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Sfat Emet on lighting candles and finding God within

In 2009 I took a two-semester class called Moadim l'Simcha, "Seasons of Our Rejoicing," which looked at the round of the spiritual year through the lens of Hasidic texts. It is one of my favorite classes I've taken during this whole rabbinic school adventure. (Here's the series of three posts I made at the end of that class: The shape of the spiritual year, The year as spiritual practice, Hasidut and paradigm shifting.)

The group met once after our formal learning was over, during Chanukah, in order to study Hasidic texts about Chanukah. I wasn't able to make the class -- Drew was only a few weeks old -- but I downloaded the recording, and listened to part of it late one night as Drew nursed. But I didn't have the Hasidic texts in front of me, and it was hard for me to internalize the learning without the printed material to look at. Also I was exhausted and overwhelmed and it was the middle of the night! So I saved the mp3 for another day.

Chanukah approaches again, which makes this the perfect time to listen to this recording and take in some wisdom from the Hasidic masters, from my classmates, and from my dear teacher R' Elliot Ginsburg. Here are some gleanings from the first part of that extra class, taught around this time on the Jewish calendar last year. This text comes from the Sfat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger.

"The candle of God is the soul of man, searching all of one's deepest places." (Proverbs 20:27) In the Gemara we read about searching for leaven with a candle -- about searching our internal places as though we were searching the deepest cavities of our bodies.

(He's suggesting that there's a connection between our Chanukah candles, and the candle which we use to search for leaven before Pesach, and this idea that our souls are divine candles.)

The mishkan (sanctuary / dwelling-place for God) and the beit hamikdash (the Holy Temple) dwell in the hearts of every person in Israel. This is the meaning of the verse "Build Me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them" (Exodus 25:8) -- e.g., within the hearts of the people. When one understands that one's life-force is in one's soul, one is doing a kind of personal refinement or spiritual clarification. Every day when we say elohai neshama [in the daily liturgy, we recite "My God, the soul that you have placed within me is pure"] we're doing that spiritual work. There is a single point of purity in each person of Israel -- though this point is hidden, secreted away. But in the days when the Temple stood, it was revealed and known that our life-force was in/from God.

Once upon a time, there was an externalization of divinity. God's presence in the world was manifest through the Temple, which helped us recognize that God was the source of all life. Today, when that architecture no longer stands, the reality that we burn with divine life-force is hidden to us, and needs to be revealed through doing internal spiritual work.

Now that the mishkan is hidden, divinity can nevertheless be found by searching with candles [as we do on the night before Pesach, and as we do when we kindle festival lights.]

In other words: even without the Temple, divinity can still be found. We just have to search for it. And there may be something about the act of kindling lights which helps us do that internal seeking.

The candles [which we use in our spiritual seeking] are the mitzvot. We search for God by doing mitzvot. The way that we search, with all of our hearts, is to perform the mitzvot with all of our heart, soul, life-force.

We can see the mitzvot as tools of searching. He's not just talking about literal candles and the lighting thereof; he's talking about how each time we do mitzvot, we are kindling a kind of light. Through the mitzvot, we go inward. When we do mitzvot, they act as candles, illumining us. This is not how we usually think about mitzvot, but it may have extra resonance for us this week as we literally illumine the lights of Chanukah.

Continue reading "Sfat Emet on lighting candles and finding God within" »

Another mother poem: One Year / Mother Psalm 9





A psalm of ascent


When the doctor brought you
through my narrow places
I was as in a dream: tucked behind
my closed eyes, chanting silently
we are opening up in sweet surrender.
The night before we left the hospital
I wept: didn’t they know
I had no idea what to do with you?
Even newborn-sized clothes
loomed around you, vast and ill-fitting.
I couldn’t convince you to latch
without a nurse there to reposition.
But we got into the car, the old world
made terrifying and new, and
in time I learned your language.
I had my own narrow places ahead,
the valley of the postpartum shadow.
Nights when I would hand you over,
mutely grateful to anyone willing
to rock you down, to suffer your cries...
But those who sow in tears
will reap in joy, and you
are the joy I never knew I didn’t have.
I have paced these long hours
bearing a baby on my shoulder
and now I am home in rejoicing,
bearing you, my own harvest.

