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There are a lot of transitions happening in our household right now. Ethan posted recently about his new job; now I'm able to share the news of mine.

Starting in July, I will be serving as interim rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel for the coming year. I've been a CBI member for years. During rabbinic school I served CBI as rabbinic student intern, and last year during the high holidays I served as the community's cantorial soloist. Now I'm moving into a new role, that of leader, teacher, and caregiver for the whole community. The responsibility is awesome, in the original sense of that word.

There's a running joke in my line of work that there are no half-time pulpits, only half-time salaries. That said, I aspire to work roughly half-time serving the CBI community, and to spend the other half of my time engaged with my writing work and caring for my delicious and rambunctious toddler. I'll lead davenen at CBI two Shabbatot each month, lead festival services for every holiday on the calendar, teach in two of our four religious education programs, and offer as much pastoral care and support as I can.

I expect that the job will be surprising, wonderful, fulfilling, overwhelming. I pray that I can live up to the tasks of caring for this community, leading them in prayer, helping them mark the passage of time, and offering opportunities for connection with tradition and with God. I feel excited, humbled, and full of hope.

I hope I can be a blessing to this community. I can't wait to dive in.

One Amazing Day at the ALEPH Kallah


Tuesday shacharit.

I wake on my own before the alarm because I'm still on east coast time. I breakfast with dear friends from many incarnations of my Jewish Renewal life: with Bill, who I met during Reb Zalman's last week-long teaching at Elat Chayyim in 2004; with David Rachmiel, who I met for the first time at Shavuot last year and who co-led shacharit on the morning I was ordained; with Lori, who was my spirit buddy at the last Kallah.

I daven on the steps of a grand building, in a service led by Reb David Zaslow. We sing "Ivdu et Hashem b'simcha," serve God with joy; we sing the psalm inviting all of creation to praise God, halleluyah; we sing R' David Zeller (z"l)'s "I am alive." And Who is this aliveness I am? Is it not the holy blessed One?

Spirit buddy time: in lieu of meeting a new spirit buddy before my morning class, I sit on a shaded bench with old friends and we talk about our lives, our learning, our families. And then I dash to a class in Sacred Storytelling: Letting the Sparks Lead the Way with Deborah Zaslow, who begins with a quote from Barthelme: "Technique in art is like technique in lovemaking. Heartfelt ineptitude has its charm, as does heartless skill, but what we all long for is passionate virtuosity." She tells a classic Baal Shem Tov tale about a little boy who plays a flute to connect with God, but recast in her own metaphors and experience; it blows me away.

We talk about storytelling through a four-worlds lens. We pair up and each of us takes a turn telling the other the story we have chosen. And then we talk with each other about why we've each chosen the story at hand -- or, maybe more accurately, why this story has chosen us. I'm excited to tell my story (which originated with I. B. Singer) and to begin thinking about how better I can bring it to life...and in a broader sense, how I can use storytelling in my rabbinate, my teaching and my pastoral work.

The rhythm of Kallah is different now that I'm not a smicha student. I didn't bring half a suitcase full of textbooks with me. When the smicha students' credit classes begin shortly after lunch, I have another luxurious hour of free time. I wander the campus a bit despite the heat (it's not as hot as Texas was last week!) and admire the green quads and big spreading trees and white buildings roofed with Spanish red clay tile.

In the afternoon I begin Uri, Ori!/Awaken, My Light! Nur ala nur: Light upon Light!, a class taught by Dr. Ibrahim Farajajé (a professor at the Graduate Theological Seminary, and a pir in the Chishti Sufi order) and Rabbi Debra Kolodny. Reb Deb received smicha with me; Dr. Farajajé and I had crossed paths in a former life (when my friend Michael and I invited him to Williams to speak about sexuality in 1994) and it is a joy to see him again.

The class begins with zhikr -- Sufi chant; the term literally means "remembrance," remembrance of God. We chant bismillah ar-rahman, ar-rahim, "in the name of God, the tender, the merciful." We dance in concentric circles. The energy builds. Then, seated again, a kabbalistic meditation: experiencing the flow of shefa, divine abundance, through us, enlivening the Divine Name within us. We study texts from midrash, Zohar, and Qur'an about Avraham avinu (Abraham our father) / Ibrahim khalilullah (the intimate Friend of God.) I am so grateful to be here, to be engaging in this dialogue of the devout with people who are interested, as I am, in the places where our religious traditions not only align but are cradled in the common Ground of Being where all is One.

