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Approaching a fall semester one last time

My fall semester begins tomorrow. I'm excited about the learning, though a little bit nervous about my ability to balance parenting a toddler, leading a congregation, working in my community, and taking classes again. Balancing parenting and congregational leadership has been a mostly-wonderful new experience for me; now I'm about to add another ball to the ones I'm already juggling.

But wait, you may be thinking: didn't she finish rabbinic school? Indeed yes, thanks be to God! But I'm also enrolled in the ALEPH Ordination Program in Hashpa'ah / Jewish Spiritual Direction Training, and two classes remain for me to complete before my second ordination, as a mashpi'ah, in January. One is a class in Bioethics; along with three classmates, I'll be taking a brief but intense tutorial exploring the essential elements of hashpa'ah as they intersect with bio-ethical issues. And the other is the class which begins tomorrow: Issues of Sage-ing in Hashpa'ah.

What's sage-ing? I'll let Reb Zalman explain:

We don't normally associate old age with self-development and spiritual growth. According to the traditional model of life span development, we ascend the ladder of our careers, reach the zenith of our success and influence in midlife, then give way to an inevitable decline that culminates in a weak, often impoverished old age. This is aging pure and simple, a process of gradually increasing personal diminishment and disengagement from life. As an alternative to inevitable senescence, this book proposes a new model of late-life development called sage-ing, a process that enables older people to become spiritually radiant, physically vital, and socially responsible "elders of the tribe."

That's from his book From Age-ing to Sage-ing (written with Ronald Miller), one of the primary texts we'll be reading this semester. (Other texts on the syllabus include Rabbi Dayle Friedman's Jewish Visions for Aging and Gene Cohen's The Mature Mind, both of which also look terrific.)

Reb Zalman's book comes with a set of questions at the back, intellectual and spiritual exercises to help the reader work through her own issues around aging, and as our assignment for the first Sage-ing class we were asked to do the first of these exercises. I found the experience fascinating. I hadn't thought through my own positive and negative associations with aging before this -- and writing about a day in my imagined ideal life as an elder opened up some surprising mental images and imagined possibilities.

Anyway: I'm doing my best not to write scripts about overwhelm during the coming months, but instead to focus on the tremendous blessing of getting to spend some time learning about these things with my beloved colleagues and teachers. One final semester as an ALEPH student. Here we go...

The aftermath of Irene

We live on a hilltop; our house was spared by Hurricane Irene. But many were not so lucky. ( Here are some of the news stories I've been reading this morning: Irene leaves Berkshires soaked, Four Rescued by Boat from Spruces, Evacuations, flooding, closed roads dot area, Flooding conditions 'awful' in Vermont due to Irene's rains.)

The flood control shute in Adams; photo source iBerkshire Storm Center: Hurricane Irene page.

(Here's video of the flood control shutes; here's Williams College's Cole Field swallowed by the Hoosic River; here's the Bartonsville VT covered bridge washing away.)

Earlier this weekend I was admiring the hurricane photos provided by NASA, which I encountered here at Mystical Politics. The photos are beautiful (as I find that images of the Earth seen from space always are) -- but the damage done by the storm at ground level is sobering.

I'm trying to find out how my congregants fared, and I've reached out to other area clergy to find out whether there are interfaith efforts to aid those who have been impacted by the storm -- if there are, I'd like for my community to be a part of them. Meanwhile, my thoughts and prayers this morning are with those whose lives have been disrupted by the storm. May power speedily be restored; may homes become safe and dry; may all who are in need find their needs met by the loving hands of their communities, in whose actions God may be found.

Earth and pine

Image borrowed from this article at Matrifocus.

The fresh scents of newly-turned earth and sweet unfinished pine might connote a construction site, a place where new dreams are being built. I think of the ground opening up to hold a new structure, scaffolding rising into the waiting sky. But these are equally the scent of a Jewish funeral in summertime, when the earth is warm enough to be fragrant as it is opened to receive. The plain pine box in which Jews are traditionally buried has a woodsy scent which rises on the summer air, and the earth smells like new furrows, like farmland, like something precious enough to cradle in our own bare hands.

