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How to return: Heschel on death (in the season of teshuvah)

I've just read the most remarkable essay. It was assigned for my Issues of Sage-ing in Hashpa'ah class, but it feels to me like the perfect reading for the beginning of Elul, the beginning of the journey toward the Days of Awe when our liturgy will call us to consider life and death.

The essay is by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, and it's called "Death as Homecoming." (The essay is published in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.) Just think about that title for a moment. Death as homecoming. What does that evoke for you? Can you imagine your own death this way, not as an ending but as a coming-home? Heschel writes:

The Hebrew Bible calls for concern for the problem of living rather than the problem of dying. Its central concern is not, as in the Gilgamesh epic, how to escape death, but rather how to sanctify life.

That's such an important distinction, for me. Of course I can understand the inclination to try to escape death. I can understand the feeling that life is too short, that one wants more. It's a great mythic narrative, the attempt to escape or cheat death. But that's not the Hebrew Bible's way, and it's not Judaism's way. Let death be what it is; what really matters is whether and how we sanctify our time in life.

Our existence carries eternity within itself. "He planted life eternal within us." Because we can do the eternal at any moment, the will of God, dying too is doing the will of God. Just as being is obedience to the Creator, so dying is returning to the Source.

Death may be a supreme spiritual act, turning oneself over to eternity... Death is not sensed as a defeat but as a summation, an arrival, a conclusion.

(The quote about life eternal is from the blessing we recite when we are called up to the Torah. After the Torah has been read, we say "Blessed are You, Adonai, Who has given us a Torah of truth and planted eternal life within us; blessed are You, Adonai, giver of the Torah.") I keep turning Heschel's words over in my mind like a pebble between my fingers: our existence carries eternity within itself. Being is obedience, and dying is return.

Death as homecoming. Of course, it's a homecoming we can't begin to understand. I've been thinking about this lately -- between one holy opportunity to participate in taharah (preparing for burial the body of someone who has died) and two holy opportunities for funerals -- and ultimately I bump up against the mystery of what can't be known.

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Hurricane Irene: how to help

This blog post is a variation on the letter I'll be sending to members and friends of my congregation tomorrow. I don't know whether y'all who read this blog are able to contribute toward hurricane relief efforts; your charitable giving may be tapped-out elsewhere, and if so, no worries. But if you can give, please do.

The devastation caused by Hurricane Irene has been tremendous. My congregation is joining together with other Northern Berkshire faith communities to help to ensure that those who have been impacted by the hurricane get the help they need. Below you will find information on the current local situation, information on how to give, and information on what is most needed locally.

I've also inclosed information on how to donate to the relief fund for residents of The Spruces in Williamstown (the local elder community / trailer park which was flooded) and how to donate to the Brattleboro Area Jewish Community, as well as how to donate to three national hurricane relief funds: funds established by B'nai Brith, the Red Cross, and the Union for Reform Judaism.

Our first concern needs to be caring for those who are in crisis. I hope that once these immediate needs are met, we can also begin a larger communal conversation about how to create affordable housing and how to care for those who are most at-risk in northern Berkshire even when a hurricane isn't wreaking havoc.

May we be God's compassionate hands on earth during these difficult days.

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A poem in the awesome new Akedah-focused issue of Sh'ma

I'm honored and delighted to be able to say that I have a poem in the new issue of Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility -- an issue entirely dedicated to the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. I collaborated with Matthew Zapruder, Kathryn Hellerstein, and Yerra Sugarman on the poem So Avraham Took the Ram. (That link goes to the poem in the beautifully-formatted digital magazine; if you prefer you can also read it as a webpage, here.)

This year, Shma's September issue approaches this old story in a fascinating new way, exploring the binding of Isaac through the voices of its major figures: my friend and ALEPH rabbinic school colleague Hannah Dresner writes from the perspective of the angel; Arthur Strimling writes from the perspective of Abraham, Penina Adelman writes from the perspective of Sarah, Shai Held and Peter Pizele write from the perspective of Isaac, Huda Abu Arqoub writes from the perspective of Ishmael, and Naomi Graetz writes from the perspective of God. The issue also features the voices of Menachem Creditor writing from the perspective of the mountain; Marc Bregman, Naomi Less and Chana Rothman writing from the perspective of the ram, Julie Seltzer writing from the perspective of the knife, and Michael Graetz writing from the perspective of the wood.

Also in this issue:

Holy wow, you know? I'm delighted and honored to be a part of this amazing issue of Sh'ma. Go and read!


Elul: the season of reflection begins

We've entered into the month of Elul, the month which leads in to the Days of Awe. It's traditional this month to read Psalm 27 each day (I posted my favorite translation, by Reb Zalman, a few years ago) and to begin intensively doing the work of teshuvah, turning-toward-God, aligning our lives in the right direction again in anticipation of the coming new year.

Elul poses some new challenges for me this year. This is my first year as a mother and a working rabbi, both. My friend R' Shai Gluskin tweeted me the other day with his wish that we, and all who connect to Jewish time, should have the gevurah (strength / good boundaries) to make time for our own spiritual work during this month. I think that's going to be my biggest challenge.

This is a month for doing the spiritual work of discernment. Where am I doing the right things, aiming in the right direction, and where could I be better aligned with holiness? These are perennial questions -- which is why Jewish tradition suggests answering them each week (before Shabbat) and each month (before Yom Kippur Katan, the day of moon-dark which precedes new moon.) But they take on new urgency at this season, as we prepare to make a full accounting of our souls during the Days of Awe.

A few years ago I wrote:

Between the beginning of Elul and Yom Kippur there are forty days, and the rabbis found significance in the number. (I write about this every year; forgive me if you've heard this before.) The flood lasted for forty days. Moshe spent forty days atop Sinai receiving the Torah from God. (In the Christian understanding, Jesus spent forty days fasting in the desert.) In the early rabbinic imagination, forty was understood as the number of weeks between conception and childbirth. So forty represents something growing from inception to fruition. If Elul and the Ten Days of Teshuvah which follow are our season for walking in the fields with the divine Beloved, what exactly are we tending? What do we hope to harvest forty days from now on Yom Kippur, the day when tradition says the gates between us and God are all opened?

What I like about all of this is that the Days of Awe don't arise out of nowhere. They're not random blips on the calendar, great looming mountains on an otherwise flat horizon. We're supposed to be aware that they're coming. As this month's moon grows and shrinks, we have the chance to get ready. To consider what's working well in our lives, and where we could be doing better. How's your relationship with your body: are you caring for it the way you want to be? What are the currents and undercurrents in your emotional life and your relationships with others? Are you thinking about the big issues that atter to you, and telling the important stories you want to tell? Where are you at spiritually, and where would you like to be?

They're still good questions. Still questions I want, and need, to be asking myself this month. I'm going to strive to ask them, no matter how long my to-do list looms.