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Writing one's own deathbed prayer

It's a strange experience, writing one's own deathbed prayer.

The vidui is the confessional prayer which some recite every night before sleep, and some recite every weekday / non-festival morning during tachanun (the penitential prayers), and some recite every month during Yom Kippur Katan (the "little Day of Atonement" which precedes new moon), and some recite every year on Yom Kippur, and some recite before death. (I blogged about this, and especially about the bedtime prayer of forgiveness, earlier this fall: the vidui prayer of Yom Kippur...and of every night.)

The daily variant, the Yom Kippur variant, and the deathbed variant are slightly different -- but only slightly. In each of these, we reach out to God (whatever we understand that term to mean) and we ask forgiveness for our misdeeds and offer forgiveness to those who have hurt us, so that the karmic baggage of our actions won't follow us into the world to come.

There are classical texts for the deathbed vidui, and they are lovely. Here's one (from the Reform Rabbis' handbook:)

My God and God of all who have gone before me, Author of life and death, I turn to You in trust. Although I pray for life and health, I know that I am mortal. If my life must soon come to and end, let me die, I pray, at peace. If only my hands were clean and my heart pure! I confess that I have committed sins and left much undone, yet I know also the good that I did or tried to do. May my acts of goodness give meaning to my life, and may my errors be forgiven. Protector of bereaved and the helpless, watch over my loved ones. Into Your hand I commit my spirit; redeem it, O God of mercy and truth.

But nothing says that one has to use the traditional text. So as part of the Sage-ing class I'm taking (in my final months of the ALEPH Hashpa'ah / Spiritual Direction program), I've been charged with writing my own vidui. My own deathbed confession. The prayer I imagine saying to God as I prepare myself to die.

On the one hand there's something more than a little surreal about this. I don't expect death to be coming for me soon; how can I honestly write a deathbed prayer when I have no intention of dying in the next several decades at least? But on the proverbial other hand, there's no telling when death will knock on one's door. We read in the Babylonian Talmud that Rabbi Eliezer declared: "Repent one day before your death," whereupon his disciples asked: How does one know which day that is? "Exactly," answered the sage. "For that reason, we ought to live our lives each day as though it were our last."

Writing one's own vidui is a way of following Rabbi Eliezer's advice, a way of making teshuvah (repetance / returning-to-God) one day before my death. And if I do not die tomorrow, as I sincerely hope not to do, then tomorrow I will be tasked with making teshuvah again. And again. And again. Preparing for dying in this way, I think, is really a way of choosing how to live.

So I've drafted my vidui. Per my teachers' suggestions, I will keep it, and will aim to update it over the years as needed and as my life changes. In it, I address God in the ways which are most meaningful for me; I thank God for my life and my relationships; I ask forgiveness for the places where I have missed the mark, and express my intention to let go of my regrets so that they will not encumber me wherever I am going. I close by asking God to help me release this life and to help me through the contractions of the dying process, contractions which will release me into something I cannot now imagine, something none of us can know.

Writing it was a powerful experience for me. Imagining reading it at my own death, or perhaps hearing it read by a loved one if I am not able to read it myself, is equally powerful. What an amazing meditation.

This is part of what I'm finding most meaningful about the Sage-ing work I am beginning to learn to do: the way it takes the daily and weekly and monthly and annual cycles of teshuvah and stretches them to span an entire lifetime. Over the course of my whole life, what will sustain me? Where will I miss the mark? What will I need to forgive, and for what will I hope that others can forgive me? How will I want to take my leave of the life that I have known?

Contemplative chant-based Shabbat

This coming Shabbat morning, we're trying something new at my shul -- a contemplative chant-based Shabbat morning service. (What do I mean by that? Learn more.) This is a kind of davenen I discovered when I first encountered Jewish Renewal; it is one of many different modes of Jewish prayer, and it is one that I particularly love. I don't think we've ever done a service quite like this one at my shul, so it will be a new experience for most of our daveners. I'm looking really forward to it.

I've recorded about a dozen short chants which we'll be using in our Shabbat morning prayer next week. The chants follow the classical matbeah tefilah, the flow / structure of the morning liturgy, but each one consists of just one or two lines from a given prayer. We'll chant each several times, letting the music and the meaning wash over us and through us, and then sit in silence for a few minutes to discover what unfolds in us during the silence which seals the sound.