And of course, at the end of a Jewish funeral we do just that. Either with our hands, or with the shovels provided, each mourner is invited to engage in the physical task of replacing some of the earth atop the casket. It's considered the last act of kindness one can perform for someone who has died. The Hebrew word for funeral, levayah, means "accompaniment;" I think that tossing these handfuls and shovel-fulls of earth are our way of showing ourselves that we've accompanied the soul of the person we love as far as we can go.

I've always liked cemeteries, and the one owned by the community I serve is peaceful and serene. Especially on a breezy August day when cricketsong rises and falls along with the mourner's kaddish, when the world smells sweet and earthy and real. There's something very powerful for me about the knowledge that this ceremony, or something very like it, is the closing parenthesis on every Jewish life. Dressed in simple white linen garments, held in a bed of unfinished pine, we return to the embrace of mother Earth.

They're holy places, cemeteries. We consecrate them with our energy, our grief, our acceptance, our tears. What a profound mystery it is that the soul which enlivens each of us will eventually depart. And when that end comes, none of us can imagine what comes next. For the person who has died, the next chapter -- whatever it may be -- can't be known from here. For those who remain, there is a pile of earth and a shovel, a shoulder to lean on, a memory to burnish to a lasting shine.

Sleepy Monday

Asleep in the carseat.

It was a full and active weekend. Friday night and Saturday morning I helped a family in our community celebrate their daughter becoming bat mitzvah. Maybe my favorite moment of the celebration was a small and private one: standing outside our sanctuary with the bat mitzvah girl just before services began on Shabbat morning. The sun was burning off the morning's mist; the mountains were revealing themselves again to our view. Together we recited the bracha for wearing a tallit, and together twirled our tallitot onto our shoulders, wrapping ourselves in their fabric and their fringes -- and then we came inside, and services began, complete with singing and Torah reading and candy flying through the air! All good things.

And then I returned home, changed into casual clothes, and put my rabbi role aside in order to be mama for the rest of the weekend. (Of course I am always both at once! But I often feel, when I change out of my synagogue clothes and into shorts and a t-shirt, that I'm letting my mama self become ascendant again.) There was a visit to a playground, featuring slides and swings. We played a game of "run in the grass until you fall down laughing." (This is one of Drew's favorites right now.) And then, after dinner and a bath and changing him into pyjamas, we bundled him into the car and drove the four hours to New Hampshire for a family reunion of the descendants of the siblings among whom Ethan's grandmother Winnie was counted.

Sunday we drove around smalltown New Hampshire, admired trains and ducks and trucks, gathered with family, swam in a lake, introduced Drew to his great-grandmother's sister, played with toys, marveled at one of the most powerful rainstorms I've ever seen, and drove home again. And now it is Monday morning and work calls -- mourners to comfort, a funeral to perform, phone messages to return, services and classes to plan. I must admit: I'm a little bit exhausted! But I'm grateful for the weekend's gifts, even as I'm mindful of the challenges it presented. (And I'm glad that this coming weekend, which is one of my weekends "off," we're not going anywhere at all.)

Haveil Havalim #326: Jewish Blog Carnival, the post-Tu-B'Av edition

Welcome to Haveil Havalim #326!

Founded by Soccer Dad, Haveil Havalim is a carnival of Jewish blogs, a weekly collection of Jewish and Israeli blog highlights, tidbits and points of interest collected from blogs all around the world. It's hosted by a different blogger each week, coordinated by Jack. (The name of the carnival, which means "vanity of vanities," is a quote from Kohelet 1:2 -- "vanity of vanities, all is vanity!")