This is my 52nd mother poem. Over the last year, I've written roughly one poem each week -- some weeks, no poems; some weeks, two; but on the whole, it's been a steady pace of one weekly poem most of the time since Drew was born -- and now that first year is done.

Those of you who are here for the mother poems have said some wonderful things (thank you so much for reading them and for commenting!) and I may well continue writing them -- though I suspect I will take a few weeks' break, and spend the remainder of this year on other writing-work (like the three final papers and the poetry project I have due to various rabbinic school teachers...and also, beginning to go back over these mother poems, and sharing them with friends who can help me get perspective on the manuscript as a whole.)

This poem is one of the subset of my mother poems which draws inspiration from the psalms. Specifically, I was thinking of Psalm 126 when I wrote this. The opening lines are a reference to "When Adonai brought back those who returned to Zion, we were like dreamers." And "Those who sow in tears / will reap in joy" is a direct quote from the psalm. And the final lines are a reference to the final lines of that brief psalm, which read, "Though he goes on his way weeping, bearing seed, he shall return home in joy, bearing his sheaves."

This poem wasn't written in response to a Big Tent Poetry prompt, but here's a link to this week's Come One, Come All post so you can see what others wrote.


Prayers for Thanksgiving from Reb Zalman

Just in time for the holiday, my beloved Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi has revised his Thanksgiving prayer. First there's an English paragraph:

For all the boons in our lives we offer our thanks to you YHVH our God and in blessing your Name we hope that all of life will bless You too and especially today because:

In the days of the Pilgrims, the Puritans, when they arrived at these safe shores, suffered hunger and cold. They sang and prayed to the Rock of their Salvation. And You, standing by them, roused the caring of the Natives for them: who fed them, turkey and corn and other delights. Thus saved You them from starvation, and they learned the ways of peace with the inhabitants of the land. Therefore, feeling grateful, they dedicated a day of Thanksgiving each year as a remembrance for future generations, feeding unfortunates feasts of thanks. Thus do we thank You for all the good in our lives, God of kindness, Lord of Peace; thus do we thank You.

Then he offers the same text in Hebrew. Those who know the prayer Al haNisim ("For the Miracles") which is recited on Chanukah (and also on Purim) will realize, upon reading the Hebrew, that the structure of this Thanksgiving prayer is adapted from that one. (I'd enclose it here in Hebrew, but I don't seem to be able to convince any of the software on my machine to retain the directionality of the text -- if you want to read the Hebrew, you'll have to download Reb Zalman's pdf file!)

And then, for families who like to sing -- maybe especially families where someone at the table is Christian and is accustomed to singing hymns in the vernacular -- he offers the lyrics to "We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing." It's a beautiful hymn. A little bit of digging revealed that it was originally written in 1597 in Dutch; then translated into Latin; then translated into English! Anyway, it has a lovely melody; if you don't know it, here's a version sung by the Celtic Women, visible on YouTube over a medley of family and harvest images.

If you're so inclined, you can download Reb Zalman's prayers as a pdf -- an easy one page to print.

One way or another, I hope your Thanksgiving is sweet and full of gratitude!

Another mother poem: Thanksgiving






Last year I carried you inside
to the buffet, to the table
to the big blue birth ball
where I bounced beside the fire.

Darkness falls early here
at this season: the eve of the day
I'd spend pacing the hospital,
contracting in the shower.

This year you scramble
around the living room, wind up
in Downward Dog by accident,
grab and devour bits of turkey.

Your babble, your crinkled eyes,
your hot hand slapping mine,
your gasps of laughter
even the year of staccato nights

and the painful realignments
of a marriage shifting
to new foundations:
all I can do is give thanks.

This week's mother poem is sparked by the reappearance of Thanksgiving on the calendar. Last year, I spent Thanksgiving pregnant. The following morning, we called the hospital at 6am; when they confirmed that they had a bed free for me, we drove in, and by 7am I was on the pitocin drip which eventually led to Drew's arrival on the scene.