After an early supper with my co-panelists comes the New Lights evening program featuring Reb David Ingber, Elizheva Hurvitz, Zelig Golden, and me. Elizheva speaks about her journey and does a shema meditation; Reb David speaks about his journey and about Romemu; Zelig speaks about his journey and about wilderness Torah; I speak about my journey and share poems from 70 faces. There is a Q and A. Afterwards I hang around, sign a few books, listen to part of a conversation about the future of Jewish Renewal (what we do well, what we don't yet do well) and then, when I realize that it is the middle of the night back on the east coast, quietly duck out and head for sleep.

Jerusalem, city of music

The first thing I ever saw by the artist Kutiman was Thru You, an amazing multi-part music and video piece created by using found footage of artists from YouTube. He took footage of unrelated artists -- someone here playing bass, someone there practicing violin -- and mashed it up into a pretty astounding album of music-and-video, artists around the world unknowingly collaborating with one another on the stage of his splitscreen. It's truly transformative work, and it's amazing.

Kutiman's recently released a new work which I find equally wonderful. It's a pair of videos made in Jerusalem, reflecting the sounds and sights of that amazing, contested, complicated, beautiful city.

First he spent three days walking around the city with a camera and created a short video called "My Trip to Jerusalem." (I loved watching this not only because it's beautiful in its own right, but because I recognized places and landscapes and vistas -- it made me miss Jerusalem tremendously!)

(Kutiman's "My Trip to Jerusalem;" if you can't see the embedded video, go directly to it here.)

Then he returned several times over the course of two months, and recorded both footage and live music which he braided into another spectacular mashup of video and sound. (Here's a blog post about the making of the piece, which includes video recordings Kutiman took of artists Safi Sweid, Hani Asad, and Loev -- all of which are part of the final piece.)

It turns out Kutiman himself is Israeli; his real name is Ophir Kutiel, and he was born in Jerusalem and lived there until he moved to Tel Aviv at eighteen. He's Artist of the Season for this year's Jerusalem's Season of Culture, which is how this work came to be. You can read a general overview of the piece here at the Season of Culture website, and a good review (and short interview with the artist) here at Wired. On the Season of Culture page celebrating the piece, I learned that it features

...blues artist Lazer Lloyd (who after a short visit to a rabbi changed his life completely despite being signed by Atlantic Records), Guy Mar from HaDag Nahash, Safi Suede - one of the most important Kanun players in the world; the ultimate marching band - Marsh Dondurma, Emanuel Wizthum on the viola and a few dozen musicians of different ages, different ethnic backgrounds and who play different instruments -- but all of which derive from the city.

(The quote is from the Jerusalem City of Culture page; I dug up the links myself, wanting to know more about each artist. I'm bummed that most of the Arabic artists don't seem to have web presences...)

Anyway, here's the final piece, which moves me tremendously (and is also great music). Unlike in Thru You, where the artists were unknowing collaborators with one another (and that's part of the piece's magic), here is a wide range of artists in Jerusalem who participated in this project knowing that their work was going to be part of a greater whole. An embodied prayer, maybe, for a Jerusalem where Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims and Christians, can make music together in peace.

(Kutiman's "Thru Jerusalem;" if you can't see the embedded video, go directly to it here.)

Off to Kallah

There's something a little bit surreal about going from the relative peace and quiet of our small household (well, as peaceful and quiet as a house containing a rambunctious toddler ever gets) to the energy of the ALEPH Kallah. Kallah is just...not like ordinary life. Certainly not like mine, anyway.

Take this past Friday night, for instance. It was one of the Friday evenings when Ethan was making the long drive home from Boston, having attended a conference at MIT (where his new job was announced -- go congratulate him if you're so inclined!) So I listened to my Nava Tehila kabbalat Shabbat cd with Drew and danced him around the room a little bit, laughing with him when he cackled as I spun and dipped him, waltzing during Lecha Dodi. (And we played with blocks and remote controls and board books and the ipad and the cat, because he is almost 19 months old and these are a few of his favorite things.) It was lovely, but solitary.

Next erev Shabbat I'll be surrounded by hundreds of other people who will have spent all day -- all week -- eagerly anticipating Shabbat. Most of us will be wearing all-white as did the kabbalists of Tzfat. I'll be adorned with glitter. I will probably have immersed in a mikvah before the holiday begins, and will bear the invisible but palpable imprint of that sweet and holy experience. And there will be several different Shabbat services to choose between. Maybe Nava Tehila will lead a service again and I'll get to dip into my favorite davenen experience from Jerusalem once more. And then there will be dinner, each table making the blessings together, and probably drumming and dancing late into the night.