I've put our chant liturgy online -- a dozen chants, Hebrew and transliteration and English translation and mp3s -- and I thought I'd share it here in case it's helpful to any of y'all. It is here: contemplative chants for morning prayer. Please feel free to use, to share, and to enjoy -- and if you're in our neck of the woods next Shabbat morning, please feel free to join us!

(Credit where it is due: many of these chants were written by Rabbi Shefa Gold and can be found, sung in her voice, on her website. Others are by Rabbi Jeff Roth of the Awakened Heart Project. If contemplative Judaism is something you're interested in, both of these rabbis are excellent teachers...)

Rainbow for Shabbat Noach

On Shabbat Noach -- having read, this morning, the verses wherein God promises Noah and his sons that the rainbow is the sign that God will never again destroy the world with flood -- I can't resist posting this photo, taken in Paris a few days ago:

Rainbow over the Left Bank.

(If you're looking for a good reading for this week's parsha, I recommend Reb Arthur Waskow's Rainbow Covenant Haftarah -- in bilingual pdf here, in English here.)

Davening hallel with Drew

I love davening Hallel in community with Drew.

The psalms of Hallel are recited -- sung, traditionally, to a variety of melodies -- on festivals, new moon, times of celebration. They're meant to be sung with great gusto and spirit. And sometimes, I find, groups of adults get self-conscious about that. We're not sure we know the tunes, or the Hebrew isn't as fluid as we want it to be, or we just feel a little bit silly about singing and dancing. We tend to be reserved in the presence of each other and the presence of God.

But when I have Drew in my arms -- as I did for the recitation of hallel on Shemini Atzeret last week -- I naturally sing with passion, and dance around the room, and twirl in circles, because it makes him laugh, and making him laugh is one of my greatest joys. When I'm singing to God with Drew, or singing with God to Drew (it feels like both at once) I lose any self-consciousness I might have otherwise had.

And I think the rest of the room does, a little bit, too. When there is a laughing toddler squealing with glee as his mama spins in circles while singing psalms, everyone in the room seems to smile more widely. Maybe seeing a child's unironic, unselfconscious joy helps us to connect with the psalms' motifs of praise more easily.

Singing Hallel last week -- dancing around the sanctuary, twirling my toddler in my arms -- I remembered other, earlier, moments in Drew's life (and in my life as a mother) when I have danced and davened with him: at the Shavuot retreat with Reb Zalman when Drew was just over six months old, at smicha students' week that same summer at Pearlstone, countless other times which didn't spark poems or blog posts but which remain in my memory even so.

I know that the day will come when he won't let me hold him anymore while I sing and pray. Already he squirms out of my arms after a while, wanting to run around the sanctuary, climb onto chairs, explore the world. Though he usually runs right back to me and raises his arms to be lifted and cuddled and danced around the room again, that won't always be true. It feels incredibly precious to me...and that, in turn, heightens my ability to daven the psalms of Hallel with deeper feeling.

This is, I think, one of the ways in which Drew is (as my previous spiritual director told me he would be) a deep spiritual teacher for me. Without Drew in my life, I would never have discovered how it feels to daven with my own child in my arms. One of the psalms of Hallel speaks about calling out to God from the narrow straits, and my experience of parenthood has taken me there; every time I sing min ha-meitzar karati Yah I think of postpartum depression. But when I sing lo ha-meitim y'hallelu Yah, "the dead cannot praise You" (but we can!), I know that the added dimensions of joy which motherhood has brought to me are also part of my ability to offer God praise.

(My deep thanks are due to Rabbi Pam Wax for leading our Shemini Atzeret service, which made it possible for me to attend as a davener and a mama rather than as "the rabbi." It is a joy to lead davenen, and it is also a joy to sit in the kahal with my son.)

Libenson on Judaism as remix

I just received the final print issue of Zeek in my mailbox. For nine years Zeek has published a beautiful hardcopy print issue, separate from but related to its online edition; from now on Zeek exists purely online, at Anyway, the print issue is focused on education -- specifically "Jewish education in the Facebook era" -- and I thought this exerpt from one article, by Daniel J. Libenson, might resonate for those of y'all who are interested in transformative works and remix:

A remix is "an alternative version of a recorded song that is made from an original version" (Wikipedia May 2011.) A twenty-first century hip-hop artist might take an old Frank Sinatra tune and intercut it with hip-hop sounds and lyrics to create a contemporary sounding song that still retains some of the big band beauty of Sinatra's music. The effect is to create a new kind of big band / hip-hop sound, as well as to introduce young people to music they never would have listened to otherwise. A Jewish DJ named SoCalled has created two albums on the JDub Records label in which he remixes old Jewish music and creates fresh and compelling contemporary songs that feel anchored in the past.