It's pretty amazing to think that Drew will turn one this Sunday. My life has changed in ways I couldn't have imagined -- and yet, a year after his birth, I'm pleased to be able to say that some of the important parts of my pre-baby life have remained constant.

Anyway, here's this week's (first) poem. (I'm actually already working on one more poem, which I will post next week.) I can't decide whether or not to cut the second stanza; thoughts, anyone?

Here's a link to this week's Come One, Come All post so you can see what the Big Tent Poetry folks did with the prompt. (It was a wordle cloud, and ordinarily I love those -- but this week, I wound up going somewhere different instead.)


Smicha preparation and the empty cup

Seven weeks from yesterday, nine of my dear friends and I will receive smicha. In our class there are one cantor, two rabbinic pastors, and seven rabbis. We will all become musmachim together.

We've been meeting regularly via conference call to plan our smicha ceremony, and in one of those calls, we wound up talking about our spiritual preparation for smicha. I'm all too aware that the process of learning everything I need to know in order to be the rabbi I want to be is a lifelong journey; I'm not sure I'll ever be finished becoming. But the smicha ceremony is a marker that I've done the learning which my teachers deem necessary (necessary, perhaps, to prepare me to continue doing the learning which awaits!) It's easy to list the many subjects in which ALEPH requires its students to achieve mastery, to say that I've taken this many Tanakh classes and this many liturgy classes and this many Hasidut classes and so on. But this program requires more than just intellectual learning:

The foundation and center of the Rabbinic Program is the Mystery we name God. We understand Judaism to be the individual and collective responses of Jews throughout our history, both in thought and deed, to the ongoing manifestations of the Divine. In studying religious texts, Jewish history, and the visions and values of our spiritual leaders, we are concerned with how the Divine has been and is now being revealed through Jewish experience. And we are equally concerned with how we -- as individuals and as communities -- respond to Divine revelations in our solitude, in our relationships and in our work.

We expect students to become masters of tradition, in continuous dialogue with our ancestors. But we keep in mind the teaching of the Ba'al Shem Tov: "We say, 'Eloheynu v'elohey avoteynu' (and now imoteynu) in that order because our first concern is with how we experience the Divine." We have faith that the still, small Voice will direct our students in each present moment -- as we continually experience Divine direction -- im b'kolo tish'ma-u, if we choose to hear. We pray that they listen, and in their pursuit of Torah, learn how they are being called to the task of integrating spiritual and moral treasures from our heritage into their own lives, that they become messengers to those who seek to drink from the Living Water.

(That's from ALEPH's description of the program.) So one big piece of my own preparation for smicha is getting my spiritual house in order. Trying to enact and embody the prayerful consciousness and the gratitude with which I want to approach the world. Staying in close touch with God.

Although it marks the culmination of a program of study, smicha isn't a graduation. The word can be understood to mean leaning-on, and our teachers will literally lean on us -- a laying-on of hands -- as they confer their blessing and their ordination on us. This is one of those awesome moments when the words we speak change something in the fabric of reality. As at a wedding, when the words spoken by the couple beneath the chuppah change their state of being, so at a smicha -- and we, and our teachers, will stand beneath a chuppah then, as I remember walking beneath a chuppah when our community formally celebrated (at Ohalah, in 2006) the group of us who had entered the ALEPH programs during 2005.

In my understanding, smicha is also a moment of transmission -- of blessing, of something ineffable which I don't know how to describe (and may still not know how to describe even once it's happened!) Before our smicha weekend, one of my classmates is going on silent retreat in the mountains, with a beloved teacher as her spiritual guide, to empty herself out in order to be wholly ready to receive. I'm planning a mikveh immersion at Mayyim Hayyim at the end of December which will be my opportunity to wash away anything I want to leave behind, welcome in the blessings of these six years of study, and seal myself in preparation for what's coming.

