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"This is evening prayer at 5pm / as Kislev gets underway..."

 

EarlyMaariv



 

EARLY MAARIV IN THE TODDLER HOUSE

 

This is evening prayer at 5pm
as Kislev gets underway:
a wail from my son who yearns
for a playground in the dark,
a tiny wooden train careening
around a skewed 8 of track.
Pocoyo's chirpy cartoon songs.
The red velour couch invites
limp relaxation,
an oasis of stillness.
And God is merciful
and covers over our sins,
a giraffe-patterned blanket
draped lovingly over our hearts.


This poem naturally took a fourteen-line form, though I wouldn't call it a sonnet per se. It arose out of my desire to pray the evening service (challenging at best when one is caring for a toddler) -- and my hope that when all of life is imbued with prayerful consciousness even the most mundane of actions can be prayerful.

Maariv -- Jewish evening prayer -- begins with the verse "And God is merciful, forgives iniquity, does not destroy, is quick to turn away ire, and keeps anger in check. God, save us! May our king answer us when we cry out." (That's from Psalm 78:38.) The word for "forgives" is y'chaper, יְכַפֵּר, which comes from a root which can also mean to cover-over -- hence the way the poem ends.


On increasing one's happiness

In the most recent issue of Reform Judaism magazine there's an interview with Sonja Lyubomirsky, a researcher who focuses on the possibility of permanently increasing happiness. The interview is called Happiness Rx: What Science Says, and the whole thing is worth reading -- though for me the most compelling part is the boxed inset of 11 "Happiness Boosters:"

Sonja Lyubomirsky's 11 Happiness Boosters

According to scientific research, with commitment and determined effort we can develop habits that help us achieve and maintain higher levels of happiness. Here are 11 such strategies to help you “construct” a happier life.

1. Count Your Blessings. Keep a "gratitude journal" and once a week list three to five things for which you are thankful—from the mundane (your flowers are finally in bloom) to the magnificent (your child’s first steps). As much as possible, vary the kinds of blessings and how you express them. And in the process, if you name a particular person who has been kind to you or influential in your life, don't wait to express your appreciation. Write him/her a letter now, or, if possible, visit and thank the person.

2. Practice Acts of Kindness. These should be varied, and both random (let the dad with the crying baby go ahead of you at the checkout counter) and planned (read a newspaper to an elderly neighbor).

3. Nurture Optimism. Practice finding the silver lining in negative events, noticing what's right (rather than what’s wrong) in a given situation, feeling good about the future (your own and the world's), or simply feeling that you can get through the day.

Continue reading "On increasing one's happiness" »


A call for kindness during Kislev

In Judaism, the big fall "holiday season" is the month of Elul leading up to the Days of Awe, then Sukkot and the cluster of festivals which come at its close. In mainstream American culture, the big fall "holiday season" is the shopping season which begins with great fanfare on the day after Thanksgiving and culminates at Christmas.

This can be a challenging season. Here in the northern hemisphere the days are darkening (and at the latitude of northern Berkshire, the days feel short indeed!) Thanksgiving is an opportunity for gathering with loved ones, feasting, and cultivating gratitude...though for those who are alone, the family feast day may feel even more isolating. And even for those who are blessed to gather with family, a holiday like Thanksgiving may raise or exacerbate old tensions and old hurts. On top of that, of course, some of us are introverts -- which means that concentrated togetherness-time, even if it's something we anticipate and savor, can be draining.

Over Thanksgiving weekend we entered a new month on the Jewish calendar, the lunar month of Kislev which will hold within it this year both Chanukah (which is always on the 25th of Kislev) and Christmas (which is always on the 25th of December -- except in those Christian traditions where it is on January 6 or 7 -- but regardless, it doesn't always fall during this lunar month; this year 12/25 will.) Chanukah and Christmas too offer opportunities for gathering and togetherness as well as loneliness and alienation, for celebration as well as sorrow.

For some Jews, the approach of Christmas is an enjoyable opportunity to respectfully appreciate someone else's religious traditions. For others among us, it awakens childhood memories of feeling "Other," or of yearning for the glitz and sparkle the Christian kids got to enjoy but feeling guilty for that yearning. For some of us who were reared Christian but have chosen Judaism, this month raises anxiety about how much it's "okay" to still enjoy old family traditions. For some of us who were reared Jewish but have chosen Christian spouses, the season can raise similar fears and tensions.

Here is what I have to offer: be kind to yourself during these days.

Pay attention to what your body is saying, to what your heart is saying, to the places where your mind gets tied in knots. What are the stories you tell yourself about this time of year? What are the old hurts to which you can't help returning, what are the old joys which you can't help anticipating? Listen to your body, which is your oldest and dearest companion, and be gentle to it. For me that means getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, the ritual of my little iron teapot; it means making sure I'm eating vegetables, and it also means giving myself permission to enjoy holiday sweets.

Listen to your heart. Discern what awakens joy in you, as you anticipate the month of Kislev unfolding, and what awakens sadness or fear. Tell your emotions that you understand, you hear them, they don't have to clamor for your attention. Gentle them as you would gentle a spooked horse or an overwrought child. You deserve the same attention and comfort as any beloved animal or child. GIve yourself permission to feel whatever you're feeling.

Pay attention to your social barometer. For some of us, the approach of winter's dark and cold days brings out a yearning for people, for gathering and hosting and feasting. For others, this same moment in the year wakens the desire to curl up in comfortable solitude with a book and a glass of wine or favorite episodes of a familiar tv show. (For me, both of these things are true at once! This is why I always test as both an introvert and an extrovert when I've taken the Myers-Briggs type indicator test.) Wherever you fall on that spectrum, notice it, and make the decisions which will cradle and support you.

