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70 faces... deep in the heart of Texas!


The 70 faces book tour is going to Texas! Here's the intel on three upcoming events happening in San Antonio after Shavuot, starting on Friday June 10, which is a week from this Friday:

June Events in San Antonio, Texas

  • Sermon in Poetry during Friday night services at Temple Beth El, June 10, 7:30pm. Corner of San Pedro and West Ashby, San Antonio. Followed by an oneg / Shabbat reception; all are welcome!

  • I'll be the visiting rabbi at Temple Chai, and will lead Shabbat morning services as well as offering a poetry d'var Torah, June 11, 10:30 am at the home of Sterling and Rachelle Neuman; all are welcome!

  • Scripture, Poetry, Interpretation: A Christian-Jewish Conversation, a panel discussion with Reverend Mary C. Earle (author of Days of Grace and Telling the Brothers.) We'll talk about the Bible and how each of our traditions understands it, and about midrash and commentary, in a "dialogue of the devout." Rachel will share poems from 70 faces, and Mary will share her own poems also inspired by scripture. Book-signing to follow. May 14 at 7:00pm, Viva Books, 8407 Broadway.

I'm looking so forward to all three of these events. (And I'm so curious to see how my ecumenical conversation with Reverend Mary Earle is similar to, and also different from, my conversation with my publisher Beth Adams, which we titled Modern Women, Old Testament.) If you're in or around south Texas, I hope you'll join us for one event, or two events, or even all three.

A Ruth poem for Shavuot

The counting of the Omer is nearly complete; the festival of Shavuot, when we celebrate the revelation of Torah at Sinai, is next week. At Shavuot it's customary to read the Book of Ruth. In honor of the festival, here's a poem about Ruth.



Time for a different kind of harvest.
Sated with bread and beer
Boaz and his men sleep deeply
on the fragrant hay.
The floor doesn’t creak.

When Boaz wakes, his eyes
gleam with unshed tears.
He is no longer young, maybe
forty; his face is lined
as Mahlon's never became.

Who are you? he asks
and I hear an echoing question:
who is it? what is it? who speaks?
Spread your wings over me, I reply
and his cloak billows high.

Now he clasps my foreign hand
and kisses the tips of my fingers
now skin glides against skin
and the seed of salvation grows in me
the outsider, the forbidden

we move from lack to fullness
we sweeten our own story
and as my belly swells I pray
that the day come speedily and soon
when we won't need to distinguish

Israel from Moab
the sun’s radiance from the moon’s
Boaz’s square fingers
from my smaller olive hands
amen, amen, selah.


Modah ani with floating rainbows

There was rain last night, so when Drew and I step out on the deck this morning, everything is wet, though the sky is blue streaked with cloud and the trees are green and gold in the morning light.

I pick up Drew's little chair and turn it upside-down so he won't try to sit on it and wind up soaked (his understanding of cause-and-effect leaves something to be desired) and, to distract him from the chair I know he wanted to play on, I pick up the container of bubbles on the table and ask if he wants me to blow some. He makes an eager sound of assent, so I unscrew the cap and start blowing bubbles.

The ones which land on the deck don't immediately pop, thanks to the rainwater; instead they form perfect half-bubbles, irridescent domes. For a while Drew walks around and pokes them, popping them one by one. Then he notices his little push cart, and begins happily pushing the cart back and forth across the deck.

I keep blowing bubbles, watching them float through the morning air. Drew pushes his cart through a shower of rainbowed globes. I can see our reflection in the biggest bubbles for an instant before they pop. I blow a stream of bubbles angled up into the sky, and they float, dipping and dancing, irridescent in the sun. That's when I realize that these bubbles, this moment with my son, is my first morning prayer of this day.

I sing modah ani, pausing to blow bubbles between each line. When Drew hears me singing, he stops pushing his cart and looks up at me, and I sing for him; I sing for the beautiful world; I sing for the Holy Blessed One who created all of this just for me.

Kedushat Levi on the census as sacred study

This week's Torah portion, Bamidbar, speaks of a census taken by Moshe, a counting of the children of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai at God's command.

The Hasidic rabbi known as the Kedushat Levi (Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev) has a beautiful teaching which has changed the way I view this census recounted in Torah. He writes:

The souls of Israel are the body of the Torah, because the community of Israel make up the six hundred thousand letters in the Torah. We find that Israel is the Torah, for the soul of each person in Israel is like a letter in the Torah.

We find that when Moshe took an accounting, he was studying the Torah [which is embodied in the community itself]: that is the real meaning of God's command.

