community. Among Orthodox Jews who come from the less mystical and more rationalist end of the spectrum, a spiritual director is more likely to be called mashgiach ruchani. A mashgiach is someone who advises on the kashrut of a kitchen, and a "mashgiakh ruchani" is someone who advises on the spiritual lives of others.) In English, the name for this process or relationship is spiritual direction.

A variety of answers to the question "what is spiritual direction" can be found here at Spiritual Directors International. Among those answers, my favorites are Liz Bud Ellman's assertion that "Simply put, spiritual direction is helping people tell their sacred stories everyday" and James Keegan's assertion that "Spiritual direction is the contemplative practice of helping another person or group to awaken to the mystery called God in all of life, and to respond to that discovery in a growing relationship of freedom and commitment."

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A couple of weeks ago I posted a Torah poem called "What they did with their 'God of Carnage' Vacation (Ki Tetzei)." It is part of my ongoing series of parsha poems; it also arose in response to that week's prompt at ReadWritePoem, which invited us to title our poems using borrowed newspaper headlines.

My friend Simcha Daniel, who blogs at Sustainable Judaism and who often comments here, has done me the profound honor of translating the poem into Hebrew. If you're a reader of Hebrew poetry, you can read his translation in the comments section of my Torah poem post.

(Even if you don't read Hebrew, you might enjoy the other conversation in the comments thread on that post. If you're reading this blog via an aggregator/feedreader or via email, do consider stopping by from time to time to see what we're talking about in comments. Thanks to y'all, the conversation is always interesting...)

I've never had my poetry translated into Hebrew before. I'm really delighted with the end result, which feels at once like my own poem and like a transformative work which has transmuted my original poem into something wondrous and new.

Harvest blessings (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. Reading about preserving late-August tomatoes makes me a little bit wistful, this year; thanks to the nightshade blight, we've only gotten a handful of fruits this year, and there will be no extravaganza of rich red tomato preservation. But there's always next year...

All these blessings shall come upon you and take effect, if you will but heed the word of the Lord your God:

Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country. Blessed shall be the issue of your womb, the produce of your soil, and the offspring of your cattle, the calving of your herd and the lambing of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings.

I meditated on this passage from Ki Tavo while working in my kitchen this week. My husband and I belong to a community-supported farm. For many years (twelve, for me; in his case, fourteen) we have purchased a share in the farm's holdings, and each week during summer and early fall we bring home the dazzling bounty of our local soil.

Early Elul tends to coincide with the tomato harvest. Heirloom tomatoes we blanch, and peel, and crush, and simmer, and then freeze in Ziploc bags, to be thawed when snow brushes against the windowsills. Plum tomatoes we "sun-dry" in our oven, and that's the task that has occupied my week and colored my Torah thoughts.

This week's Torah portion offers two simple options: follow God's commandments and you will be blessed; fail to follow these teachings and curses will rain down upon you. Helpfully, Torah offers distinguishable right ways and wrong ways. Though most of modern life may not feel so cut-and-dried, some of our tasks still partake in this satisfying binarism. For instance, the work of putting up early-September harvest.

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This week's portion: inscription


Moshe said, as soon as you cross
into the land, erect pillars of stone.

Inscribe them with "this teaching" --
meaning what exactly? His final speech?

The whole Torah? I admit,
I like the idea of scribbling words

on every surface: notebooks, monitors,
even dolmens painted white as the page

but it's not showy, awe-inducing
like carnivals of acrobats, torches flying

or an eight-pointed star of fire
juggled before an excited crowd.

Though maybe as we tiptoe
toward the Days of Awe it's good

that our tradition unfolds small
toward what we can't know

as though God's glory filled creation
as though there were no place devoid

no matter where I've planted myself
or what I've plastered over.

This week's prompt at ReadWritePoem is a visual one: a photograph of a person balancing an eight-pointed star of flaming torches on a stick which is in turn balanced on his breastbone, while a crowd looks on. I looked at it and thought, "how on earth am I going to make that relevant to this week's Torah portion?"

This week we're reading parashat Ki Tavo, and sure enough, it doesn't really resonate with the image at all. So the poem arose out of the bizarre juxtaposition of the two, instead of out of their confluence. I'm still undecided as to whether this works, but I'm putting it out there anyway; I welcome your thoughts.

The portion speaks about what the Israelites are to do when they enter the land which God has promised them: erect stones, plaster them over, and inscribe "this teaching" on them. (Whatever that means. Opinions, naturally, vary.) It also talks about bringing first-fruits as a thank-you gift to God. There's a string of curses and blessings, and then toward the end of the portion there's a passage which addresses the question of what will happen if the people fail to live up to God's instructions. It's a rich portion, full of intriguing and complicated ideas, most of which didn't make it into the poem. (If you're interested in further commentary on the portion, I recommend Strange Fruit by Rabbi Oren J. Hayon, published at the URJ website.)

The last stanza of the poem makes reference to an idea found in Isaiah 6:3: מְלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ / M'lo chol ha-aretz kvodo, "All the earth is full of God's glory." In Tikkunei Zohar (Tikkun 57) the same idea is found: לית אתר פניו מיניה / leit atar panui minei, "No place is devoid of God's presence." This is a recurring theme in Hasidic texts, and it's something I find myself thinking about a lot as we move through Elul towards the Days of Awe. I like the idea that God can be found everywhere -- whether or not we've erected stones as our ancestors may have done, regardless of what in our own lives we may have tried to cover over and forget.