Remixing is a time-honored Jewish tradition -- it explains how Judaism has changed throughout history. Rabbinic Judaism is essentially a remix of the preceding Temple-centered version (which itself included elements of the previous version, such as an emphasis on the kind of storytelling that dominated pre-Temple Israelite sources) and many elements of Greek thought that had been foreign to Temple Judaism. In their remix, the rabbis reached back to the time of the prophets -- emphatically part of Version 1.0 -- to claim their mantle of authority (the very first sentence of Pirke Avot, which talks about the transmission of the Torah, does not even mention the priests who had ruled over the Jewish people for the previous half millennium.)

...Judaism 4.0 will be a remix of elements of Version 3.0, Version 2.0, and Version 1.0, as well as many contemporary ideas and practices from non-Jewish sources.

This isn't a new idea, of course; the idea of a paradigm shift is a mainstay of the writings of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Reb Arthur Waskow, among others. But I like framing the idea in the language of remix; and, of course, this puts me in mind of the ways in which -- as I've argued before -- fandom and Judaism are both communities centered around a kind of transformative work.

There and back again

It was good to go...

...and it is good to return!

(Drew actually has a cold, so we haven't been to any playgrounds since I came home, so this photo is from last week, before we left town, but the general point still stands -- I loved spending four days abroad with Ethan, and now I love being home with our little guy again.)

For those who are interested, photos from our four lovely days in Paris are here on flickr.

Thanks, SMH

Many thanks to the folks at my high school alma mater, Saint Mary's Hall, for their kind profile of me in the school's periodical publication The Shield! I get a tremendous kick out of seeing my high school yearbook photo juxtaposed with a photo of me from my installation as rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel.

SMH was a great place for me. Studying Latin with the teacher who inspired me to apply to Williams -- savoring English classes -- performing Shakespeare in the courtyard -- sipping hot tea made in a beaker when AP biology met early to give us more time for labwork -- singing "cheers, cheers for seniors' blue ties!"...I carry a lot of good memories from those years and that place.

I know I'm the eleventh ordained rabbi to come out of Williams. I don't know how many rabbis have come out of Saint Mary's Hall; I'm guessing that our numbers are relatively few! But one way or another it's lovely to feel appreciated by one of the places that shaped the person I continue to be.

(For those who are curious, the issue is online, here, on page 61.)

Off we go!


Back in July, when I began planning my first Days of Awe as a pulpit rabbi, I said to Ethan, "We should pick a weekend after all the holidays are over, and find a way to spend that weekend doing something fun together."

We knew already that he was going to be starting his new gig at MIT and would be in Boston half of every week. We knew that his fall was going to feature a lot of extra travel as well, and we knew that his first month or so at MIT was likely to be pretty densely-packed. And we knew that the Days of Awe are a busy time for everyone in my line of work: so many services to plan and lead, so many details to organize, so many hopes and expectations to try to meet. I figured the odds were good that he and I wouldn't get a ton of time for us until his busy start to the semester, and my busy High Holiday season, were past.

And then Ethan got invited to speak at yet another conference. This happens with fairly predictable regularity, of course; it's a big part of how he works, these days. But this time the invitation came from a college friend who we haven't seen in years -- and the conference was scheduled right after my long string of holidays (Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur to Sukkot, Hoshanah Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah) was slated to end. Oh, and the conference in question is in Paris.

"Paris," I pointed out, "would be a fabulous place to spend a weekend together."

So Ethan said yes to the conference (which will happen early next week), and we booked an extra plane ticket and a couple of extra nights at a hotel, and my in-laws graciously agreed to spend these few days staying at our house with our adorably rambunctious toddler, and we are going on a weekend vacation.

One of Drew's favorite things to say is "Off we go!" (Clearly we say this to him when we're getting ready to hit the road, and he has learned to repeat it with great enthusiasm and glee.) So I'll echo our beautiful child and say: off we go! See y'all on the flipside.

Sestina for Shemini Atzeret

I haven't been writing many poems lately. (Somehow the Days of Awe are a busy time for working rabbis; go figure.) I wanted to jump-start my poetry practice again, and I've often found that a sestina is a good way to do that. (And I haven't posted one here in a while -- I think the last sestina I posted here was Charge, back in 2009...)