This week in our lectionary we begin a new book of the Torah. In Hebrew this book is called Bamidbar, "In the Wilderness," but in English this book's name is "Numbers." And yes, there are a lot of numbers here. Reading the census which begins the book, one could be forgiven for finding the material somewhat dry, a counting of distant ancestors who -- if they ever had historical life at all -- lived ages ago.

But Kedushat Levi teaches us to see otherwise. The soul of each of us is a letter in the Torah. When we look out at our assembled community, we can read the Torah which is embodied in who we are. In us, Torah takes living form. And, it stands to reason, if we want the whole Torah (which we do), then we need to ensure that the whole community "counts" -- all of us, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, regardless of our politics, regardless of which denomination we call home.

The census wasn't just a matter of counting heads in order to form an army. It was Torah study of the deepest kind: reading the divine letter which is at the spark of each of person's soul, knowing that together they are something transcendent, more than the sum of their parts.

A strong foundation: week six of the Omer

It's hard to believe there are only two more weeks of the Omer. During this penultimate week of the counting -- week six of the Omer -- we enter the sefirah of Yesod. Yesod is usually translated as "foundation." This is the sefirah which translates our intellectual and spiritual understanding into action which can connect us with God, linking the lofty structures of our mind and spirit with the tangible world.

The foundations of several small altars in Coba, Quintana Roo.

This week I ask, what foundation am I building for myself, for my family, for my community, for God? What's "foundational" in my life, and what structures am I creating on that foundation?

Yesod is associated with the procreative organs. Yesod is where masculine and feminine energies come together and are united into something new. (As it says on the homepage for the Yesod Foundation, a nonprofit which seeks to share Reb Zalman's renewed Jewish spirituality, "Yesod is the foundation of future generations.") This week I ask, am I in touch with the part of me that wants to produce and create something new in the world, and how am I directing that impulse?

Yesod can be understood as a bridge: between our thoughts and the world in which we enact those thoughts, between one person and the next. This week I ask, am I doing everything I can to be a bridge between people, between different understandings of the world, between one community and another?

Some associate yesod with the moon, since this is the sefirah which reflects the light of the other sefirot into malkhut, the final sefirah (about which I'll write next week.) This week I ask, how can I reflect the light of those who inspire me?

Yesod is associated with the figure of the tzaddik, the righteous person; in Proverbs 10:25 we read that "the tzaddik is the foundation (yesod) of the world." I tend to find resonance in the Hasidic understanding that very few people are wholly tzaddikim (righteous ones) or rasha'im (wicked ones) -- most of us are beynonim, "in-betweens," struggling to balance our good impulses with our wicked ones -- but this week I ask, how are my actions building the world in which I want to live? What foundation am I establishing with my actions and my behavior? Will that foundation support the structures I yearn to create?

Lag b'Omer at Fenway Park

My Lag b'Omer (what's Lag b'Omer? glad you asked: read Plagues? Rebellions? May Day? Lag b'Omer) began with a barbecue at the synagogue which also offered an opportunity to mark the almost-end of our Hebrew school year. Drew ran around happily and ate bits of hot dog (though was most excited about the blueberries and the potato chips), and the skies graciously consented not to rain.

Then I went to Boston, where I first had the profound pleasure of serving on a beit din and welcoming a new Jew into this new chapter of his life. It was a beautiful ceremony, and I came away deeply moved. (Also, it was my first chance to sign a rabbinic document with my new title; I have to admit, that felt pretty good!) And then I went with my dear friend Reb Jeff to Fenway Park, where we stood in the will call line at Gate B.

Gate B ticket window.

Some of the people standing in line had reserved tickets in advance. Others were active duty military. And we were there because we're ordained clergy. The Red Sox have a special pass program for clergy; with such a pass in hand, one can show up 90 minutes before a game, and if there are standing-room tickets available, one can purchase them for $10. Red Sox lore holds that the program was established because Tom Yawkey was friendly with the local Catholic priests, and used to give them free game tickets; after a while, Protestant clergy groused that they deserved the same treatment, and the Red Sox clergy pass program was born.

Standing room only.

We got to Fenway early enough to snag two great standing room seats on the third-base side of the field. (What made them great was the wooden bar running behind the last row of stadium seating, so we had something to lean on as we watched.)

Red Sox v. Cubs. With zen gardeners.

It was a great game. We were there early enough to eat dinner (standing up) while the Cubs got in some batting practice; we watched the ground crew groom the field for play (the guys who smooth the sand always remind me of zen gardeners doing the meditative work of raking sand); and we watched Tim Wakefield pitch a gorgeous game, his first win of the season.

We left during the 8th inning -- regretfully -- because we had a three-hour drive to get home to the Berkshires. And yeah, I'll admit that today I'm dragging a little bit, even though Ethan got up with Drew this morning and let me sleep in. But it was totally worth it to be able to catch a Red Sox game with Jeff. What a perfect way to close out my Lag B'Omer.

