Previous month:
September 2009
Next month:
November 2009

A prayer for rain


Millennia ago, the earth was washed in water
connections sparked unimaginable across the water

the life we know begins cradled in water
each human being emerges in a flood of water

from ancient times we've prayed to God for water
not too much, not too little, just enough water

this year the landscape I first knew lacked water
grasslands parched, thirsting for drops of water

this year the hills where I live ran with water
seeping through roofs, swelling doors shut with water

to mark holy times we immerse ourselves in water
washing our old hurts away in water

in the city of gold rooftop tanks collect water
those who have and those who lack fight over water

in the beginning, presence hovered over water
mysterious and unknowable like deep water

the bodies we inhabit are made of water
our veins and tissues stay functional through water

we couldn't stand and offer praise without water
source of all, be kind to us: send water.

On the festival of Shemini Atzeret, in many communities, during the musaf repetition of the amidah (the extra iteration of the standing prayer), a prayer is offered which describes our holy relationship with God through the repeated motif of water. It's called tefilat geshem, "the rain prayer." That link will take you to a brief article about the prayer which also features the words of the prayer in Hebrew and, as a drop-down menu, in English.

From here on out, as we pray the amidah (the standing prayer which is central to our liturgy) daily, we'll replace the one-line request for dew with a one-line request for winds and rain. (At Pesach, we recite tefilat tal, the dew prayer, and thenceforth we daily ask for dew instead of for rain...until Shemini Atzeret.) The year oscillates between these two poles.

Many classical piyyutim (liturgical poems) take a form which looks to me, as a student of poetry, not unlike a ghazal. A ghazal is a Persian/Arabic/Urdu form which I first learned through reading the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali, may his memory be a blessing. (Here's one of his poems, titled simply Ghazal.) Ghazals are written in couplets, and each line ends with a "refrain" word. A classical ghazal features meter, as well as a kind of hidden rhyme, found in the word which precedes the refrain word.

The classical prayer for rain recited on Shemini Atzeret is beautiful poetry, and I don't mean to supplant it -- rather to add to the body of liturgical poetry of which it is a part. In that spirit, I offer this "ghazal" (I'm putting that in quotes because I haven't fully lived up to the constraints of the classical Persian form), a contemporary variation on the prayer for rain spoken today, on Shemini Atzeret. May we all be washed with blessings like falling water.


Adonai, open my lips...

I recently encountered a beautiful teaching by the Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger; I've blogged his teachings many times before.) This is one of his teachings for Hoshanna Rabbah (the seventh day of Sukkot) and can be found in The Language of Truth. It's about prayer.

On Hoshanna Rabbah we beat willow branches against the ground. The willow, he says, represents speech, which connects it with prayer (prayer being, after all, a form of speech.) The willow is also associated with David, the psalmist, who said "I am my prayer before You."

Prayer is all we have for reaching God. In some sense that may seem either inadequate or chutzpahdik. On the other hand, prayer is all we need for reaching God. The leaves of the willow are shaped like lips, and our lips are the gates through which our prayers pass.

At the end of Yom Kippur we make much of how "the gates are closing." We seem to need the catharsis and the drama of dipping deep into the experience of that day as though, when that day ends, our chance to reach God were over. Though the tradition also says that the gates of repentance remain open through Hoshanna Rabbah (some say, through Shemini Atzeret, the 8th day of Sukkot)... and really, says the Sefat Emet, the gates to God are always open as long as we use our lips to pray.

Our mouths are the gates. When they are closed -- when we perceive that God is far from us -- that's because we've closed the gates ourselves. That's the heartbreaking news: our experience of God as being distant from us is our own doing! But the good news is, opening the gates is always within our power. All we have to do is open our lips.

My last semester of fulltime school

Sitting in the sukkah reading Ilana Pardes' Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach, I have one of those moments where I feel like I'm getting away with something, earning credit for reading and discussing this book and its implications. (Do you ever have that feeling? That something you're doing is so much fun, you can't believe you earn credit, or wages, for doing it?)