Today is Shemini Atzeret, the "Eighth Day of Pausing" -- day 8 of the 7-day festival of Sukkot, the day when tradition tells us God looks at us, preparing to leave our sukkot, and says "please don't go." The penultimate stanza refers to the change in our daily liturgy at this season; between Pesach and Sukkot we ask for dew, and from now until spring we'll ask for rain, in harmony with the seasonal cycle as it unfolds in Jerusalem.


From the heights of Yom Kippur we fall
into the embrace of a world that shakes,
structures so airy and light
they don't hide the autumn gold
of Berkshire hills, the white press of sky.
Funny to think of dwelling in this house:

hardly enough wall to call it a house,
these two-by-fours we hope won't fall,
roof of cornstalks open to the sky
rattling when the wind makes them shake.
Around me the trees are strung tinsel-gold.
I inhabit bright blocks of light.

Continue reading "Sestina for Shemini Atzeret" »

Three glimpses of Sukkot 5772

Sukkot has been -- as expected -- fairly rainy. But there have still been some beautiful Sukkot moments this year. I'm not sure these snapshots are worth a thousand words apiece, but here are some windows into our Sukkot this year:


closeup of the roof of our sukkah

Schach, closeup.

Drew, in the sukkah

Drew sits in the sukkah.

sukkah by night

Sukkah by night.

Of course, Drew doesn't sit in the sukkah for long. (He doesn't sit anywhere for long! His first sentence was "We go?" and he uses it often.) But it still gives me a thrill to see my son exploring our sukkah, and the one night when the rain let up and we managed to invite friends over to sit in the sukkah and sip wine and cider was a joy.

Gleanings for Hoshanah Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah

At the end of Sukkot come three holidays in rapid succession: first Hoshanah Rabbah, then Shemini Atzeret, then Simchat Torah. On Hoshanah Rabbah we pray for rain and for salvation; on Shemini Atzeret we savor the mystical pause of the 8th day; and on Simchat Torah we rejoice in the wonder of our neverending story.

Hoshanah Rabbah will arise this Wednesday; Shemini Atzeret is this Thursday; and for Reform and Israeli Jews, Simchat Torah is also on Thursday (for everyone else, it'll be on Friday.) I haven't had time/space this year to create any new material on these holidays, but here are some highlights from previous years:

  • Adonai, open my lips - a Hasidic teaching about the mouth as the gate of prayer, for Hoshana Rabbah, 2009

  • Hoshanot - a niggun, and a contemporary prayer by Reb Zalman written for Hoshana Rabbah, 2010

  • A prayer for rain - my own contemporary poem on the themes of the classical tefilat geshem, recited on Shemini Atzeret, 2009

  • The pause of the 8th day - a Hasidic teaching about what it means to celebrate the 8th day of a 7-day holiday, 2007

  • Mobius - my Torah poem written for the final Torah portion in the scroll, read on Simchat Torah, 2008 (this poem is also available in 70 faces, Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.)

For more along these lines, you can visit the Hoshanah Rabbah category, the Shemini Atzeret category, or the Simchat Torah category on this blog. Enjoy, and chag sameach / happy holidays!

Computers, habits, houses, the moon

There's something a little bit funny about having a computer crash at the start of Sukkot. Sukkot is a festival of impermanence, when we're meant to leave our houses and dwell for a week in fragile huts with roofs through which one can see the stars as they emerge over the week of the moon's waning. And what should happen to me on the first day of Sukkot but the total and unexpected death of my hard drive, forcing me to relinquish the structures of data and habit in which I ordinarily dwell.

Nothing should turn out to be permanently lost; the friendly folks at the Apple store in Albany helped me retrieve the data which was new to my machine since I'd last backed it up, and I hope to have a new computer by the end of this week. But in the meanwhile I'm in a kind of digital limbo, using borrowed technology, constantly bumping up against the realization that some vital piece of data or some unremembered account password is not at my fingertips.

In Tarot, the death card is usually understood as a metaphor for transformation and change. The death of the old brings the birth of the new. Here we are at harvest-time, bringing in the riches of the growing season which has now ended. The spectacular autumn colors which grace our hills at this time of year are already fading, leaves knocked down by our frequent recent rains. We're heading toward the dormant season (in this hemisphere), toward bare trees and cold air. But that period of dormancy is always the prelude to the next period of fertility and growth.