Last time I hosted the carnival was Havel Havelim 36 back in 2005. (I knew it had been a while, but didn't realize it had been six years! Looking back at that post brings back a flood of memories; it's sandwiched in between posts about beginning my chaplaincy internship and my first day of rabbinic school. Holy wow.)

Curating the carnival -- and for that matter, reading the posts in the carnival each week -- offers a fascinating set of glimpses into the many-splendored thing which is the Jewish blogosphere. Intriguingly, the submissions which came to me via the blogcarnival submission form were mostly Jewish Israeli posts, with relatively few from Diaspora bloggers. I've also added links to posts from some of the other Jewish blogs I read, so this week's carnival draws on a slightly broader than usual subset of Jewish voices.

With no further ado, here's my roundup of some of the week's highlights. Here are posts on Torah (a diverse set of reflections on the weekly parsha and on Hasidic thought), Holidays (looking back at Tisha b'Av, exploring Tu b'Av, and diving into Shabbat), Jewish Life and Culture (posts about social media, Jewish dress and food, Yiddish, Jewish history, travel, and more), Israel (from the tent city protests to the recent attack in southern Israel, from tips for aliyah to a glimpse of post-Zionism), Personal Life, and Tikkun Olam (social justice, Somalia and Uganda, race relations, misogyny, and more). Enjoy!


Reb Jeff presents Ekev: Deuteronomy vs. Job -- "who says that we should reject everything in Torah that makes us troubled or uncomfortable? Once the red ink starts in editing the Torah, it is difficult to keep it from flowing onto every page. I would prefer to see what is truthful in the passage and also to acknowledge the discomfort. I would rather argue with the Torah than ignore it." -- at A Rabbi's Search for Jewish Joy.

Rabbi Yehoishophot Oliver presents The interdependence in the echelons of creation -- "Why did Hashem create mankind in a way that he needs to eat in order to survive? Moreover, food comes from domem, tzomei’ach, and chai. Why should mankind be dependent upon the creatures at a lower echelon than his own?" -- posted at A Chassidishe farbrengen.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs presents Can We Talk? A d'var Torah for Ekev -- "We know how to accuse one another of naiveté, self-hatred, selfishness, and general idiocy. But talking—and listening—comes far less easily." -- posted at the Rabbis for Human Rights blog.

Sue Swartz presents Fantasy Land -- "The Torah is fantasy.  No, not that kind of fantasy, i.e., totally made up stuff. Nor do I mean the wizards/dragons/alien marauders/magical ring stuff that entertains and enthralls. More like the oh-if-only-this-relationship-would-work-out-my-life-would-be-perfect kind of fantasy – a communal dream of grandeur and happy times with deep psychological resonance and lots of prescriptive morality thrown for good measure" -- at Awkward Offerings.

Continue reading "Haveil Havalim #326: Jewish Blog Carnival, the post-Tu-B'Av edition" »

Fields of dreams

On ESPN earlier this week I saw a poignant short documentary piece about a team of Ugandan boys who qualified for the Little League World Series but weren't allowed to enter the US because of visa difficulties stemming from developing-world paperwork (or lack thereof.) The embedded video, below, is 5:28 long and quite visually stunning -- though what really moves me is not the cinematography but the kids, their pride and their frustration and their hope.

(You can go directly to the video here at ESPN -- the embedded video I originally had here seems to not be working anymore, but the direct link works.)

The short tv piece was produced by documentary filmmaker Jay Shapiro, who's been in Uganda working on a documentary about Little League baseball in Uganda (and has been blogging about it at my quaint and quiet life.) The film he's making is called Opposite Field:

For the first time in the 65-year existence an African team qualified to "play ball" in the Little League World Series. When their historic quest ended their dreams did not.

Rising from the ghettos of Uganda, the Rev. John Foundation Little League from Kampala has overcome extreme poverty and tragic setbacks to follow their dreams to America and test their skills against the best teams in the world only to have those dreams put on hold from adults competing behind closed doors rather than kids competing on the playing field.