Mitzvot, parenting, and "preparing the pot"

In our coffee shop Torah study circle this week, we studied the commentary of the Ishbitzer Rebbe (Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Isbitza) on this week's portion, Bechukkotai. The Torah portion begins, "If you walk in the ways of My chukot (statutes), and you keep My mitzvot, and you do them..."

In one of his teachings on this verse, the Ishbitzer notes that the way of God is not like the way of humanity. A person first prepares the pot on the fire, and then pours water into it. If I am planning to do a thing, I imagine it and plan out my actions -- that's "preparing the pot." And then when I actually do the action, I "receive the water." Not so, says the Ishbitzer, with God... and not so with God's ways. God first pours the water, and then prepares the pot. And we're meant to do the same.

When it comes to mitzvot, we're meant to open ourselves to them and to do them: not according to our own understanding or our own plans but according to God's. Pour the water -- do the mitzvot -- and then God will "prepare the pot," e.g. give us the spiritual benefit of having done the action. If we take the leap of doing the mitzvot, then God will make us ready to do them. It's an inversion of how we usually think about things.

A chok is a commandment which doesn't necessarily make intellectual sense, a mitzvah which we do not because the reason resonates for us but because the discipline of doing the mitzvah shapes us. Reading the Ishbitzer, this morning, I found myself thinking about mitzvot and discipline in terms of parenthood.

Right now my most constant daily practice is parenting my toddler. And unlike the other practices in my life -- my aspirations of daily prayer, e.g. -- this one is non-negotiable. I can't wake up in the morning and think, "hmm, I'm not sure I feel like getting out of bed now; I'll be a mother later." I took on the practice of parenting; I don't get to choose now to do it or not to do it.

I took on parenting without full knowledge of what it was going to be like or how it would change me. Sure, Ethan and I did our best to anticipate parenthood; to make plans, to purchase a crib, to dream about who our son might become. But at a certain point, we had to take the leap of entering into the experience, even though we couldn't predict all that it would entail. We couldn't predict how it would shape our lives, how it might change us, or what it would mean. In the Ishbitzer's terms, we poured the water, trusting that God would "prepare the pot" and create a container to hold us in this new adventure.

Some of the things I do as a parent bring me immediate joy. Some of them make sense to me. I knew I would enjoy them, and I do. And some of the things I do as a parent are difficult; they challenge my autonomy; they aren't always fun... but I've committed to doing them, and that commitment changes me, and it brings me gifts I couldn't have imagined.

Mitzvot work that way too. They're a discipline. Some of them are enjoyable in and of themselves; some of them challenge me. But I have to commit to doing them in order to find out who they're going to help me become.

Rabbinic conference call with Major General Gazit and Talia Sasson

I had the opportunity recently to participate in a JStreet rabbinic conference call with two members of the Israeli Council for Peace and Security, a movement of over 1000 Israelis with backgrounds in security and diplomacy who consider support of the peace process to be critical to Israel's national security. The call was with retired Major General Shlomo Gazit and advocate Talia Sasson.

Major General Gazit was appointed in 1967 as the head of the Unit for Coordination of Operations in the Territories; he later served as head of the intelligence service of the IDF from 1974-1978, and today is a member of the staff of Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at the Tel Aviv University. Talia Sasson served for 25 years in state advocacy; she authored the Sasson Report, an official Israeli government report which concluded in 2005 that the Israeli Ministries of Defense and Housing/Construction, and the World Zionist Organization, had been diverting millions of shekels to build settlements and outposts which were illegal under Israeli law.

I missed the beginning of the call due to technical difficulties, but I did eventually get in. When I entered the call, one rabbi was asking the speakers how they respond to the rhetoric which argues that Israel has no partner for peace?

General Gazit replied, "I have no intention of saying that the Palestinians are all angels and that we Israelis, we are all devils!" But, he added, Israel is "responsible for creating a situation which is extremely dangerous first and foremost to ourselves, to Israel as a Jewish state. We were at the point of almost reaching an agreement," he noted, during Olmert's tenure; "since then, for the last two years, there were no serious negotiations between the parties, and what we have established is a most dangerous situation."

Further, he pointed out, during previous negotiations, Israel was negotiating with Abbas in a manner which dealt with the results of the 6-day war in 1967; "by not continuing to negotiate in these terms, we have now opened the so-called 1948 file, and the problem of Palestinian recognition of Israel as having a right to exist. This is an extremely serious situation."