I'm trying to take this amusingly-timed computer demise as an opportunity to step outside my usual ways. What do I really need to bring with me at week's end when I move in to the new "house" of metal and bits? Which of the blogs I habitually read bring richness, delight, new ideas to my life, and which might be cut from my daily routine because they tend to make me angry or sad?

My eldest brother, some years ago, taught me the sentiment contained in Mizuta Masahide's gorgeous haiku as "my barn having burned down, I found I could see the moon." (You can find two translations of the haiku on the poet's wikipedia page to which I just linked.) The collapse of a computer is a kind of barn-burning -- or it can be, at least for those of us whose lives (professional, personal, creative, communal) are so intricately interwoven with the technology we use. Having lost the machine, what moon might I be newly-able to view?

It's the perfect question for Sukkot. Sukkot calls us to step out of our houses, out of our habits, out of our illusions of permanence and stability. To spend one week connecting with others and rejoicing in the outdoors, in the harvest, in the world around us. Maybe by taking a week away from our barns, as it were, we can learn to see the moon without needing a burning-down in order to remind us of just how blessed we always are.

Preparing for Sukkot 5772

Cornstalks on the roof of my car.

In years past, we've used our ger -- the small round Mongolian-style house which we and our friends assemble as extra guest space for our annual New Year's gathering -- as the framework for our sukkah. It was lovely: roundish (shaped like a cursive letter samech, if one squinted a little) with a beautiful spoked roof. (You can see photos of several years worth of our sukkot in this flickr photoset, if you're so inclined.) But this past winter, the heavy snows which caused our deck to partially collapse also broke the roof-beams of the ger beyond repair. I assumed that I wouldn't have a sukkah at home this year. I figured I would daven and hang out in the synagogue sukkah instead.

But because Ethan is awesome, he spent Sunday building a gorgeous new sukkah structure, large enough to house the glass-topped table which during the summer season lives on our deck. Drew and I picked up some schach (branches to serve as the makeshift roof) at a farmstand in town, and I drove home slowly with them atop my car. (See above.) Here's what Ethan built, topped with the cornstalks we fetched in town and festooned with autumnal garlands:

This year's sukkah.

I can't wait to spend time in it. (I am resolutely ignoring the weather forecasts which call for rain starting just in time for the festival to begin. It's a week-long festival; surely it won't rain the whole time?) (Well, I live in hope.)

Sukkot has resonated differently for me at different points in my life. After my strokes, I marveled at how the fragility of the sukkah mirrored the way I felt in my own body. When I was pregnant, the impermanence of the sukkah felt like a metaphor for the pregnancy approaching its close, and all the world felt like a flimsy sukkah when I anticipated Drew's birth. I don't know yet what the experience of Sukkot is going to bring me this year, but I'm grateful to have the chance to find out.

With (half-)walls.

There's something very powerful for me about entering into this festival only four short days after the end of the Yamim Nora'im (Days of Awe.) Our holiday season doesn't end with the grandeur of Rosh Hashanah or the soul-searching of Yom Kippur. Both of these are steps along the way to Sukkot, the festival of hospitality and harvest.

Sukkot reminds us that our bodies, our houses, the structures of our lives both literal and metaphorical are impermanent, more fragile than we tend to think -- but it also reminds us that we can (indeed: we must) rejoice even in these most uncertain of circumstances. What a wonderful way to round out our holidays and to enter wholly into autumn (in the northern hemisphere, anyway), this season of transition and change.

For more on this theme, I recommend Reb Jeff's post Building a sukkah in hurricane territory.

Ten Days of Awe memories I don't want to lose

Drew with my parents on Shabbat Shuvah; gentle yoga on Yom Kippur.

1. Seeing my parents who had come all the way from south Texas (and also seeing Ethan!) beaming at me from the kahal as I led my first Rosh Hashanah services as a rabbi. Having them there was amazing: riches upon riches. And, of course, along with that come all of the other sweet memories of my parents' annual Rosh Hashanah visit: watching them enjoy Drew (and vice versa), Drew learning to say a shortened variant of my mother's chosen grandmother name, my father pushing Drew on the swings at a local playground...

2. Delivering the story of Chanah -- the haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah -- without a script, drawing on the sacred storytelling skills I learned last summer with Magidah (storyteller) Devorah Zaslow at the ALEPH Kallah. I loved stepping out from behind the bimah, breaking the invisible plane which sometimes extends between the leader and the community. And I loved telling that familiar story in my own new way, leavened with humor and spiced with my own experience of pregnancy and motherhood.