Continue reading "Fields of dreams" »

Happy Tu b'Av!

On the Jewish calendar, today is a holiday of which many contemporary Jews are entirely unaware: Tu b'Av, the 15th of the month of Av, which was once a great festival. In the post The 15th of Av: Love and Rebirth, the folks at Chabad explain (drawing on the Shulchan Aruch) that beginning on this date one should increase one's study of Torah, since (in the northern hemisphere) nights are beginning to lengthen, and nights were made for study. (I can't help noticing that tonight is full moon -- maybe we're meant to do some studying by moonlight tonight?)

Once upon a time, on this date, the daughters of Jerusalem would go dance in the vineyards wearing white dresses, and "whoever did not have a wife would go there" to find himself a bride. (So we learn in Talmud -- this took place during the Second Temple period, before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.) Talmud also teaches, "Said Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel: There were no greater festivals for Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur." (That's in Taanit 26b.)

Far-out, right? Once upon a time, our greatest festivals, our days of greatest joy, were the day of atonement and the full moon of the month of Av. Now 15 Av goes all but unnoticed (and I suspect it's a stretch for many of us to experience Yom Kippur as a day of joy -- though I hope to help with that this year!)

Why was Tu b'Av considered such a day of joy? I think the custom of courting in the vineyards probably had something to do with it. Talmud also offers a list of great events which happened on this day in our ancient history. (You can read about those at the Chabad website too, if you're so inclined: Why do we celebrate the 15th of Av?) In Israel today, some celebrate Tu b'Av as a kind of Jewish Valentine's Day; others celebrate through women's dance festivals like the one in the West Bank town of Shiloh. But in the rest of the Jewish world, these seem unlikely to catch on -- and the occurrences memorialized in Talmud may be difficult for us to relate to. How might we find, or make, meaning in Tu b'Av again?

Rabbi Jill Hammer at Tel Shemesh offers a beautiful meditation on this day: The Frut | 15 Av. Reb Jill writes:

Tu B'Av is an unlikely day of joy, coming as it does in a season of sadness. In its essence, Tu B'Av is a hinge between the time of mourning and the time of gladness, between the pathos of reaping and the celebration of harvest. It is a door opening from death back into life. Tu B'Av is a day of rebirth, when the cut-down stem yields the ripe, sweet fruit.

I love her idea of this day as a hinge in time: the hinge between mourning and celebration, the hinge between the long days of summer and the long nights of winter (perfect for curling up by the fire with the Good Book!), the hinge between the outward-focused energy of summertime and the more inward-focused energy of the season that is coming. (You can also find some suggestions for practice, connections with other traditions' late-summer rituals, and a ritual for Tu b'Av at Tel Shemesh.)

At the Jewish Women's Archive, Leah Berkenwald sees exciting feminist undertones in this sex-positive festival. As she writes in her post Embracing Tu b'Av, "Creating a holiday that celebrates love and sexuality from a progressive, feminist, and Jewish prospective?  Now that is a movement I can get behind!"

In his book The Jewish Holidays, Michael Strassfeld notes that Tu b'Av comes one week after Tisha b'Av, and sees today as the definitive end to our formal period of mourning. Today we shake off the last vestiges of whatever mourning consumed us last week. It is as though we are all mourners who have been sitting shiva together, and now we can feel released from those strictures and that sorrow. Even if we're not putting on white dresses and dancing in any vineyards today (though I envy any of you for whom that practice is actually possible!), we can try to experience today as a day of celebration, a day to shake off our sorrows and let our spirits dance.

A gift of Shabbat morning joy

This past Shabbat we celebrated the bat mitzvah of a young lady in my congregation. Bat mitzvah -- you probably know this; apologies if I am over-explaining! -- means "daughter of the commandments." When a young person reaches this milestone, she is considered a Jewish adult, able to count toward a minyan (the quorum of ten required for saying many of our central prayers), bound by the joyful obligation to live her life ethically, spiritually, Jewishly.