Talia Sasson added:

I believe that Israel has a partner. I myself was in Abu Mazen's office with the Council for Peace and Security. We asked him questions, and I believe that he is ready to make real negotiations with Israel and to achieve a peace agreement that Israel could live with. Israel is for the last years claiming that she has no partner, because the Palestinian people is split to Hamas movement and the PLO; but today they became united. So Israel can't be heard that it has no partner, because the Palestinian people are represented by Abu Mazen, with Hamas or without Hamas.

Israel can choose its enemies, Israel could choose its friends. But peace [is something] you make with your enemy, not with your friends. I believe that Israel today has a partner who will recognize Israel; all of [the Palestinian] speakers are recognizing Israel; and their demand, of freezing the building in the West Bank -- which I believe is wrongdoing by Israel -- Israel should accept it and stop the building there. Everything that Israel is building there, Israel should remove it and pay compensation for those buildings which today it is wasting its money for. I believe there is a partner on the Abbas side, I believe it is good for Israeli interests to make these negotiations. I believe it's possible.

Continue reading "Rabbinic conference call with Major General Gazit and Talia Sasson" »

Submission and splendor: week five of the Omer

We're beginning week five of the Omer. This is the week of Hod, which is usually translated as "splendor" or "majesty." Hod can be experienced in peak moments: the incredible sunset which causes your heart to well over with joy, the ecstatic experience of prayer which sweeps you off your feet.

Some associate hod with submission. Hod can connote a self-abnegation which arises out of awareness that we are not ultimately in charge, that there is a power in the cosmos infinitely greater than we. (Netzach, which is often paired with hod, can connote conquering an obstacle; hod can connote submitting to it instead.)

Hod can manifest as hoda'ah: gratitude. When we are able to feel gratitude for the gifts in our lives -- indeed: for our lives themselves, even when they are painful or difficult -- we are embodying a certain kind of hod. (And perhaps when we are not able to feel gratitude, we can relate to hod as submission, releasing ourselves into the reality that gratitude is temporarily inaccessible and letting that be what it is.)

Netzach and hod (endurance and splendor) are often considered two halves of a single whole. When the sefirot are mapped onto the human body, these two sefirot are mapped onto the right and left leg, respectively -- they work together to propel us forward. Another understanding associates netzach and hod with the kidneys. Just as the kidneys act as a filtering system for the body, so these two sefirot allow us to spiritually filter the ideas, beliefs, and teachings which we take in.

Where are there opportunities for splendor, for you, this week? Where is your life calling you to accept that you're not in control -- and where is your life offering you opportunities for gratitude? Is your spiritual immune system keeping you healthy and whole, or do you need to further filter what you're consuming in order to feel healthy and whole?

Afternoon gratitude

In the comments on my recent post Meditations on mincha, Merle Feld (whose most recent poetry collection I reviewed for Zeek) alerted me to the "Writing in the paradigm of prayer" exercises on her website. (Go to the write for your life section of her site and scroll down a bit.) These are writing exercises designed to serve as prompts to help one awaken and cultivate consciousness at the three prayer-times of the Jewish day. Today I listened to my mincha playlist and delved into one of her mincha questions, and here's where it brought me.

Recenter: what am I grateful for this afternoon, right now? Remember, describe, one small moment this morning that was a pleasure, that brought a smile, that was meaningful, rich.

This afternoon, right now, I am grateful for the green world around me -- for the rich, almost unbelievable chartreuse of new leaves unfurling all across the hills. Balm to my eyes after winter's palate of white and grey, after early spring's shift to the brown of thawing mud and the faint haze of color on branches which didn't yet dare to leaf. I am grateful for music which enlivens my day. I am grateful for connections and conversations sparking across the ether.

This morning my son was yelling when I got downstairs, but when he heard my voice outside his door he quieted to a more conversational babble. When I entered his room and turned on the lamp and raised the windowshade he blinked at me and then reached up to be lifted out of his crib. He nestled into the crook of my arm on the gliding rocker and we rocked gently and cuddled as he drank his morning milk. He is solid on my lap, his legs dangling long across me, and sometimes he wiggles and kicks, but this morning he was contented and still.

Independence and mourning

יום העצמאות / Yom ha-Atzma'ut and يوم النكبة / Yawm an-Nakba are conjoined in complicated ways. One day celebrates Israeli independence -- the declaration of the modern State of Israel, the flowering of the long-cherished Zionist dream. The other commemorates what is called in Arabic "The Disaster" -- the founding of that same modern state, seen from the perspective of those whose lives were irrevocably changed when Israel entered the scene. (A few years ago I reviewed an excellent book which tells some of those stories in a dispassionate and balanced way -- see my post A history of Jaffa, about the book City of Oranges.)

One historical moment takes on two vastly different meanings. For one community it's an occasion for celebration, joy and memory, patriotism and pride. For the other it's an occasion for mourning.

The cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable. I think about my friends and loved ones in Israel, about how hard they've worked to try to create a modern state which operates according to Jewish ideals, in which our sacred language of prayer is the language of street and marketplace once again, and I want to celebrate them and celebrate with them. I think about the Palestinians who have spent the years since Israel's founding as refugees, about a million petty injustices at checkpoints, about how difficult it is for East Jerusalem Palestinians to obtain housing permits (so Palestinian houses there are usually built illegally, and are therefore in constant danger of being demolished), and I begin to understand their sense of loss and grief.

The Israeli Knesset recently passed a bizarrely Orwellian piece of legislation which makes it possible to fine any communities which observe Yom ha-Atzma'ut as Yawm an-Nakba. (For more on this, read Nakba Law: Inside Pandora's Box.) Attaching monetary punishment to the memory of mourning won't do anything to heal the underlying reality that there are people in Israel who feel pride in Israel's existence and accomplishments and people in Israel who feel sorrow and frustration at the realities of Palestinian life. Indeed: there are people in Israel who feel both at once.

And people outside of Israel, too. My spiritual practice calls me to hold both of these narratives in my head and heart. I rejoice in the existence of the modern state of Israel, and I grieve that the Palestinians are, in the words of the late Israeli journalist Amos Elon -- may his memory be a blessing -- "victims of our independence." (I found that quote in the New Yorker's excellent essay The Future of the Israeli Newspaper Ha'aretz, which I highly recommend.)

I dream of the day when things will be different. When each community will be able to celebrate its own story and its own home. When the resentment and violence will be replaced by cordial cooperation and even friendship. When sentiments like those voiced in Aziz Abu Sarah's essay Happy Independence Day Wishes from a Palestinian won't be startling or rare.

But I don't know how to help create the reality I yearn for. Emily Hauser recently posted a call to reach out to President Obama and demand real leadership on Israel and Palestine; I think she's right, so I've reached out to the president. But it feels like a paltry thing. I don't think it's enough. I don't know how to make things really different for anyone.

Modern Women, Old Testament now on YouTube!

Last weekend I went to Montreal to do two events around 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems (I blogged a bit about the trip here: two vignettes from the 70 faces book tour.) The second of those events was a conversation with Beth Adams, my dear friend and publisher, at Christ Church Cathedral. It was called Modern Women, Old Testament: A Jewish-Christian Conversation. The video of that conversation is now online!

Over the course of our conversation we talked about scripture and interpretation, faith and feminism, Israel and Palestine, motherhood and miscarriage, and more. We spoke for an hour, so the conversation is on YouTube in five parts. I'll embed all five below for your convenience; you can also go to each part directly: part one, part two, part three, part four, part five. If you do watch the video (all or even just part of it) I'd love to hear what you think.

Part 1: Introduction. Rachel and Elizabeth's backgrounds in blogging and in interfaith dialogue. Rachel talks about Jewish Renewal and about midrash.

Continue reading "Modern Women, Old Testament now on YouTube!" »

A psalm for those who are in freefall




for those who dwell in uncertainty


You are my parachute
I will not fall

in Your arms I float easy
and the air buoys me

I can do backflips, I can wave
to my fellow skydivers

I can sink into unknowing
without freezing

though I have no idea
how distant the ground

or where I will land
I am not afraid

Your silent presence
comforts me

when You dance with me
I forget to feel ungainly

You will cradle me
all the days of my life

spin with me
in the stratosphere forever

This poem takes the form of a contemporary psalm, and it has two strong influences. The first is psalm 23, which is here in bilingual edition (though the English there is quite archaic!) And the second is a story which chaplain Kate Braestrup tells in Marriage and Other Acts of Charity (which I recently reviewed).

Kate recounts a conversation with a man who flies small planes, in which the two of them discuss fears of falling out of an airplane; over the course of the book, I see that conversation drawn into an extended metaphor for relationships in general. When I brought this image to my spiritual director this week, I realized that one of the relationships which sustains me in my own times of free-fall is my relationship with God. Hence the psalm.

This poem wasn't written in response to a prompt, and Big Tent Poetry is closing down, but here's a link to the final Come One, Come All post so you can see what others wrote this week... and I'll continue sharing new work here, never fear.


Seeking endurance: week four of the Omer

Week four of the Omer is the week of Netzach, endurance. Maybe it's no coincidence that this week comes in the middle of the seven-week journey. If this spiritual trek were a sprint, we'd be finished by now. But moving mindfully from freedom to covenant, from Pesach to Shavuot, requires endurance.

Image by Frank Hurley, member of the Endurance expedition.