In the early years of my involvement with the Jewish Renewal community, I always used to weep at havdalah (the ritual separating between Shabbat and workweek) because havdalah meant the retreat was ending and we were all going to have to say farewell. I love my home; I love my family and my life; but there is something in me which is uniquely sustained by the experience of being surrounded by my Jewish Renewal chevre, and I used to feel as though, if I left that Brigadoon, it might never open up for me again.

These days I know better. These days I have grown accustomed to the ratzo v'shov, the ebb and flow of retreat-time and ordinary time, of life with my wonderful spouse and friends and life with my wonderful community of spiritual seekers scattered around the globe. To balance Shabbat there must be weekday; to balance retreat-time there must be ordinary time. But being apart doesn't sever the connections we've formed -- any more than spending a week apart from my beloved husband and son could sever what binds us to one another -- and though we always have to say goodbye at the end of the gathering, there's always a next gathering to look forward to. And now that next gathering is upon us.

Today I'm off to the 2011 ALEPH Kallah in Redlands, California. I wish safe travels to everyone who is on their way to join me there -- and to everyone, a sweet and holy week, wherever you may be!

What comes, what goes



The newborn who changed my skin
and the freedoms our covenant ended.

The white-dress waltz of erev Shabbat
and havdalah's bittersweet spice.

The baby whose head filled my palm: replaced
by this toddler who collapses, wailing

then brightens, sweet as peaches
and sly as a nimble raccoon.

The moving van, the recessional,
handfuls of dirt thudding down.

The aisle we walk as the music plays.
This moment which is already over.

Aside from the three poems I wrote for my sermon in poetry on parashat B'ha-alot'kha, I've only had one poem in the hopper in the last six weeks. This is that poem, which finally came together in a form that makes me happy. A lot of transitions have been on the cusp of coming to pass; I'm hoping that as we settle in to some of these coming changes, I'll have more space in my life for creativity again.

The title of this poem comes out of an experience I had on the last day of DLTI, when the participants in that training program entered into a ritual of greeting and farewell. I'm often challenged by trying to love both what comes, and what goes. If I love something which has come, I tend to want to hold on to it; if I love something which goes away, I tend to mourn its passing. This is one of the challenges of spiritual life, I think.

Anyway. I mentioned that this has been a season of transitions. That's what sparked this poem.

From family to Kallah: the whirlwind of this June

Last week I was in Texas: a whirlwind of professional obligations (involvement with two Shabbat services at two different shuls, and the reading with Reverend Mary Earle at Viva Books) and family time (seeing my parents and my brothers and my nieces, and eventually seeing the ganze mishpacha -- whole clan -- at a ranch in the hill country for the weekend.) Next week I'll be in California for the ALEPH Kallah -- the Jewish Renewal biennial -- which will be its own kind of wondrous whirlwind.

Two years ago at Kallah (see First full day at Kallah and Kallah: another day in the life) I was entering the second trimester of pregnancy, though I hadn't yet announced that news here on this blog. My friends and teachers marveled with me at my growing belly. I remember grabbing extra muffins and bananas every morning at breakfast and stashing them in my purse, knowing that by midmorning I would be ravenous and would need a snack. I studied the Baal Shem Tov with my friend and teacher R' Burt Jacobson; I took a class on eco-Judaism with my friend and teacher R' Arthur Waskow; I sang in cantor Linda Hirschhorn's pick-up choir.

This time around I have an eighteen-month-old -- who will not be with me; he had such a tough time navigating the two-hour time change for my ordination that I don't feel right subjecting him to the three-hour time change between here and the west coast. (Also, having just spent ten days away from home, he needs the comfort of his own crib and his own toys and his own routine.) Drew will enjoy a week with his dad and his paternal grandparents and his daycare buddies, and I will savor the chance to reconnect with rabbinic school friends and loved ones who I haven't seen since my ordination -- and other ALEPH friends who I haven't seen since the last Kallah.

There's part of me that can't quite imagine that I'm getting on a plane this coming Sunday. I just got home! The trip to Texas was wonderful but exhausting; I'm tired in all four worlds. I can't help wishing that Kallah were later in the summer so that I could spend a few weeks luxuriating in the cool mornings and verdant hills of Berkshire summer, and, yes, sleeping in my own bed and eating Ethan's glorious summer salads and reestablishing my own routine. (The toddler isn't the only one who gets attached to the familiar!)