3. Singing in harmony with my friend and colleague Shayndel Kahn at every opportunity.

4. Bringing some Renewal melodies, some Renewal practices, and a lot of Renewal joy to the community I serve.

5. Plunging into an ice-cold Vermont mountain stream before Yom Kippur and emerging with a whoop! (More here.)

6. Every moment of every amidah we enjoyed on the patio behind the synagogue sanctuary, standing on the tile or walking in the field and at the edge of the wetlands, our silent prayer accompanied by birdsong.

7. Joining maybe twenty people for gentle yoga on Yom Kippur afternoon, before our afternoon services. I had intended to meet in the classroom (I'd warned our yoga teacher that this idea was new to our congregation and that it was possible no one would come but me) but we had to move into the social hall outside the sanctuary because people just kept showing up! It felt wonderful to really enter my breathing and my body on Yom Kippur -- instead of trying to distract myself from the fast, I was able to enter into it in a new way.

8. Leading a guided meditation for our Avodah service on Yom Kippur afternoon: an invitation to imagine oneself as the High Priest engaging in the rituals of this day long ago, from staying up all night relearning the rites of the incense, to the many immersions in living waters, the golden raiments and the white linen ones, placing hands on the head of the bull (feel its power and its strength) and confessing sins, slaughtering the bull swift and sure and collecting its blood in a basin, all the way to the final emergence from the Holy of Holies, the singing and dancing of the community, the feeling of joy in knowing that atonement had truly been achieved.

9. The one Avinu Malkeinu we sang on Yom Kippur. Since Yom Kippur coincided with Shabbat, it's traditional not to recite Avinu Malkeinu until Ne'ilah, the closing service. It is the last thing we do before the very end of the day. Singing it, my voice grew stronger, and hoarser, and suddenly I could hardly hold back the tears. Our father, our king, seal us in the book of life! That was the one moment when I really let the emotions of the day overcome me: knowing that it was almost over, that my last chance to get my prayers and the prayers of my community through the gates of the day was upon me, I was finally able to completely let myself go. So overwhelming, so beautiful -- and then it was over.

10. Breaking my fast with a nip of ice-cold vodka, after the custom of my Russian grandfather Eppie (of blessed memory) -- and the delight of having company in that, as several others laughingly decided to join me! The vodka was like cold crisp fire going down. And as I drank it, I remembered so clearly seeing Eppie in the bar of the house where I grew up, sitting on the tall leather-topped bench, knocking back his vodka before we could go and eat... I like to imagine that somehow, in some way, some part of him could see us, and was pleased.

Three poems of teshuvah (a sermon for Yom Kippur morning)

August Rain, After Haying

Through sere trees and beheaded
grasses the slow rain falls.
Hay fills the barn; only the rake
and one empty wagon are left
in the field. In the ditches
goldenrod bends to the ground.

Even at noon the house is dark.
In my room under the eaves
I hear the steady benevolence
of water washing dust
raised by the haying
from porch and car and garden
chair. We are shorn
and purified, as if tonsured.

The grass resolves to grow again,
receiving the rain to that end,
but my disordered soul thirsts
after something it cannot name.

Those are the words of the poet Jane Kenyon, of blessed memory. August may feel like a long time ago now, but try to remember it. Close your eyes if you have to. Can you recall the scent of hay, the sound of summer rain? I love this poem; I love its imagery, “the steady benevolence / of water washing dust,” the grass “receiving” the rain in order to grow again. The grass knows what it is doing. But the soul…the soul may be another matter.

“My disordered soul thirsts / after something it cannot name.”What do you yearn for? Not water, not coffee, not whatever your bellies are already beginning to crave: what are you really thirsty for? Is there something you cannot name which pulls you forward, which leaves you wondering, for which you cannot help but hope?

Kenyon named her soul as “disordered.” I suspect that each of us has a disordered soul. Our spiritual lives are like kitchen tables which become piled with unopened mail. After a while we don’t even want to face the sliding stack of envelopes: there are probably bills in there, requests for things we don’t want to give. It becomes easier to just look the other way. But not today. Today is the day to sit down at that table, take a deep breath, and take inventory of what’s there. Today we put our souls in order at last.