(I haven't posted much about b'nei mitzvah over the years, though I did write a bit about the process of teaching one of my nieces through her process of becoming bat mitzvah -- that was a few years ago, though; that niece is now looking at colleges!)

Anyway, this past Shabbat, after the service we blessed wine and bread together and then spent some time engaged in the time-honored Jewish pastime known as "schmoozing." (In other words: we snacked and we chatted.) The celebration after services is known in some circles as an oneg. The word means joy, and hints at the joy or pleasure we hope God takes in us. Anyway: at this oneg, I got a surprising dose of joy.

One of the guests at the bat mitzvah approached me at the oneg and thanked me for the service. And then she told me that she'd been to many b'nei mitzvahs before, but had never understood what was going on and had never been able to access the liturgy -- until this Shabbat.

I don't know if she knew it, but that guest gave me a profound gift. One of the challenges of leading worship at a lifecycle event -- especially when one is accustomed to leading a smalltown congregation comprised of familiar faces! -- is that I don't know all the people in the room, and it can be hard to tell whether or not I've connected with them or connected them with the liturgy or with God. And when many of the people in the room may not know the flow of how our service works, or the melodies we use, it's easy for the service leader to wonder whether the service is reaching people where they are.

I don't know the name of the woman who told me that I had opened up the Shabbat morning experience to her, but I'm grateful for her taking a moment to say what she said. And I'm humbled and honored to know that I was able to make the bat mitzvah celebration, and the celebration of Shabbat, open to her. Thank you, mystery lady! Come back anytime.

Kate Braestrup's "Beginner's Grace"


If I weren't worried about seeming unprofessional, I would begin this book review by saying, "Dear Kate Braestrup: I love you."

That's a little bit extreme, I'll grant you. But it really is my first response to reading Kate's latest, Beginner's Grace. And this response first welled up in me on page 8, at the very beginning of the book, when I read this:

I had thought that conquering the monkey mind and bringing myself into a conscious attentiveness were prerequisites for prayer, but they are not: they are prayer's result. If I was restless, dubious, and distracted whenever I'd try to pray, so what? Everyone is!

I promptly copied out the quote, emailed it to a dear friend, and resolved to bring it to the Friday morning meditation group I lead at my synagogue. Not surprisingly, Kate has hit the proverbial nail right on the head. So many of us imagine that we need to be serene and conscious before we can attempt to meditate or pray, but the exact opposite is true. The practice comes first; if we're lucky, the change in us unfolds later.

What keeps you from prayer?

Ask that question in a roomful of people who don't pray, and you will get a raft of answers: Oh, I'm too busy. I'm uncomfortable. All the people I know who pray are real jerks, and I don't want to be one of them. I have bad memories of abusive religious figures. I wouldn't know who I was praying to. I don't know what to say.

...This is a book about bringing true prayer to life, preferably before real life includes an eighteen-wheeler or other looming disaster. I won't claim that prayer can get you a new car or find the lover of your dreams. It won't help you gain status, assert your dominance, or otherwise please your ego. It won't even make life easier.

What it can do -- what prayer, at its best and at our best, has always done -- is help us to live consciously, honorably, and compassionately.

Continue reading "Kate Braestrup's "Beginner's Grace"" »

Which came first: the ecstasy or the laundry?

Once upon a time, the sage Rashi and his grandson the sage Rabenu Tam had a disagreement about the order in which passages should be written in the tefillin which are worn on the head. And earlier this week, my hevruta partner David and I studied a text from the Kedushat Levi which explores this disagreement and its implications. (If you need a refresher on what, exactly, tefillin might be, here are a few links: Ode to my tefillin [2011], Connections [2005], and Surprises [also 2005].)