But I also know that once I get to Redlands, I'll be completely elated to daven with my dear ones, to have intense conversations at mealtime about what we're learning, to experience again the combination of tradition and innovation which makes Jewish Renewal my spiritual home. The week may be physically tiring (I never want to miss an opportunity to lay tefillin and sing b'tzibbur, in community, even if I'm a little short on sleep) but I know it will be spiritually energizing... and since I'll be coming home to some new adventures here (about which more anon), the spiritual boost of the Kallah experience is coming at exactly the right time.

I'll do my best to share some glimpses of the Kallah here -- and if anyone reading this is going to be there, drop me a comment and let me know.

A poem in Poetica

 The summer 2011 issue of Poetica Magazine (a journal of contemporary Jewish writing) came to my mailbox this week. It's a beautiful journal filled with lovely work -- including my poem "Mobius (V'Zot ha-Brakha)," which can also be found in 70 faces.

This is my third time my work has appeared in these pages; I had a poem ("Surprises") in Vol. 1, No. 1, and another ("Uncle Bill") in Vol. 2, No. 2. (They don't seem to be using this numbering scheme anymore, but those earlier editions were in 2003 and 2004, respectively.) This time around my poem is the very first thing in the journal after the table of contents -- I'm honored.

On the magazine's website you can purchase the summer 2011 issue for $10 plus $2 shipping, or subscribe for $19.95 a year. I thank editor Michal Mahgerefteh for including my work!

Three glimpses of Texas

leading services

Leading services for an enthusiastic crowd of about 30, Temple Chai, Shabbat morning.


Drew enjoys the restored 1918 carousel (with cousin Elaine), Kiddie Park, midweek.

sunrise in Bandera

Sunrise, Medina River Ranch, Bandera, Shabbat morning.

My family and I (in various combinations) spent a wonderful ten days in Texas. I got to participate in services at my parents' congregation (where I grew up and was confirmed), lead davenen for a new congregation which has arisen since I moved away, join with a retired minister in a poetry reading and free-flying conversation -- and take Drew to see some of San Antonio's best toddler-appropriate sights, see my parents and siblings, and enjoy the flavors of the town where I grew up. The trip culminated in a weekend at a ranch in the hill country where we celebrated a variety of family milestones. I'm endlessly grateful to have gone, to have had these experiences and adventures, to have reintroduced my son to the place I come from...and now to be home in the Berkshires again.

Jewish-Christian conversation at Viva Books



The crowd at Viva Books on Tuesday.


All three of my 70 faces events in San Antonio have been wonderful: offering the sermon at the Shabbat service in the big sanctuary at Temple Beth El, leading Shabbat morning services at Temple Chai, and -- last but not least -- Scripture, Poetry, Interpretation: A Christian-Jewish Conversation, a panel discussion with Reverend Mary C. Earle at Viva Books.

Viva Books was (gratifyingly) packed; I'm guessing there were maybe 70 people present, among them some of my childhood friends, one of my high school English teachers, Jews and Christians of every stripe (and at least one Muslim woman to whom I was introduced.)

The program began with an introduction by Rabbi Sam Stahl, who had connected Mary and me with one another in the first place. I spoke about midrash and shared two classical examples, and Mary spoke about what women bring to ministry and to textual interpretation. Somewhere in there I read poems about creation, Abraham, Moshe, Sarah; Mary read poems about Mary / the annunciation, and about Sarah and Elizabeth, among others. We talked back and forth about Judaism and Christianity, interpretation, story, talking back to God, what's really in the text versus what people commonly imagine to have been in the text. People asked great questions which led our conversation in unexpected directions.

The conversation was recorded; if you're so inclined, you can listen to that recording here -- it's about an hour long, and I think it's pretty neat. My deep thanks to Mary Earle (who is wonderful) and to Viva for hosting us! The audio file begins with the very end of Carla Pineda's words on behalf of the bookstore, and then moves into Rabbi Sam Stahl's introduction, and then the two of us get rolling. Enjoy!




[Barenblat-Earle.mp3] (11MB)


A sermon in poetry for parashat B'ha-alot'kha

Here's the sermon in poetry which I offered at Temple Beth El and at Temple Chai this past Shabbat. One of the poems is a revision of a Torah poem from a few years ago; one is a Torah poem which appears in 70 faces; and the rest are brand-new, written for this occasion. Enjoy!