As an Antarctica buff, when I hear the word "endurance" I can't help thinking of the Endurance, Ernest Shackleton's ship from the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The Endurance was caught in pack ice en route to the continent and was slowly crushed. Her crew spent months camped on ice floes after the ship went down; then took to their lifeboats and found their way to rocky and inhospitable Elephant Island. Shackleton and five others then traveled 800 miles, in an open boat, through the worst seas in the world, to reach South Georgia -- where they had to climb a mountain range in order to reach the island's inhabitants on the far side. The whalers there helped Shackleton return to Elephant Island and rescue the remainder of his crew. Despite unthinkable hardship and against incredible odds, everyone survived.

Netzach doesn't take such a dramatic form in most of our personal narratives, but it's a quality each of us must tap in order for our ambitions, our hopes, and our work to endure.

Netzach is also sometimes translated as victory, sometimes as eternity, sometimes as fortitude. The power to overcome obstacles -- especially obstacles which stand in the way of one's desire to bestow goodness on the world -- is netzach. Netzach is the long slog of the marathon; it is persistence and focus.

This is the week to ask ourselves: when I think of the work of my hands and heart, what do I hope will endure? What endures in me? Do I have the endurance to take a task from fruition to completion?

This is the week to ask ourselves: how can I overcome the obstacles I perceive in my path? (Is there a way around them? If I reframe the path, do the obstacles disappear -- or do I need to just climb over them and keep going?) Am I persistent enough when it comes to the things which matter?

And -- the shadow side of netzach -- where am I too obstinate, too willing to sacrifice things which matter on the altar of my persistence? Where might endurance turn to stubornness in a way which doesn't serve me and doesn't serve God?

Kate Braestrup on marriage, God, and love


On the long drive to and from Montreal, I listened to the audiobook of Marriage and other Acts of Charity by Kate Braestrup, a Unitarian Universalist minister who works as a chaplain to the Maine forest service. (You can learn more about her here at her website.)

All I knew about Kate when I started listening to the book was that my friend Cate had quoted her to me on more than one occasion. Kate Braestrup, Cate had told me, offers a response to the question of where to find God when there is tragedy, and that response is: God is in the loving hands which prepare the casserole and deliver it to your door. As a former hospital chaplain, as a rabbi, and simply as a human being, I think that is a pretty wonderful formulation. It made me want to know more about Kate and her work. So I picked up the audiobook and decided to give it a listen while driving north.

I loved it. Full stop. Indeed, I loved it so much that I ordered another of her books from Amazon immediately upon arriving home.

Marriage and Other Acts of Charity interweaves a few different stories into one. Here we have the story of Kate's marriage to her first husband Drew: their young courtship and wedding, the rapid arrival of four children, the tumultuous fights and the marriage counseling, the moment of awakening when everything changed and the anger was replaced with boundless kindness and love. Here is also the story of Drew's death, as a young Maine state trooper, in an auto accident -- which left Kate widowed with four young kids. Here is the story of Kate's religious life, her vocation, and her path into ministry. Here is the story of Kate's work as a chaplain to the Maine Warden Service: conversations in pickup trucks, ministering to the dive teams who recover the bodies of snowmobilers who have broken through thin ice, counseling couples who themselves are preparing to marry -- or to end a marriage. And here is the story of Kate's second courtship which culminates in her marriage to the artist Simon van der Ven.

Having listened to the book, rather than reading it, poses an interesting challenge for me as a book reviewer. I can't rely on my usual technique of underlining favorite passages or scrawling exclamation points in the margins of the actual paper book (to which I can return when I want to find the passages to cite in my review.) Instead I can tell you this: Kate's literary voice is smart, practical, matter-of-fact, poignant and funny. (And her speaking voice is lovely; the audiobook features her reading her own work, which gave me the enjoyable illusion that she was sitting in the passenger seat of my car, telling me stories as I drive.) This book inspires me to try to be a better clergyperson, a better married person, a and a better plain old human being.

To give you a taste of how Kate writes, and how her theology permeates her storytelling, here's a glimpse of another one of her books -- her first work of nonfiction, Here If You Need Me, which I have just purchased and look forward to reading soon:

My children asked me, "Why did Dad die?"

I told them, "It was an accident. There are small accidents, like knocking over your milk at the dinner table. And there are large accidents, like the one your Dad was in. No one meant it to happen. It just happened. And his body was too badly damaged in the accident for his soul to stay in it any more, and so he died.

God does not spill milk. God did not bash the truck into your father's car. Nowhere in scripture does it say, 'God is car accident,' or 'God is death.' God is justice and kindess, mercy, and always - always - love. So if you want to know where God is in this or in anything, look for love."

I am so grateful to have come to know Kate Braestrup's work. I know I will return to it often to enrich and enliven my own relationships and my own rabbinate. Thank you, Kate, for putting your work into the world -- and thank you Cate for bringing that work into my life!