Okay, on to the disagreement and the question about what it means. In a set of tefillin there are two boxes: the shel yad (which goes on the bicep) and the shel rosh (which goes on the head.) In the head-tefillin there are four passages: two from Exodus, which talk about remembering the Exodus from Egypt and which make specific mention of tefillin (that's Exodus 13:1-10 and Exodus 13:11-16, for those who are interested), and two from Deuteronomy which we now know as part of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, and Deuteronomy 11:13-21.) So two passages are about the Exodus, and two passages are about God's unity and about the blessings we will receive if we commit to the path of mitzvot. (With me so far?)

Rashi held that after the two passages about the Exodus, the tefillin should contain first the shema (the statement of God's unity which is central to Jewish faith and practice) and then the passage called v'haya im shemoa, "If you truly listen..." (Here is the traditional text  of v'haya im shemoa in Hebrew and in English; and here is Rabbi Arthur Waskow's interpretive rendition of that passage/prayer.) Putting the passages in this order reflects that first we need to accept and experience God's unity, and then we can take on the mitzvot and receive the blessings which will unfold from that.

Rabbenu Tam, Rashi's grandson, held that after the two passages about the Exodus, the Deuteronomy passages should go in the other order: first "if you truly listen..." and then "Hear O Israel, Adonai our God, Adonai is One." In his understanding, we need to commit to the path of the mitzvot before we can truly understand and accept the unity of the divine and the reality that there is nothing else but God. (Even today, tefillin are written in both of these ways -- Rashi tefillin and Rabbenu Tam tefillin -- and many Hasidim wear both sets.)

Continue reading "Which came first: the ecstasy or the laundry? " »

This year's wrestle with Tisha b'Av

I've never fasted before on Tisha b'Av. Odd admission for a rabbi to make, isn't it? For a long time I was resistant to the holiday because I didn't feel able to mourn the fall of the temples. On the contrary: I celebrate the deep and rich flowering of rabbinic Judaism which the fall of the temples birthed. I celebrate the paradigm shift from sacrificial Judaism, which was place-based and animal-based, to a Judaism in which we connect with God through prayer and we carry our connection-point with God with us wherever we go. If I didn't buy in to the holiday's central message, how could I consider fasting?

Several years ago I started engaging with Tisha b'Av as a day for acknowledging the brokenness of creation. The fall of the temples, I thought, might be seen as a metaphor for brokenness writ large, an embodiment of the Lurianic kabbalistic story of shvirat ha-kelim, the shattering of the vessels at the moment of creation. And indeed it can be read that way. Surely the world at large is broken and suffering is everywhere. But after a while this started to seem like the easy way out. I wanted to universalize the story at this day's heart because I was uncomfortable with the place-based particularism of mourning only our communal miseries, but something niggled at the back of my consciousness, a sense that erasing the particularity of the day altogether was doing violence to the day and to its meaning in our festival cycle.

On Tisha b'Av, our tradition teaches, the first temple was destroyed by Babylon in 586 BCE, and the second temple was destroyed by Rome in 70 CE. Beyond that, this is said to be the date when the twelve spies sent by Moshe to explore the promised land returned with their false report rooted in their fears, which doomed that generation of Israelites to wander in the wilderness until all of those who had known slavery had died. This is understood to be the anniversary of the failed Bar Kokhba revolt against Roman rule, the anniversary of the beginning of the first Crusade which killed thousands of Jews, the anniversary of the date when Jews were expelled from England and, later, from Spain. During World War II, Tisha b'Av was the date of the Grossaktion (great deportation and mass extermination) from the Warsaw Ghetto. These are all stories about us, our mythic history and our historical memory.

During most of the year, I explicitly reject the victim mentality which looks at history through the lens of all of the awful things which have happened to us... but I've come to think that there may be value, once a year, in sitting with our painful history. Maybe if we go deep into these narratives today, we can free ourselves from the need to carry them with us every day as we live in the world. Maybe we need a day when we remember our collective traumas, from the Babylonians to the Romans to the Crusades, so that having immersed in those stories we can make the conscious choice to shape our narratives and to understand our place in the world differently.