If you're interested, you can read the other responses to this week's RWP prompt here at the get your poem on #90 roundup list.


Sunshine in a jar

Bowl of lemons.

This year for erev Rosh Hashanah dinner -- historically the big "festive meal" in my family of origin -- I want to do something simple but awesome. Homemade challah goes without saying; local apples and honey ditto. But what to make for a main course? Right now I'm contemplating a recipe for Moroccan chicken with preserved lemon and olives which I found in Saveur. The only thing is, I don't know where to get preserved lemons around here. Fortunately for me, Saveur has a recipe for those, too.

Some of you may remember that I experimented with sweet and spicy etrog pickle once last Sukkot was over. The recipe I used was a highly-spiced preserved lemon recipe; I just made it with etrogim instead. The trouble is, etrogim have almost no juice; their fragrance is incredible, but they're mostly pith, with only a little bit of pulp in the middle of each fruit. I tried to compensate for that with some storebought lemon juice, and I packed the etrogim in their cooking syrup, but I knew as I was making them that this wasn't quite how the recipe was supposed to go. I did bring a jar of etrog pickle to our Tu BiShvat seder at my shul this winter, and a few brave souls tasted this version of preserved etrog -- but I'm not sure anyone loved the results. (I think this year I'll return to jam.)

Saveur's preserved lemon recipe is ridiculously simple, though... and already I can see how these are going to turn out very differently than my preserved etrogim. The first thing I did was juice half a dozen lemons, yielding two cups of bright pale lemon juice. Then I sliced four lemons almost into quarters -- making each one into a kind of  tulip shape -- and rubbed their insides with coarse kosher salt, which will get washed off before we cook with them; it's just there to help the rinds soften and preserve.

I packed them into a sterile quart jar -- four lemons just barely fit inside -- and then poured the two cups of lemon juice over them to cover. (You can also just salt the lemons and pack them into a jar and let them generate their own juice, but that takes longer, and since the moon of Elul is already full, I opted for the speedier version of the recipe in order to be able to cook with them when the new moon of Tishri rises.)

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Returning to the divine womb

The Hasidic masters, it turns out, are really fond of birth imagery. I'd noticed this before, specifically while reading texts about Passover; in the Hasidic imagination, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds can become the breaking of the waters as we emerge from the "narrow place" of Egypt -- a kind of cosmic birth canal. Anyway, I'd thought of this as primarily a Passover metaphor, but it turns out that there are ways to draw on birth imagery in talking about the current time of year, too. For obvious reasons I'm hyper-conscious of this imagery now, and the prevalence of these metaphors is blowing me away.

In my Moadim l'Simcha class (Seasons of Our Rejoicing) we've been studying a text for this time of year written by the B'nai Yissaschar which talks about mikvah and (re)birth. (Bear with me; this gets a bit technical, but I think the payoff is worth it.)

He begins by asserting that "Just as a mikvah purifies the impure, so the Holy Blessed One purifies Israel." (A mikvah is a ritual bath; I've posted about mikvah many times before.) Any source of "living waters" -- a river, a stream -- is a kosher mikvah. But if a mikvah is going to be enclosed, then it needs to contain 40 se'ot of water and the water needs to have some kind of flow. The B'nai Yissaschar likens the 40 se'ot of water in a kosher mikvah to the 40 days of the month of Elul plus the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. So this span of days which we're in right now -- this month of spiritual preparation, plus what we commonly call the Days of Awe -- becomes a kind of mikvah-in-time.

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Coming soon to a bookstore near you...?

Back when Radical Torah still existed, one of my favorite features there was The Comic Torah, a strip written by Aaron Freeman and drawn by Sharon Rosenzweig. The Comic Torah offers a quirky and sometimes irreverent look at each week's Torah portion, in serialized graphic novel form. (Though Radical Torah has been offline for a while now, the comic strip still exists: The Comic Torah.)

One of the most charming things about the strip is that God Almighty (a.k.a. YHVH) is clearly modeled on Sharon -- and Moses is a dead ringer for her partner (in both senses of the word) Aaron Freeman. (What this is meant to imply about the relationship betwen God and Moshe, I'll leave as an exercise for the reader.) Seeing God depicted as a woman and Moshe as a Black man was at first startling; these days I find it delicious. There are other quirky visual decisions that I like: for instance, the Land of Israel is depicted as a voluptuous woman, her body marked into 12 tribal territories. (See above.) There's something both pointed and poignant about that.

It turns out that Ben Yehuda Press wants to publish the collected comic strips as a book -- which is great news for Jewish comics fans, fans of interesting graphic novels, and anyone who likes the idea of creative engagement with Torah. But the folks at Ben Yehuda want to be sure that there's enough interest in the project for them to print it, so they're asking the strip's readers and fans to kick in toward the costs of the first printing. This is a fascinating move, and I find myself deeply hoping that it works -- not only because I'd love to own a paper copy of The Comic Torah, but also because I think a success with this plan would say something about the power of online readership and about people's willingness to chip in to support interesting art.

If you enjoyed Natalie D'Arbeloff's The God Interviews (which I reviewed a while back), or Joann Sfar's The Rabbi's Cat books (ditto), I expect this will be right up your alley.

Learn more at, where you can watch a short video about the project and then, if you feel so inclined, donate to help its creators reach their publication goal.