My fall semester is finally fully underway. It's going to be a short and dense term. One of my summer classes is still ongoing; beyond that, I'm taking three tutorials -- rather than the more formal ALEPH courses which are now beginning and will run through January -- because I need to be able to complete my coursework by the start of December, before the birth of my son. (It's becoming clear to me that completing my final papers before he arrives may still be more of a challenge than I can rise to, but I'm trying to just let that be whatever it will be.)

This will be my last semester of fulltime rabbinic study. Most ALEPH students study part-time, but I've had the luxury of fulltime learning since I left Inkberry in my first year of school. It's strange to think that this rhythm, which has become so intimately interwoven with the round of my year, is about to change. Of course, parenthood will offer its own blessings... but since I don't yet know what those will be, the prospect of spending less time with my classmates and my texts is a little bit bittersweet.

In the spring I plan to take one class -- possibly two if I can swing a second one, but I'm not counting on it. Next summer I need to take three classes, two of which will be intensives at smicha students' week in Baltimore. (The other will be something I can schedule here at home, and if I only manage one spring course -- as seems increasingly likely -- I'll seek two courses outside of smicha students' week next summer.) In fall of 2010 I plan to take two classes, one of which will be my senior project. Anyway, this is the last time I'll ever be able to devote myself this fully to this learning, so I'm trying to make the most of it!

I'm taking four classes this fall: my last class in Hasidut, two very different exegesis classes (one focusing on feminist exegesis, the other on a personal mode of engaging with Torah text), and a class in psalms. For more on all of these, read on!

Continue reading "My last semester of fulltime school" »

readwritepoem: Atzeret (Slonimer mash-up)


Two days are called atzeret, the 8th day of Sukkot
and Shavuot, when God asks us to linger

if seven represents the whole of a week
eight implies fullness and then some

we seek God's face and rejoice together
just the two of us, an intimate affair

on Yom Kippur we nullify ego
we become transparent windows

the festivals are merely preparation
for these days of holy basking

there's cosmic repair work to do
before our autumnal day of pausing

the blank parchment which holds the Torah
is holy because it contains every letter

at the festival of pouring-out water
we sluice our divine qualities like gutters

we remove (our texts, our teachings) our finery
and the movie of our togetherness fades to black

This week's prompt at ReadWritePoem, the poetics of the mash-up, invites us to interweave two poems with which we're not completely satisfied and see how we like the results.

I chose two poems from a series which is otherwise as-yet unpublished -- a series of poems I've been working on which arise out of translations of Hasidic texts. I began work on the series as my final project for the first semester of Moadim l'Simcha, the class on the Hasidic sacred year which I've been taking this year. Each poem in the series takes a different Hasidic text about one of the festivals of the year and aims to present it (in English) in a contemporary poetic idiom.

I chose these two poems to mash up because they both come out of teachings from the same rabbi -- the previous Slonimer rebbe, Shalom Noach Barzovsky -- and both teachings are about days which are described as days of atzeret, which means something like pausing or convocation. Both were originally much longer than this; after I mashed them up I did a fair bit of judicious editing and some tightening here and there, but I preserved the two voices in dialogue.

The Hasidic teachings about the festivals of Shavuot and Shemini Atzeret which underpin this poem may not be entirely clear to the casual reader (especially now that two poems have been combined and shortened!) Here are some details which might make the symbolism less opaque:

Shavuot is when we celebrate the revelation of Torah, and marks the culmination of a 50-day process of introspection and inner work. Shemini Atzeret is a minor festival at the end of Sukkot (on the 8th day of the 7-day holiday), and marks the culmination of the year's other 50-day inner spiritual journey. The line about pouring-out water is a reference to simchat beit ha-shoeivah, an ancient Sukkot practice. 