ETA: This book partially inspired this week's poem: Psalm of the sky (for those who dwell in uncertainty).

Two vignettes from the 70 faces book tour

Southern Quebec on a spring afternoon.

On Saturday evening we gathered in a beautiful underground chapel at the Unitarian Church of Montreal. This might in another church have been a plain cinderblock room, but here the four walls were painted with scenes from Canada's different landscapes: on one wall boreal forest, on another plains and prairie, all the way to the icebergs and polar bear cubs of Nunavut. The one pillar in the middle of the room was painted to resemble a tree. What a transformation!

Some folks came from the Unitarian Church of Montreal, a bunch from Chavurah Har Kodesh, plus one fellow blogger (that I knew of, at least), Susannah of Delight Was Once. We dimmed the lights and began with havdalah, which was lovely; it was the first time I'd ever used ras el hanout as the b'samim, the fragrant spices intended to revive us from the departure of Shabbat's extra soul. I think I saw one person moved to tears.

And then I asked the crowd to tell me favorite bits of Torah, and/or bits of Torah which challenge and distance them, and explained that if I had poems which arise out of those bits of Torah I would share those, and that would be the structure for the reading. People asked for wonderful and surprising things. Usually when I do this, people ask for Abraham, Isaac, Joseph; this time people asked for the thicket of sexual laws in Leviticus (I read "Naked" and "Gevurah"), for Miriam (I was so sorry I didn't have my seven Miriam stories poems with me! though I read my Song at the Sea poem), for Moshe receiving revelation.

After the formal reading was over, people stayed and schmoozed for almost an hour, eating cookies and drinking juice and chatting with me and each other as I signed books.

And then I went home with my friend Shoshanna, and savored a Unibroue, and in the morning I got to enjoy crépes and a bowl of café au lait big enough to swim in.


Montreal skyline, seen through my windshield.

Christ Church Cathedral is glorious and soaring. It has a beautiful ornamented ceiling, and stained glass windows which put me in mind of Reb Zalman's saying that in order to understand how a Christian worships, one needs to enter into his/her sacred space and relate to it from there -- to see the beauty of the stained glass windows from the inside, as it were. When we arrived, the choir was practicing something which sounded late-medieval or early Renaissance, with close harmonies, exactly the kind of music I used to most love to sing.

The service was lovely (complete with a baptism of three kids, which we were all invited to come up close to witness.) I enjoyed the sermon, which was about Cleophas and Mrs. Cleophas meeting Jesus on the road from Jerusalem -- and about intertextuality, which was a great set-up for our lunchtime discussion, actually.

And then we had lunch -- 20+ people around an enormous table eating sandwiches -- and Beth and I talked about poetry, Torah, midrash, and interpretation. I shared five poems from 70 faces ("The angels say" from the akedah cycle for Genesis; "The Psalm I Sing" for Exodus; "Like God" for Leviticus; "Downside" for Numbers; and "Mobius" for Deuteronomy -- please note that I'm linking here to the original versions of the poems; some were revised before publication, but these are the online versions I can point to.)

Using the five poems as jumping-off points, we talked about each of the five books, about their themes, about midrash and feminism and wrestling with difficult texts, along the way touching on Israel/Palestine, miscarriage and motherhood, and more. (A video of our conversation will be online at some point -- I'll let y'all know when it's up.)

And then helping hands whisked away the sandwiches and the water pitchers as I signed books and chatted with folks, and slowly people drifted away until only my hosts and I remained.

And once we changed into jeans, Beth and Jonathan and I walked around town, and had coffee and pastries, and relaxed with an early evening glass of wine, and eventually strolled to a neighborhood bistro for dinner just before closing time.

And in the morning, I drove home.

Returning home.

Edited to add: for more on this, don't miss Beth's beautiful post Sweetness, about our presentation, our afternoon together, and the wonders of a friendship which bridges so many divides, religion among them.

New Lights at Kallah 2011

Will y'all permit me to kvell for a moment? I've been invited to participate in a panel discussion featuring four of Jewish Renewal's "new lights" at the ALEPH Kallah this summer! I'll be speaking / teaching / sharing alongside Rabbi David Ingber of Romemu; Elizheva Hurvich, the former Rosh Yeshiva at Kehilla synagogue in the Bay Area which pioneered Jewish Renewal childhood education; and Zelig Golden, Director of Wilderness Torah. I'm deeply honored to be in their company.