The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him, "When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand." —Numbers 8:1-2

One for each day of creation
and a seventh for Shabbat,
the pearl in the crown
the flowering apple tree
the culmination.

One for each blessing
your children will recite
beneath the chuppah
marveling at what they find
in one another's eyes.

Colors of the rainbow,
weeks of the Omer,
days of mourning.
In this menorah you'll find
the bush which burned but remained.

Even now, with our portable
dwelling-place for God
long vanished irretrievably
into the attic of memory,
these lamps still shine.

This week's Torah portion, B'ha-alot'kha, begins with the instruction to kindle seven lamps in the portable Tabernacle. The Torah is filled with detailed instructions for the construction of the mishkan, the place where God's presence dwelled among us. Of course, even if the mishkan's construction is a historical reality rather than a spiritual and literary one, centuries have passed since it was built. What can this verse about a golden lampstand tell us about our spiritual lives today? When I look at the verse through the prism of poetry, I find metaphors which hold meaning.

The tradition of responding to scripture with our own creativity -- writing interpretive texts which explore questions, close loopholes, and ponder implications -- dates back at least as far as the third century of the Common Era. We call these stories midrash, from the root lidrosh, to seek or inquire. One midrash holds that the Torah is written in black fire on white fire: the black fire are the letters, and the white fire the holy spaces between the words. Our own creative responses to Torah are part of that white fire.

Continue reading "A sermon in poetry for parashat B'ha-alot'kha" »

Thanks, Express-News

There's a lovely article in the San Antonio Express-News today -- complete with a photo of me standing of the steps of my parents' congregation, Temple Beth-El -- which begins:

More than a quarter-century ago, Rachel Barenblat was a 10-year-old budding poet relishing the moment her first creation was published.

It was a simple, rhyming piece on the human struggle to overcome the inner drive to do wrong. And it ran in the Express-News.

Words have been good to the San Antonio native.

She's won poetry awards and published several books. Her blog, the “Velveteen Rabbi,” made Time magazine's list of the top 25 blogs in 2008.

Now 36, she's back in San Antonio for the first time as an ordained rabbi to discuss her book “70 Faces: Torah Poems,” on Tuesday at a local bookstore...

You can read the whole thing if you're so inclined: Poems enrich rabbi's ministry. Thanks, Abe Levy and Express-News!

Shavuot 5771 / 2011

We met at the Williams College Jewish Religious Center (a place which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year -- it's wonderful and strange to me that I have accumulated more memories from celebrating Shavuot and Simchat Torah there as an adult than from attending Shabbat services there as an undergrad.) Hazzan Bob Scherr, the cantor who serves as Jewish chaplain at Williams, led us in a beautiful short and sweet festival service -- and in singing a variety of niggunim and songs in between the various lessons which were taught over the course of the night.

After davening, our evening of learning (and noshing on fruit and dairy and espresso milkshakes) began. Diane Wolkstein gave over a gorgeous retelling of the story of Ruth which interwove the Biblical text seamlessly with classical midrash about Ruth, Naomi, Orpah, and Boaz. In her telling, the setting came to life (a time of chaos, corruption, and fear of the stranger) and the characters leapt off the page and into the room with us. I came away newly-moved by the radical courage of Ruth and of Boaz, and by the ways in which their story shines new light on our time. (I think I may have to get myself a copy of her book Treasures of the Heart, which contains her retelling of Hebrew Bible stories -- including the version of Ruth she shared with us last night.)

Rabbi Howard Cohen taught a lesson on Wilderness, Emerson, and Transcendentalism, exploring the meaning of "wilderness" in Jewish texts (the place of revelation, a place where there is an overwhelming sense of Divine presence without the artificial filters of our inhabited spaces) and in American transcendentalists like Muir and Emerson, and then delving into questions of how 20th century American Jewish thinking was influenced by Emerson and transcendentalism. (Turns out that rabbinic leaders including Solomon Schechter, Joseph Soloveitchik, and Mordechai Kaplan were all Emerson fans: who knew?)