Continue reading "This year's wrestle with Tisha b'Av" »

On fasting (Tisha b'Av and Kazim Ali's "Fasting for Ramadan")

Slowly but surely, I'm reading Fasting for Ramadan: Notes from a Spiritual Practice by Kazim Ali, a set of short meditative essays written during the experience of fasting for Ramadan, published by Tupelo Press.

I've never experienced a fast like Ramadan. A whole month of daytime fasting: the idea is foreign to me. Though of course I have fasted; the vast majority of Jews fast on Yom Kippur, and many fast also on other fast days (among them Tisha b'Av, which begins tonight.)

I've been thinking lately about the fast of Tisha b'Av as the beginning of the journey which culminates in the fast of Yom Kippur. My hevruta partner David and I realized, last week, that the two are 60 days apart. First comes Tisha b'Av, when we fast in mourning for the fallen temples. Then we count 49 days, a kind of parallel to the Counting of the Omer, and the 50th day is Rosh Hashanah, the new year. Ten days after that comes Yom Kippur, the fast at the far end of the journey. How different might that Yom Kippur fast feel if one entered into it having willingly and consciously undertaken this sixty-day journey of transformation, bookended by a fast at either end?

There's something powerful about reading Ali's meditations now as I anticipate my own fasts. Ali writes beautifully about the experience of fasting: what it's like for him physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. Here's a taste, from the seventh day of Ramadan:

When you say "One time," in a story, you mean a time that happened in the past, but one you are still living in, living at that very moment. How often have you caught a whiff of patchouli, seen someone wearing a yellow scarf, heard the Indigo Girls singing "Love's Recovery" -- and suddenly you are gone, out of the present, backward in time, some other place, miles away, how easy it is to be transported, how slight our connection to our body is, as an entity in space.

The fast is a permanent "one time," because you are disconnected from the physical network of food and exchange of mass and matter that connects all the physical universe. You are a mere ghost, hovering, breathing the air in and out, not partaking, but affecting the world nonetheless with your karmic actions, even with your breathing.

One of the things I appreciate about sitting in meditation is the extent to which meditation allows me to gently notice the frenetic antics of my own mind. Fasting is a little bit like that, too, I think. Pausing from my regular consumption helps me take stock of that consumption and of the ways in which I allow it to control me. Though that's an intellectual exercise; part of what I'm loving about Ali's book is how it opens up his physical, emotional, and spiritual experience of the Ramadan fast. Fasting is such a strange experience: deeply embodied, on the one hand, and on the other hand lifting me out of my body and into a kind of fugue state.

Anyway. I wish a continued Ramadan kareem to my friends who are celebrating. And to those who will be fasting tonight and tomorrow for Tisha b'Av, may your fast be meaningful... and may we Jews and Muslims, perhaps, find connection with one another in our mutual experience of fasting, and may that fast bring all of us closer to God.

Not going anywhere

The view from home.

If you read Ethan's blog, you may have seen his recent post Enjoy the silence, in which he mentioned his truly fabulous new job (heading up the Center for Civic Media at MIT) and apologized for not blogging much at the moment, since he's trying to get a book draft close to complete before the fall semester begins. I've heard from a few folks who read his post and found themselves wondering: if Ethan's taken a job at MIT, does that mean they're thinking about moving east? The short answer is: nope. (Sorry, eastern Massachusetts friends and relatives!)

The slightly longer answer is: we're pretty attached to northern Berkshire. I've been here for nineteen years, and I feel very rooted here. (Ethan arrived here before I did; since then he's lived in West Africa, and has worked all over the globe -- but he feels rooted here, too.) We're attached to the joys of small-town life. Besides, I just got this wonderful job as a congregational rabbi! We don't have any intention of going anywhere. Ethan's rented a small pied-a-terre in the city which will allow him to spend three days a week in eastern Mass, but the Berkshires are going to continue to be our home base, never fear.