Ethan and I used to study karate together. We haven't been karate-ka in many years -- our sensei moved away and over time it became too difficult to drive two hours to reach his school -- but as I prepare myself for smicha, I find myself remembering the story of Nan-in and the empty cup which I first learned from my sensei and from his sensei (may his memory be a blessing.) I want to approach smicha not with a sense of how much learning I've done, but with awareness of how much more learning I still need to do. My cup needs to be empty in order for me to receive.

My dear friend Yafa noted, in last week's call, that yesterday would be seven weeks before our smicha. We count the Omer during the seven weeks leading up to the revelation of Torah at Sinai (which we celebrate, and re-experience, each year at Shavuot) -- why not also use that framework to measure the time leading up to our smicha ceremony? In the kabbalistic model, each week of the Omer is linked with a given sefirah (divine quality/attribute), and so is each day. I'm not sure I have the focus to be mindful of each day over the next seven weeks, especially with everything else that's going on in my life right now (including, um, finishing my coursework!) but I like the idea of seeing how each of these divine qualities manifests in my life over the next seven weeks.

The first week of the Omer is the week of chesed, abundant and overflowing lovingkindness. I hope I can bring more chesed into the world this week as I prepare myself to receive.

Another mother poem: grandparents' house



Your hands slap the marble floor.
Your voice fills the empty spaces
in this house I never grew up in.

You tug your sun hat off your head
and squint at the vast Texas sky.
Your hands slap the marble floor.

Clutching bits of flour tortilla
you beam, face smeary and bright.
Your voice fills the empty spaces.

Bang on the windows, little boy:
your reflection is everywhere you look
in this house I never grew up in.

This week's challenge at Big Tent Poetry invites us to write a cascade poem. The form is new to me, but I enjoyed playing with it, and I think it gave this week's poem a nifty shape.

Being in Texas with Drew is overwhelming and wonderful. I hope this poem captures a tiny glimpse of what it's like for me.

If you want to read what others wrote to this prompt, here's a link to this week's Come One, Come All post.

This week's portion: blessing myself

In my "Torah as a mirror for spiritual development" class, I was given the assignment of writing a d'var Torah for this week's portion, Vayishlach. The question posed to me was "How is God speaking to you through Torah, what is the message, and how can you incorporate this into your personal and professional life?" Here's my response.

וישלח יעקב מלאכים לפניו אל–עשו...

"And Jacob sent angels (messengers) before him to Esau..."

Jacob knew he had done poorly by his brother, and he was afraid. And he sent gifts to his brother, and he sent his family away in case Esau arrived angry. And when he was alone, having sent his family onward and his possessions toward his brother, he wrestled until dawn.

With whom did he wrestle? The text tells us that he was alone, and that he wrestled with a man. Jacob wrestled with himself: with the part of him that regretted cheating his brother, with the part of him that missed having a relationship with his twin, with the part of him that wanted a different ending to their story.

Continue reading "This week's portion: blessing myself" »

Off to Texas again

Drew and me in a field of wildflowers; San Antonio, April 2010.

This morning Drew and I are off on the second plane trip of his life -- once again, to San Antonio, my birthplace, where we'll spend a week visiting my family. I'm looking forward to reintroducing him to his uncles, taking him to the zoo, and introducing him to his first bean-and-cheese taco (which I expect will be a huge hit!) Also, of course, to the joy of seeing him with my parents.

Blogging will likely be pretty sporadic while we're on the road. Have a great week, everyone!

Another mother poem: push




The nurses taught us to pin and tuck
a thin blanket into a straitjacket

each night when bedtime arrived
your dad would kneel over you on the rug

now you sleep limp like an old rag doll
your twiga and your plush rabbit akimbo

but when you're awake you push back
against baby gates and mountainous stairs

if I've chosen the wrong foods
or I'm not paying enough attention

you scatter what's on the tray
then glance at me sly and sideways

no, I don't want to clean shells
and cheese off the kitchen floor, but

secretly I love to watch you
stretch your wings

you're a chimera, half dad and half mom
and all you, from your furrowed brow

to your feet fighting to break forth
from the terrible tyranny of socks

claim your birthright and your blessing
unlock every strap and burst free

I've been working on three poems this week. One is an assignment for my feminist exegesis class; the other two are about parenting. None of them are written in resonse to this week's Big Tent Poetry prompt, though the latter two are part of my evolving manuscript of mother poems.