Professor Denise Buell taught a lesson called Remembering Revelations -- Canonical Texts and Me which challenged us to think about canonical texts and our relationships to those texts, and explored how texts and their range of possible interpretations leave ghostly imprints on one another. We read excerpts from Acts and from the letter to the Hebrews -- texts written from a sectarian Jewish point of view which later became foundational to the new Christian church -- and also from the fascinating homilies of Pseudo-Clementine of Alexandria (not considered canonical) which offer a reading of Jewish-Christian relationship in which each community is saved by virtue of their own prophet.

Robin K. taught a lesson on Kashrut: Kids, Calves, and Casseroles, looking at the verses in Torah which have to do with not seething a kid in its mother's milk and exploring a variety of questions and interpretations. Probably the most powerful part of that lesson for me was the idea that seething a kid in its mother's milk is about mixing life and death, since the mother's milk represents the essence of life itself -- that if one were to bring life and death together on the table in that way, it would be a sign of callous disregard for the mysteries of life and death and therefore a sign of (or a cause of?) spiritual brokenness.

Rabbi Joshua Boettiger taught on The Pros and Cons of Nostalgia, exploring the Jewish tradition's complicated relationship with nostalgia (on the one hand there's the vein in tradition which argues that our ancestors were the spiritual "greats" and that every generation since them is diminishing in holiness; on the other hand there's the vein in tradition which trusts that we are moving toward a messianic future and therefore every generation is closer to real holiness.) He brought song lyrics (The Boys of Summer), a beautiful quote from Andre Aciman, and teachings from his colleagues to bear on ideas of the festivals and nostalgia.

My lesson was on Torah Through Poetry's Window. I spoke briefly about midrash, shared my Ruth poem "The Handmaid's Tale", and then took requests for a handful of Torah poems from 70 faces (requests included "a leprosy poem" and "akedah poems," both of which I shared from the book -- as well as a Tamar poem and a Dinah poem, which I didn't have but hope to write in months to come.) I closed with Mobius (the final poem from 70 faces), which hearkened back to some of what Joshua had said about nostalgia for Avraham and for Moshe.

Our final lesson was Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser's teaching Love Letters: How the Rabbis Reinvented the Torah. Through the lens of the Ahavah Rabbah prayer and the Ahavat Olam prayer -- the blessings immediately preceding the shema in morning prayer and evening prayer, which are variations on the same theme -- we explored what the rabbis who established our liturgy meant to tell us about Torah. (Short version: Torah is love. Not about love, though sometimes it's that too; in the rabbinic imagination is love. By the by -- don't miss his post Shavuot: the Torah is your lover.) He took us through a midrash and a bit of Zohar about the passionate relationship between Israel and Torah, the ways in which Song of Songs can teach us how we're meant to relate to God, the idea that at the moment of revelation the commandments themselves kissed us on the mouth, the sense in which Torah reveals herself to us like a lover.

And then the few of us who remained (by then our numbers had dwindled to eight) gathered in the sanctuary again, and, singing, passed the Torah from arm to arm, each of us taking a moment to cradle her, to kiss her, to dance with her as with a baby or a lover, and then to return her to her place in the ark so that we could each drive home in the mysterious deep of the 2am night.

This week's portion: cloud of glory





The cloud covers the mishkan like a prayer shawl.
By night it burns like fire, a low crackling
you can hear throughout the encampment.
The children are used to it, though the goats
still spook if they wander too close

when the cloud lifts we fold our tents
and strap the babies to our backs
as the men disassemble the mishkan
stowing its pegs and tapestries
the troops move out, tribe by tribe

all the desert looks the same to me
sand and scrub, wadis and hills, though
they promise somewhere ahead we'll find
pasture to make the goats' milk rich
and dates to pound into sweetness

footsore and hungry we make camp
and I hold my breath, wondering
whether the cloud will settle over the tent
giving us time to do the laundry
before our wandering God uproots us again

As I noted last week, this coming Shabbat I'll be offering Torah poetry at two San Antonio congregations -- a sermon in poetry at Temple Beth El on Friday night, and a sermon in poetry (along with leading the whole Shabbat morning service) at Temple Chai on Shabbat morning. My sermon in poetry will feature several Torah poems, all arising out of this week's Torah portion, B'ha-alot'kha. I'll share the one that's in 70 faces, of course; and I'll also share this one, which is new this year. (It's part of a pair of poems sparked by the verses about the cloud which rested over the mishkan; to hear the other one, you'll have to come to synagogue!)

The mishkan is the portable tabernacle which the Israelites carried through the wilderness. (The word shares a root with Shekhinah, the immanent divine Presence of God.)