Kenyon’s poem is set at the end of the summer, on the cusp of the transition to fall. The trees are sere; the barn is full. The harvest has been brought in, and though the grasses intend to grow, they are headed for their fallow time, their sleeping-time. In just a few days, at Sukkot, we will celebrate our harvest: and for those of us who no longer farm, who most likely don’t even make hay, the harvest must be metaphorical. What emotional and spiritual riches can we gather to salt away for the winter which is coming? What might we be able to harvest today, on Yom Kippur, from our time together?

“We are shorn / and purified,” Kenyon writes: the grass is shorn and somehow we come away feeling that our excess too has been trimmed away, that the falling rain has made us pure. What is shorn away from us on this day of atonement? What would it take for us to feel pure?

Continue reading "Three poems of teshuvah (a sermon for Yom Kippur morning)" »

Unexpected Joy (a sermon for Kol Nidre)

I’m going to let you in on a secret: this is one of my favorite days of the year.

It’s not that I enjoy being hungry, or standing up here at the front of a room as my body grows increasingly weary, or reminding myself of all the ways in which I’ve missed the mark over the year we’ve just completed. And yes, all of those are part of Yom Kippur.

But those aren’t what’s truly central to this holiday. Here’s what I love: Yom Kippur is the day when we get to focus most on being in connection with something beyond ourselves.

In my love of Yom Kippur, I'm in good company. We read in Mishna Ta'anit that Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, "there were no yomim tovim (holidays) in Israel like the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur." On both of these days, the unmarried girls of Jerusalem would go out to the vineyards dressed in white, and call out to the unmarried men to join them.

What makes these two days special? Why were they days of dancing and courtship and joy? On each of these dates, God gave us clear signs that God had accepted our repentance. Yom Kippur is understood as the anniversary of the day when Moshe returned from atop Mount Sinai with the second set of tablets of the covenant, a sign that God had forgiven us for the idolatry which caused the first set to be shattered. On Yom Kippur, we experience our bond with God anew.

Most of the time, we have to balance the desire for spiritual life with the mundane realities of cooking, cleaning, taking the kids to daycare or school. Not today. Today, we only have one job: reaching out beyond ourselves to connect with the source of blessing. Jewish tradition, of course, names that source “God.”

The Jewish mystics teach that we connect with God all the time without even knowing it. God’s abundance flows down into creation all year long. Wisdom and understanding, mercy and judgement: we find all of these in God, and we find God in all of these. God is a fountain of blessing, and blessing flows from that divine spigot without ever stopping. Ideally, we receive that blessing every day in our ordinary lives.

But over the course of a year, the channel through which God’s blessings flow becomes shmutzdik. It gets clogged with our spiritual detritus. Our inattention, our frustrations, our mistakes, the hasty words we wish we could retract: everything we do wrong over the course of a year is spiritual sediment which blocks the conduit through which blessings are meant to flow. Our job today is to clean out those spiritual pipes so that divine abundance can flow freely into our lives again.

Continue reading "Unexpected Joy (a sermon for Kol Nidre)" »

A quick dip before the holiday comes

The drive is glorious: up into Vermont, first on what passes around here for a major road, then onto a dirt road, then onto an even tinier dirt road. The views of furrowed mountains, green turning to red and orange and gold, are breathtaking. Last night there was a frost. The new season is coming.

We pull off the final dirt road at the only house on the road. A woman -- our hostess -- is working in her garden; she greets us merrily and points us toward their "swimming hole," which turns out to be a rushing stream pouring out of an opening in the rock face of the hill. It pools into a little pond, then races down the hill toward wherever its path goes.

We pick our way delicately along the side of the stream until we find the right place to enter. We lay down our towels, face one another, and I offer an impromptu prayer thanking God for this beautiful day, for our companionship on this path, for this amazing natural mikveh. I pray aloud that our immersion offer us the cleansing we need in order to enter this solemn day of connection with our hearts open and ready to receive.

And then we pile our clothing on the riverbank and, shivering, step into the stream. Oh, it is cold! As I move further into the stream, my feet are rapidly becoming too cold for comfort. The thought flits through my mind -- as it does every time I'm blessed to do mikveh outdoors before Yom Kippur -- that my grandfather, of blessed memory, might have mixed feelings about my participation in this ritual outdoors at this time of year!

I take three halting steps, decide that the water here is deep enough, take a deep breath, and plunge into a prone position, all of me beneath the water. When I emerge I whoop. I make my way to the mossy riverbank -- and now the outside air which felt chill, before, feels surprisingly warm and comfortable in comparison with the very cold water in which I just immersed.