You can read other responses to this prompt at get your poem on #95. (Sorry, no recording this week; TypePad is behaving strangely this morning and I can't seem to upload the file. I'll edit to add the audio later today if I can.)

#Torah tweets and the Memory Palace

A while back, Rabbi Ben Greenberg, an Orthodox chaplain at Harvard Hillel who blogs at A Yiddishe Thought, contacted me to ask whether he could reprint some of my #Torah tweets in a short collection. I said sure.

During this week of Sukkot, when we celebrate all kinds of harvest, that agreement has borne fruit; Twitter Torah has been released!

Twitter Torah brings the profundity, beauty and depth of the Torah to you in 140 character messages based around the weekly Torah portions. The book shares insights from seven unique and thoughtful people. The contributors to this book all come from different places in the Jewish community: traditional and non-traditional, men and women, Jewish professionals and lay members. The common denominator that brings these people together is a love for Torah and a desire to share their short and profound thoughts with the wider world.

The collection includes tweets from me, Harriet Goren, Michael Green, Ben Greenberg, Mark Hurvitz, Andrew Pepperstone and Phyllis Sommer. It's being offered with a fairly hefty price tag -- US$25 -- so I leave its purchase to your budgetary discretion. Still, it's a nifty thing.

ETA 10.13.09: The author decided to publish the book in black-and-white rather than color, so the price has come down to US$10 -- hooray!

On an entirely unrelated note, I just received my copy of a truly gorgeous chapbook of poems in the mail: A Walk Through the Memory Palace, the winner of the first Qarrtsiluni chapbook contest. I had the pleasure of being a first-round reader -- my partner and I read a dozen or so manuscripts, discussed them with each other, and forwarded our top two on to Dinty Moore, who was the final arbiter -- and I'm pleased to say that this manuscript was in the pile which my colleague and I read, and was our favorite of the batch! Apparently Dinty agreed with us that it is excellent work.

The collection is published by Phoenecia Press (the parent imprint of Laupe House, which published my collection chaplainbook back in 2006, and in 2007 Brilliant Coroners which I had the pleasure of co-editing.) It's a physically lovely artifact, of course, but what really bowls me over are the poems. Read all about it (including the free podcast and the online edition); if you're so inclined, you can pick up a copy here at qarrtsiluni's in-print page -- and at just US$6, it's a bargain.


What does it mean to be commanded to be joyful?

The festival of Sukkot is called zman simchateinu, the season of our rejoicing. It's a mitzvah -- a connective-commandment, a religious obligation -- to rejoice in our sukkot. This mitzvah is d'oraita (comes from the Torah itself, rather than from later rabbinic tradition): Deuteronomy 16:15 says, "you shall be altogether joyful." But what can this mean? Surely it isn't possible to legislate an inner state of being. For me, the critical distinction is between the English words "joy" and "happiness."

Happiness comes and goes. We may have a sense for what conditions are likeliest to bring it about, but I'm not sure we can entirely trust that sense. (Haven't you known people who pursued things they thought would make them happy, but discovered that what they were seeking wasn't actually enough?) And besides, the conditions aren't usually within our control. I may perceive that I'm happiest when I'm surrounded by people I love, eating great food, experiencing wonderful live music, traveling to exciting new places, immersing in an amazing experience of prayer -- but even though I'm fortunate to have a lot of those moments in my life, life isn't like that all the time. I can't count on that experience to sustain me. (For a different -- but not unrelated -- perspective on happiness, you might enjoy Daniel Gilbert on why it’s so hard to know what makes us happy, over at Ethan's blog.)

It seems to me that joy is something different. Joy can be cultivated. And joy can coexist with sorrow.