This poem riffs off of the Biblical vision of the land to which the Israelites are journeying. Most of us, hearing the phrase "a land of milk and honey," probably think of cow's milk and of honey produced by honeybees... but it seems possible that the original readers of this text would have imagined goat's milk and date honey. (Indeed, Rashi argued -- about a different mention of honey in Torah -- that the word dvash in Torah usually means date honey; for more on that, here's Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky on Milk and Honey.) Then again, there is archaeological evidence for beekeeping in the Jordan Valley several centuries before the Common Era, so who knows.


On holy anniversaries

The Counting of the Omer is ending. The festival of Shavuot begins tomorrow evening at sundown. I'll be celebrating with folks from Congregation Beth Israel (North Adams), Congregation Beth El (Bennington), and a few faculty members from Williams, at the Williams College Jewish Center. Our plans call for a brief evening service at 7:30pm, followed by a wonderful line-up of evening teachings.

This year we're doing something special to kick things off: master storyteller Diane Wolkstein will grace us with her rendition of the story of Ruth, since Ruth is the text traditionally studied at Shavuot. And then, as we've done in years past, clergy and congregants from the different communities will take turns offering Torah teachings of various sorts, interspersed with breaks for dairy snacks and schmoozing. We usually go until 1 or 2am; not quite the traditional all-night study session, but definitely something out of the ordinary, and a chance to connect with the unique spiritual insights which sometimes arise when one is engaging with powerful texts during the night. The celebration is open to all, so if you're so inclined, please join us.

We understand Shavuot as the anniversary of the date when Torah was revealed at Sinai, the date when we and God entered into holy covenant, a moment when the entire Jewish community (past, present and future) was mystically present and mystically experienced an ineffable connection with the infinite. One popular metaphor holds that Shavuot is the wedding anniversary of our people's marriage to God, and the Torah is our ketubah, the beautiful handwritten document which articulates our promises one to the other.

As it happens, tomorrow is also another kind of anniversary for me -- the more mundane kind, though no less wonderful for all that. As my thirteenth wedding anniversary wanes, Shavuot will be getting underway. It is a blessing indeed to have the opportunity to celebrate these awesome moments of remembrance... but in the case of both of these relationships, the relationship far supercedes the day on which we celebrate it. Torah is always being revealed, and we're co-creating this marriage day by day. The love manifest in this sacred text, and the love manifest in our marriage, are always being renewed. I am more grateful, and more lucky, than I can say.



"My mouth is a kiln / for smelting Torah..."

Longtime readers may recall that during my last year of rabbinic school I took a two-semester class called Moadim l'Simcha, "Seasons of our Rejoicing," in which Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg led us through studying a variety of Hasidic texts about the festivals and the ebb and flow of the spiritual year. At the end of the first semester of that class, my final project was the creation of a brief collection of poems, each of which arose out of my own translation of a particular Hasidic text.

In anticipation of Shavuot, I wanted to offer one of those poems here. The poem comes out of a Sfat Emet teaching on parashat Emor (my notes tell me it was given over in the year 1872 and can be found on page 3:167a -- sorry I can't offer a more precise citation than that.) Hopefully this poem, like the text which inspired it, speaks to the ways in which counting the Omer gives us opportunities to refine our spiritual qualities in preparation to receive revelation again.



the words of God
are refined silver

living embodied
we purify what we're given

my mouth is a kiln
for smelting Torah

Egypt was a place
for forging iron

base and heavy
like our speech

throats constrained
by Pharaoh's chains

but at Sinai
everything changed

Torah is coming,
make yourself ready

make your words

Torture awareness

June is Torture Awareness Month, at least in the minds of several religious and human rights organizations in the United States. This June, Rabbis for Human Rights-North America (RHR-NA) and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) encourage congregations and religious organizations to focus on the need for accountability for U.S.-sponsored torture which has been taking place since September 11, 2001. (Learn more at the webpage June 2011 - Torture Awareness Month on the RHR-NA website.)

The RHR website features a variety of resources for those who want to help spread awareness of torture. Probably the most powerful of those resources, for me, is the Misheberach Prayer for Victims of Torture [pdf].The misheberach is the prayer for healing of body, mind, and spirit which is part of our regular liturgy; because this prayer is crafted as a variation on that familiar theme, it connects the idea of torture (and the healing which that trauma necessitates) with the prayers for healing we're already saying.