R' Alan Lew on taking responsibility for our patterns

The (second) temple in Jerusalem, writes Rabbi Alan Lew (of blessed memory) in his excellent book This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, fell to the Romans not because of hatred between/among Jews (as the mishna would have it), but because Rome was so powerful that nothing could stand in its way. And surely the rabbis of the Talmud knew this about the Roman Empire. So why did they cast blame on the children of Israel? Why blame themselves for what was clearly beyond their power?

Lew's response rings in me like a shofar call. He writes that to spiritual leaders, the only question worth asking about any recurring catastrophe is: how am I complicit in this, and how can I keep it from happening again? This is true, of course, not only on a national level, but on a personal one, as well:

Spiritually we are called to responsibility, to ask, What am I doing to make this recur again and again? Even if it is a conflict that was clearly thrust upon me from the outside, how am I plugging in to it, what is there in me that needs to be engaged in this conflict? Why can't I just let it slough off me like water off a duck's back, as I am able to do with so many other things?

...Why do our relationships always fail in precisely the same way? Why do we always fall into the same kind of conflict at work? Why do we always have the same arguments with our children? With our parents? ...What is the recurring disaster in our life? What is the unresolved element that keeps bringing us back to this same moment over and over again? What is it that we keep getting wrong? What is it that we persistently fail to look at, fail to see?

Tisha b'Av is the day on which we are reminded of the calamity that keeps repeating itself in the life of our people. And against all reason -- against the overwhelming evidence of history -- Moses and the rabbis insist that we are not powerless in the face of that calamity. Moses and the rabbis insist that we take responsibility for what is happening to us. Moses and the rabbis insist that we acknowledge our complicity in the things that keep happening to us over and over again.

I don't know about you, but this is exactly what I needed to read today. (And apparently that too is something which recurs for me; I just read the post I wrote about this book back in 2006, seasonal teachings from Rabbi Alan Lew, and sure enough, one of the quotes I just lifted up is in that post, too...)

This is, I think, part of the hard work of teshuvah (repentance / return.) In order to make teshuvah, to turn myself in the right direction again, I need to be willing to take a good hard look at myself and my patterns. I need to take responsibility for whatever recurs for me emotionally and interpersonally. Which isn't to say that I alone am responsible for everything that unfolds, or that I should castigate myself for my failings -- that would be a dangerous misreading of the teachings of this season. But Tisha b'Av calls me, calls us, to recognize the ways in which we are complicit in the things which are broken in our lives.

After the fall - a poem for Tisha b'Av

It's Rosh Chodesh Av, the first day of the new month of Av. Tisha b'Av is coming soon.

At my synagogue, we'll read Lamentations alongside a few more contemporary poems of sorrow. Usually we read Yehuda Amichai's "God has mercy upon the nursery school children" and Toge Sankichi's "At the First-Aid Station," both of which are extraordinary. It feels chutzpahdik to place one of my own poems in this company; I haven't decided yet whether or not we're going to read this poem at our 9 Av observance. But I wanted to share the poem here in case it speaks to any of you.

(Feel free to share this poem -- all I ask is that you attach my name and URL so that people know where to find it and where to find me.)



The mishna says
senseless hatred
knocked the Temple down

not the Romans with their siege engines --
or not only them, but
our ancestors too

who slipped into petty backbiting
ignored Shabbat
forgot how to offer their hearts

we're no better
we who secretly know we're right

we who roll our eyes
and patronize, who check email
even on the holiest of days

who forget that
a prayer is more than a tune
more than words on a page

in Oslo parents weep
and we're too busy arguing
motive to comfort them

across the Middle East parents weep
and we're too busy arguing
borders to comfort them

in our nursing homes parents weep
shuddering and alone
and we're too busy --

even now what sanctuaries
what human hearts
are damaged and burned

while we snipe at each other
or insist we're not responsible
or look away?