Continue reading "Joy" »

Turn, turn, turn

Friday evening I got a message that the rabbi was unwell; could I lead services on Saturday morning? Of course, I said. He emailed me the creative Hallel handout he'd assembled, told me which Torah scroll in the ark is set to the reading for the first day of Sukkot, thanked me, and went to bed. That changed the shape of Friday evening a bit. I sat down with my Mishkan Tfilah Weekdays & Festivals edition to look over the festival morning service, and then took out my tikkun to learn the Torah reading, and printed out the guitar tablature for the "song of the week" that had been chosen -- Pete Seeger's "Turn, Turn, Turn," because the megillah associated with Sukkot is Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) from which most of those lyrics are drawn. The service was a lot of fun; we had a minyan, I played guitar for a couple of the songs in Hallel, and afterwards we studied excerpts from Kohelet and talked about why this megillah might have been chosen to be paired with this festival, themes of striving and impermanence, work and harvest.

Shabbat afternoon was fogged-in and rainy -- no weather for sitting outside in the sukkah, alas. Instead, a good friend and I turned what we estimated to be the proverbial bushel and peck of apples (of many local varieties: Red Lady, Macoun, Honeycrisp, others of unidentifiable provenance) into enough applesauce to grace our Chanukah  latkes, feed my son next spring when he's starting on baby food, and still give both of our households enough applesauce to enjoy and to give away this winter. It was a profoundly satisfying way to spend the day. I enjoy the rhythm of the work. My fingers gravitate toward the Shaker apple corer/slicer and the food mill, both of which turn, turn, turn. I savor the scent of apples cooking with just a splash of water and several long dashes of cinnamon. And I love watching the jars pile up beside the canner, and hearing the popping sounds of their lids sealing this harvest goodness for the seasons to come.

Today dawned with fog but no rain, and soon the sun burned the fog away, though in the valley below us it rested like low-flying clouds all morning. Ethan's taking advantage of the sun to do some much-needed roofing repair work (it's kind of funny that during this season when we inhabit sukkot and remember the impermanence of our dwelling-places, he's quite literally facing the impermanence of ours!) but I'm not much help with that, so I went out to the sukkah instead. To my great pleasure, the rains of earlier in the weekend dampened everything but didn't knock the schach off of the roof! So I went inside and shook my lulav in all six directions, beckoning blessings. I sang some psalms quietly to myself. And then I sat down and called my folks, bringing them into the sukkah through their voices in my ear. I wonder what our son will make of our little round sukkah, of being outdoors and indoors all at once, next time the wheel of the year rolls around.

Permeable: a poem for Sukkot


Today I'll finish our sukkah
stacking old wildflowers
to hint at roof, twining tinsel
around the slats

all year we imagine
our houses are our houses
stable and comfortable
waterproof and familiar

but these seven days
remind us that permanence
is overrated, that our true home
is under the stars

change is always underway
nine short weeks remain
until you'll leave the home
you probably think is forever

and enter our world
airy and unpredictable
where we won't know what you need
even sometimes when you tell us

your first big leap of faith, kid:
into nothing you've ever known
into the fragile sukkah
we've decorated just for you

Tonight at sundown begins the festival of Sukkot, when we spend a week "dwelling" (or at least hanging out and dining) in little outdoor houses. A sukkah must be permeable to the elements; one should be able to see the full moon through the loose branches of its roof. It's a celebration of the harvest (in this hemisphere) and a chance to remind ourselves that even the solid structures we build aren't as permanent as the fact of change.

Nothing hammers home that truth for me as vividly as my swelling belly, the squirms and kicks I've grown accustomed to feeling inside me, the hand-me-down baby gear accumulating in the nursery. So this week's poem -- not a Torah poem; just a poem-poem -- draws both on the Jewish holiday/seasonal cycle, and on the cycle of this embodied year and the changes in my life which are physically underway.

To those who celebrate, I wish a chag sameach -- may your Sukkot be joyful!

(To ReadWritePoem folks: alas, once again I didn't write to this week's prompt, but if you'd like to read the other responses, you can find them here: Get Your Poem On #94.)


Find previous Sukkot posts here.