The pdf features the prayer in Hebrew and in English. Here's the English translation of the prayer, which was written by Rabbi Gilah Langner:

May the One who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah, be filled with compassion for all victims of torture. May the Holy One send a healing of body and a healing of soul to those who have suffered torture, whether at the hands of agents of our own country or at the hands of others. May those who engage in torture cease and desist, and turn away from this path that corrupts their souls and debases the Great Name of God. May we never remain silent in the face of torture, and may we heed the words of Your Torah, "You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." By our prayers and actions may we attain forgiveness for what we have allowed to occur. May we be worthy to do good deeds in Your eyes and for Your Presence to return to our midst. And let us say Amen.

I'm most struck by the line "By our prayers and actions may we attain forgiveness for what we have allowed to occur." I doubt I will ever be in a position to actively step in and prevent an act of torture -- but by my willingness to turn a blind eye to the reality that the government of my nation has condoned the use of torture, I'm complicit in allowing the torture to happen. 

This is not something I usually think about. Back in 2008 I blogged the conference session Beyond Guantanamo: Ending US-Sponsored Torture (at that year's Rabbis for Human Rights conference) but since then I've allowed the subject to recede from my consciousness. As, I think, most of us do.

Drafting a post about this, even a post which calls into question my own willingness and ability to look the other way, is easy. Actually taking action to end the use of torture is harder. I'm not sure what I can do which will actually make a difference. But recognizing that torture does happen at American hands, and decrying that torture in the strongest possible terms, seems like the first step.

Malkhut / kingdom / Shekhinah: the final week of the Omer

We're entering the final week of the counting of the Omer: the week of malkhut. Malkhut means something like kingship or kingdom -- in a gender-neutral term, sovereignty.

The "kingdom of God" may be a term more comfortable for Christians than for liberal Jews. When we hear it, many of us think of The Lord's Prayer -- "for Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory" -- and these don't feel like Jewish ideas to most of us. But they are Jewish ideas! We use these words in our liturgy every day (though in Hebrew, so they don't push the same buttons for us which may be pushed by the English terms of Christian liturgy.) And these weeks of the Omer have been a journey through these facets of God. Glory -- that's tiferet, week three. Power -- that's gevurah, week two. And kingdom is malkhut, the week we're beginning now.

Malkhut is deeply associated with the Shekhinah, the immanent indwelling divine Presence of God which is understood as feminine. Jewish tradition has attached all sorts of symbolism to malkhut and Shekhinah -- there's a partial list of associations, among them the matriarch Rachel, the wellspring, the bride, the apple orchard, the garden of Eden, and Shabbat, here at Jewish Virtual Library. (For more on Shekhinah, I recommend Rabbi Jill Hammer's beautiful teaching The Shekhinah at Tel Shemesh.)

Some teach that malkhut is the only sefirah we can truly access. Divine emanation streams from the limitless ein-sof (the most transcendent part of God, that which we can neither conceptualize nor encounter) through the ten sefirot, spiraling down in a chain of blessing and being modulated and transformed as it flows. Only when it reaches malkhut has it been gentled into a form which won't blow out our spiritual circuits. We can't connect directly with the higher sefirot, but we can connect to malkhut. Malkhut is divine immanence, God to Whom we can relate.

Some associate malkhut with the world of speech. Jewish mysticism teaches that God created everything through speech (and our liturgy tells us that God continues to speak the world into being even now.) Malkhut is associated with oral Torah -- the aspect of Torah which is spoken rather than written, interactive rather than static. This is a week to ask, how does my speech manifest God's kingdom on earth? Do I use words wisely and well in a way which helps me to serve something greater than myself?

In the last line of the aleinu, which Jews recite at the end of every worship service, we pray for the day when we will see God's presence permeate creation, l'taken olam b'malkhut shaddai, to heal the world with God's sovereignty. Malkhut is what we experience when we experience God's greatness reverberating and emanating from within creation itself. And this isn't power-over which damages: this is sovereignty in its highest form, sovereignty which heals and repairs all which is broken.

This is a week to ask, how can I experience God's presence in creation? Can I relate to the divinity immanent in all things? How do I feel about accepting God's sovereignty -- if that's an uncomfortable idea for me, what internal work might that inspire me to do? What can I do with the tension between malkhut as kingship (power from beyond creation) and malkhut as Shekhinah (immanent presence within creation)? What does malkhut mean in my life this week? And how might this week, the culmination of seven weeks of counting, prepare me to receive revelation on Shavuot?