Drew is definitely beginning to test boundaries these days, pushing back in ways both physical (he strains to be picked up, then pushes away) and metaphorical (the bit of this poem about him scattering food? not poetic license!) It's developmentally appropriate, of course, and it's also adorable -- even when it also drives me a little bit crazy. ("Adorable but crazy-making" is probably a reasonable description of every almost-one-year-old.)

Here's a link to this week's Come One, Come All post so you can see what other poets did either with the prompt, or (like me this time around) without it.


Final semester unfolding

One of the things that's been keeping me busy during this last semester of rabbinic school is working with my colleagues to plan our smicha ceremony. Back in January of 2006 I witnessed my first smicha. It's pretty amazing to reread what I wrote then, knowing now that the next ALEPH smicha ceremony will have my dear friends and me at its heart. Each year the ceremony is slightly different, because each year the smicha class makes choices about how they want their service to flow. There are certain elements which are always present, of course, but there are also things which change from year to year.

My class -- a group of ten in total -- is planning some additions and innovations which I think and hope will be really sweet. Plus, of course, we'll be doing all of the pieces which we've come to cherish over the years we've been attending ALEPH ordinations. Anyway: the ten of us have been meeting via conference call every couple of weeks. It feels a little bit like trying to jointly plan a wedding with nine other partners! But it's holy work, and even when we're disagreeing about one idea or another, the conversations are a lot of fun. Somehow I wound up in charge of the "Who we are" speech and also the printed program (I think I must have volunteered?) so those have been keeping me busy. And I've started to work on my d'var Torah for the smicha ceremony, which will take the form of Torah poems rather than prose.

Meanwhile, I've been trying to keep up with my medieval history reading (and beginning to think about my two final papers for that class, both due on 12/1) and with the reading for my feminist exegesis class (this week I'm reading Ilana Pardes on the book of Ruth.) Fortunately, my parashat hashavua as a mirror for spiritual development class doesn't have a heavy reading load -- though I'm doing my best to stay on top of that too, and this week I have to write a short d'var to offer in class next week. Later this morning I'll meet again with my spiritual direction group (three people who have gathered for group spiritual direction; we'll meet together throughout the coming year) and will continue doing my best to learn on-the-job how to keep our conversation flowing and holy while also respecting the silences which sometimes need to arise.

Beyond that, I'm trying to juggle life and friends and marriage and baby -- and to write one poem each week -- and behind the scenes I've been working on a creative project about which I'm ridiculously excited; more news on that coming soon, I hope. (No, not another baby. The one we've got is plenty, thanks.) Yesterday I turned in the epilogue to my spiritual autobiography -- each applicant to the ALEPH program is required to write a spiritual autobiography, and as we prepare to exit, we're asked to write an addendum or epilogue, something which brings the story of our spiritual lives up to date. Writing that epilogue drove home for me just how much my spiritual life has changed since the summer of 2005.

It's hard to believe sometimes that this is my last semester of school. I have loved this program more than words can express, and yet I find that I feel ready to be done and to see what it's like to enter the next chapter of my life, whatever that may hold. Of course that doesn't mean I'm finished learning; I'm not sure one is ever finished learning, especially in Judaism! But I'm beginning to feel ready to be done with school. Because I'm in the hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) training program, I'll have a few more classes to complete in the year after my rabbinic ordination; once I've finished those, and finished the practica involved with that program, I'll be ordained as a spiritual director in 2012. But rabbinic school qua rabbinic school will end two months from today, on January 9. Pretty wild to contemplate. What an amazing journey this has been.

Looking forward to the RHR-NA conference

Rabbis for Human Rights - North America is hosting a conference on Judaism and human rights in New York City next month. (Read more: Conference on Judaism and Human Rights.) The conference will run from 12/5 through 12/7. But before it even begins, there's a student pre-conference (on Sunday, December 5, from roughly 8:30am until 2:30pm) which is for student clergy, grad students, and undergrads who are interested in questions of Judaism and human rights.