There are many reasons to make the effort to attend the Kallah, but here are the ones which resonate most for me. If you're already part of Jewish Renewal, this is our community's biggest gathering, a wonderful chance to see old friends and make new ones, to connect with (and pray with and sing with and learn with) hundreds of like-minded souls. If you're curious about Renewal, coming to Kallah is a fabulous way to find out who we are and what we do. Sure, you can read books -- I can recommend several! -- but Jewish Renewal is experiential; the best way to find out if it's the right fit for you is to try it on.

Kallah is truly a four-worlds experience. At Kallah you'll find physical experiences including yoga, hikes, and dancing; heartfelt prayer in a variety of modalities, from classical text to creative chant to movement and more; all kinds of intellectual stimulation (the workshop line-up is fantastic this year); and countless opportunities for connection with something beyond yourself, whether that's community or the Holy Blessed One or both. (You can read my posts from the 2009 ALEPH Kallah here in the ALEPH Kallah category.) And oh, Shabbat at Kallah is utterly delicious!

And hey: as a special bonus, if you make it to Redlands, you'll have the chance to see me on stage with Reb David, with Elizheva, and with Zelig. Our panel will feature our reflections on Jewish Renewal (how we got here and why we stayed) alongside poetry (mine), music, visuals, meditation, and more. What an honor this is for me. I can't wait.

Learn more (download a program, register online) at the ALEPH website: Kallah 2011. I hope to see you there!

Beauty parlor: a revision for Big Tent Poetry



The first haircut is a revelation.
After months of scraggly and milk-stained
suddenly I'm light as the air
whispering across my nape.

I remember turning foam curlers
into a dragon while my mother tipped her head
into the shampoo sink, regal and relaxed.
Now she jiggles my son in her lap

singing "bye bye, blackbird"
as I allow myself to be transformed.
His first time beneath the Texas sky:
What beauty will he remember?

This week's prompt at Big Tent Poetry invites us to dig through our archives and revise a poem written around this time last year. On May 6 last year I posted Taste, part of my ongoing series of mother poems; I reread it several times this week, but the thing is, I really like that poem as it stands. So I dug a bit deeper and found a poem I'd drafted on our first trip to Texas which I didn't share here.

As it happens, I'd revised "Beauty Parlor" four times already; in my "poems 2010" folder were five drafts of the poem, and the most recent draft -- version five -- struck me as actually pretty decent. But I went back and reread each revision, and used bits from the earlier drafts to spark this newest version, which is version 6. I'll share version 5 below the extended-entry cut; it'll be interesting to see which one y'all like better!

It's a little bit surreal to return to these mother poems, especially the ones from the first six months of Drew's life. I've collected the first 52 mother poems into a manuscript which I've been gently revising; sometimes as I work on revising them I catch glimpses of what it felt like to write them, but the early ones especially feel very distant from where I am now.

Here's a link to this week's Come One, Come All post so you can see how others responded to this prompt.

Continue reading "Beauty parlor: a revision for Big Tent Poetry" »

Finding balance: week three of the Omer

Today we're beginning week three of the Omer. During the first week of the Omer, we focus on chesed, lovingkindness, a kind of limitless abundance. During the second week, we focus on gevurah, the force of strong boundaries which rein in that limitless chesed. This week, we find harmony and balance between the two. This is the week of tiferet.

One traditional association links the patriarch Abraham with chesed (his tent was open to all comers, symbolizing his overflowing love for all), the patriarch Isaac with gevurah (in the story of the akedah, the "binding of Isaac," we see boundaries at their most powerful) and the patriarch Jacob with tiferet. Jacob harmonized his father's boundaries and his grandfather's lovindkindness, and in that synthesis was able to become the man who could wrestle with an angel, wresting forth the blessing of a new name for himself and his descendants.

(If this idea interests you and you're wondering whether these sefirot can also be mapped to female figures or archetypes, allow me to recommend Ushpizin: Inviting the Mothers / Imahot to the Sukkah. R' David Seidenberg connects chesed with Ruth, gevurah with Sarah, and tiferet with Rebecca.)

Tiferet can also be translated as beauty. Balance between love and boundary, between kindness and strength, is beautiful. This week I ask myself: how can I manifest beautiful balance in my life?

In classical kabbalah, one name for the sefirah of tiferet is middat harachamim, "the attribute of mercy." This week I ask myself: how does being in-balance lead me to be merciful toward myself and toward others?

Tiferet is the sefirah of integration. This week I ask myself: how can I integrate opposites and find synthesis which will manifest as beauty and truth?

Hesed and gevurah together sustain the world. If there were no Divine love, there would not be a world at all. If there were no Divine restraint, the world would be overwhelmed. If there were no gevurah on the cultural level, there would be no justice; but without hesed, there would be no mercy. In the language of the Kabbalah, we are always striving for the balance of tiferet, whether we know it or not and however we conceive its unfolding.

-- Hesed, gevurah, and tiferet at