The autumn sunshine is glorious. My hair is wet. I have socks to warm my feet. I've done my best to let go of the emotional, spiritual, and karmic baggage of the year which just ended. I feel ready to go home and shower and put on my whites, ready for the davening and singing ahead, ready for whatever may come.

Wishing all who read this a גמר חתימה טובה / g'mar chatimah tovah: may you be sealed for a good year to come!

Anticipating what's next

My fingers smell of etrog.

It's the day before Yom Kippur. I'm neck-deep in preparations for the holiday: I meet with my cantorial soloist to talk through the services, print a few last-minute materials, add names to the list of those for whom we pray for healing, punch holes in the guided meditation I wrote for the Avodah service (in which we remember the sacrifices of old on this day) and file it in my prayerbook binder.

And then the long narrow boxes materialize at the synagogue. Three sets of Four Species -- each containing a citron fruit, a willow branch, a myrtle branch, and a palm -- which we will wave during Sukkot. It's a wonderful reminder that, as big a deal as Yom Kippur is (both spiritually and professionally), it's not the end of anything: just another step in the continuing journey of the wheel of the year.

As I open the boxes, I feel like a little kid getting a birthday gift. Something beautiful has traveled a long way to reach me just in time. We haven't even entered into Yom Kippur yet, and I'm already remembering what comes next: the week of trying to daven and eat in the flimsy wee house which hints at the kind of booth in which my spiritual ancestors might once have dwelled while bringing in their harvest, which reminds me to cherish the beauty of what's open to the air and the rain.

We're not there yet. Right now it's time to intensify and complete my preparations for Yom Kippur. Tomorrow it will be time to dive headlong into the immersive experience of Yom Kippur, of Shabbat, of the day when tradition tells us God is most near to us, when the channels between us and God are clearest and most open. After Yom Kippur comes Sunday: a day for football, for building our sukkot, for winding down. But it's on the way.

As I've been writing this post, the scent of etrog has faded. I miss it already. I might have to walk across the room, open up one of the little padded etrog boxes, and breathe it in one more time.

For the days when you feel thin-skinned: Listen





The craving for distraction
-- maybe you should open
four different social networks
in four adjacent tabs --

is a messenger.
Some part of you
wants to pretend
you're not feeling tender.

Your beating heart is too big,
too vulnerable. You've stretched
until your skin's too thin,
your knobby places exposed.

Offer a gentle greeting
to the little girl who hopes
that if she spurs the acrobats
and keeps the sparkles flashing

no one will notice
the smudges on her knees
or the circles beneath her eyes.
Let her stop performing.

Ask your aches to gather round
and teach you what they know.
Then they can go, gentle
as a hair drawn out of milk.

One of the things I value most about contemplative practices, prayer and meditation among them, is that they offer practice in noticing one's own emotional landscape.

Imagine if you could make a practice of not avoiding what hurts, but rather greeting it with compassion: what might that change, in your life?

The final image in the poem is drawn from Talmud, where Rav Nachman describes death as being as painless as "drawing a hair out of a bowl of milk." I like the idea that once we ask our wounds to teach us something, they might quietly disappear.

G'mar chatimah tovah: may you be sealed for a good year.

A poem about poetry as scripture: People of the Book

I received a little new year's gift from the universe when I learned that Rabbi Jonathan Singer of Temple Beth Am had read one of my poems -- "People of the Book," originally published in the first issue of Drash: Northwest Mosaic back in 2007 -- during Rosh Hashanah services. I'm always happy when my poems find new life and new audiences.

Anyway, hearing that Rabbi Singer had opened Rosh Hashanah services with this poem inspired me to post it here. I haven't shared a poem here in a while, and though this one is a few years old, I still like it quite a lot. Although it's tongue-in-cheek, it's also heartfelt; Torah belongs to all of us, and I believe that poetry does -- or should -- too.




Sometimes, studying
Torah in the morning
I jot lines of verse
instead of sermon.

I wish we read poems
with this fervor.
Imagine a lectionary
of Stevens and cummings,

Kenyon and Williams
and Hall, read week
after week, dissected
and cherished.

Everyone knows
you needn't be
a scholar to care about
Torah. It belongs

to every Jew
who cracks a spine
or grasps the spindles
of the scroll. Poetry

too should be read
by children and parents
together, lying down
and rising up,

great lines a sign
shaping our speech
and our vision, the work
of our sanctified hands.