I'm on the organizing committee for that pre-conference; our flyer appears below.


The specific piece for which I've taken responsibility is morning prayer; we're going to have a 45-minute morning service which will hopefully be led by three different rabbinic students from three different seminaries. (If you might be willing to be one of those students, please let me know!) The program looks pretty wonderful, and it's a great chance to add some inter-denominational student connection to what already looks like a fabulous few days.

I'm hoping to be able to blog at least some of the 2010 conference as I did the RHR conference I attended in 2008.

Anyway: if this is your cup of tea, join us! I'd love to see you there.

Another mother poem: chasing the ball






The kettle on the stove whistles a low, slow tune
as you circuit from nursery to hallway to kitchen
and back again, chasing a rattling ball.

When you catch up to it, you throw it forward again
and I remember all of the goals I tossed out
then headed toward (grimly or with joy)

someday we'd be able to dress you for nightfall
in fewer than four layers of wool and fleece
as soon as your body learned how to be warm

someday you'd focus on my face, someday
the binary of sleeping or screaming would fan out
into a rainbow spectrum of possibilities...

I didn't know enough to anticipate your glee
when I pick you up, count to three, then
turn you so the world is upside-down

or your determined grip on the xylophone mallets
too big for you to wield, how you change course
and kneel up to bang on the wooden keys instead

now when you say ma-ma-ma I tell you that's my name
and look, there's daddy, that's the cat, do you want
your ball?
Soon your babble will coalesce

and then what? I can't even imagine what's coming.
The rising sun casts the hills in pink. I sip my tea.
You barrel ahead. All I can do is follow.

This week's prompt at Big Tent Poetry invites us to borrow a line from another participant and use that line to spark our own poem.

I borrowed a line from Deb of Stoney Moss: "The kettle on the stove whistles a low, slow tune[.]" It's a longer line than I usually work with these days, which shaped the prosody of this poem.

This is the latest in my ongoing series of mother poems. Drew turned eleven months old last week; we're coming up on a year of motherhood and a year of mother poems. I don't know whether I'll keep writing and posting these after his birthday, or whether I'll move to a different creative project and turn to revising the product of this first year's work.

My last big paper for rabbinic school is due right after his birthday; after that, I might take a month to let things lie fallow, and then see where the secular new year takes me. Anyway, it's not time for any of those things yet. November, here we go.

Here's a link to this week's Come One, Come All post so you can see what other poets did with this prompt...


Seven Miriam stories

One of the classes I'm taking this fall is a two-person hevruta study of feminist Biblical exegesis. We began this class last fall, but it got derailed when I became overwhelmed with physical stuff during the weeks before Drew's birth. Anyway, my partner and I have reconvened our study this semester.

Last year we worked our way through the early parshiyot (Torah portions) in the book of Genesis, each week studying the assigned reading from the weekly lectionary and then studying a variety of feminist commentaries on that text. This year we're focusing instead on several specific Biblical women: one from Torah, a few from Shoftim (in English, the book of Judges), plus two from the megillot (Esther and Ruth), alongside a variety of commentaries and feminist responses to those texts.

In lieu of writing a final paper for this class, I asked the teacher whether I could write a series of poems which respond to these Biblical women, as my other Torah poems respond to the Torah portions we study as we move around the year. I thought I'd share the first of those poems here; it's a series of seven short pieces about the prophet Miriam, sister of Moses.

This poem draws on a variety of midrashic interpretations of the story of Miriam. It's partially inspired by -- though hopefully not derivative of -- Alicia Ostriker's The Songs of Miriam, which appear in Ostriker's The Nakedness of the Fathers. I'd love to know what you think.





I’m nine years old when my mother gives birth.
The women who attend her hasten me out, but
I hear her groaning. When I glance through the door
one midwife presses the heels of her hands
into the hollows of my mother's back.
Then her cries shift. I hear them urge her
to push, push now, pause and breathe, count to ten
then push again. My mother shouts, teeth clenched
and suddenly the room is filled with light.
I never knew labor ended with such glory.


Continue reading "Seven Miriam stories" »