Try not to get caught up in expectations. "What if he doesn't like his gift?" "What if I'm not spending enough?" "What if I'm spending too much?" Oy -- it's enough to tangle one's emotional and spiritual life into knots (not to mention one's neck and back muscles.) Tell yourself that whatever you bring: to the potluck, to the Chanukah or Christmas party, to your friends and family -- whatever you bring is enough. You are enough. Not just this month, but the whole year long.


Day after Thanksgiving, two years ago

How I spent the day after Thanksgiving, 2009.

Two years ago today we woke up early. My belly felt huge; I moved differently then. We called the hospital well before dawn to find out whether there was a bed available in the labor and delivery wing. And there was. So we picked up the bag we had long since packed and we drove to Berkshire Medical Center. I remember carrying our giant blue birthing ball into the hospital with me, not being sure where to put it as I sat down to fill out my intake paperwork. I remember our doula arriving. I remember the challenge of getting the IV going for the Pitocin drip.

I remember watching Daria cartoons on my laptop. I remember walking the hospital halls, pulling my IV stand alongside me. I remember our doctor -- a wonderful man -- deciding to break my waters. I remember the contractions really getting going, then. I remember a shower, some music, my husband's thumbs pressing into my back. I remember reaching the point where I couldn't ride the waves of the contractions anymore. The quiet precision of the anaesthesiologist. Apologizing to our doula once I was lying in bed, blissfully no longer in pain but worried that she might be bored now that there was nothing to do but wait.

I remember when the nurse came to examine me and then ran to fetch the doctor because it was time to push. I remember Ethan and the nurse holding my feet, I remember the doctor inviting me to look in the mirror to see the baby's head crowning -- and I remember that I shook my head no, I didn't want to open my eyes, I was somewhere too deep and too internal. All I could do was think, in my head, the words and melody of one of my favorite Jewish Renewal chants: We are opening up in sweet surrender to the luminous love-light of the One. I remember the doctor gently moving my hand so that I could feel the baby emerging.

New life.

I remember lying in bed with our infant pressed against my chest, skin to skin, with a heated blanket covering both of us. Already the adventure of labor seemed implausible. The dark still night felt like an infinite pause, rich with unimaginable possibility. I was somebody's mother now. We had created a child and I had borne him and now we were parents. I remember giving the baby to a nurse and devouring a slice of the pizza we had brought in for the staff earlier that day, suddenly ravenous. I remember going to sleep, that night, feeling that I had made it through something momentous but not sure yet what this new existence was going to mean.

Drew's birthday is early next week. He'll be two. He is beautiful and wonderful and headstrong and hilarious and so many things I never imagined. We'll celebrate him with family and friends and gifts and all the love we can bestow.

But today -- not yet his second birthday, not quite, but the day after Thanksgiving, parallel to the day I labored -- feels like a kind of anniversary for me. The anniversary of the beginning of motherhood. The anniversary of the day I spent moving through the long difficult tunnel between my last life and this new one. The day that I became something I had never been before. Thank You, God; thank you, Drew; for making me the person I am still becoming.

Me and our sweet boy.


A Thanksgiving Prayer

 

Thank You, God of Eternity,
for the great wonder of Your creation,
for the earth, the stars, the sun and the moon,
and the beauty of Your universe,
with which in Your great kindness You have blessed me.
Thank You for granting me life, in all its richness,
for its brilliant moments of joy
which allow me to soar as the birds,
and even for its anguish and pain,
which somehow seem to precipitate inner growth and change.
For all these things, God, I am grateful.

 

But thank You, especially, God, in Your abundant love,
for having chosen to make me a human being,
blessed, among all the fruits of Your creation,
with a mind to reason and seek truth and justice;
with a soul which can feel pain, ecstasy, and compassion,
and has the freedom to choose life and goodness
over cruelty and destruction;
and with a heart which can love and care,
and reach out to touch the hearts of my brothers and sisters,
as together we walk through the years of our lives.

-- Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, from All Breathing Life (which I reviewed back in July)

Last year at this season I shared Reb Zalman's Thanksgiving prayer, a paragraph of text recounting one version of the American Pilgrim Thanksgiving story (written in the style of, and optionally to be included in, the amidah we say during daily prayers.) This year I'm sharing one of his prayers of thanksgiving which isn't specifically for, or about, Thanksgiving Day itself. This is, I think, meant to be a daily prayer... but surely today is a fine day on which to recite it.

May we all be aware, today and every day, of the many blessings for which we can and should give thanks.

May all be fed, may all be nourished, may all be loved. To all my readers in the US, and American readers abroad, I wish a happy American Thanksgiving! And to everyone else, a happy Thursday.


Two more poems for the week of Thanksgiving: Converse and Erdrich

Harriet Maxwell Converse was born in 1836. Her father and her grandfather were both traders who had been adopted into the Seneca Nation. Her bio page at PBS tells me that in later life she became a political advocate for the Six Nations, that the Seneca Nation eventually recognized her efforts by adopting her into the Snipe Clan, and that in September of 1891 Converse became the first white woman ever condoled as a Six Nations Chief. Below, I share one of her poems, a translation of a traditional Iroquois prayer of gratitude. Among the Six Nations, giving thanks was a daily practice, not a once-a-year occurrence. I try to make thanksgiving a daily practice, too, so her rendering of this prayer speaks to me.

I also want to honor a different take on Thanksgiving. Hence the second poem in this post. Heid E. Eridrich is an Ojibwe poet whose work I first encountered when my son was an infant. (I borrowed one of her lines as inspiration for one of my mother poems.) The poem of hers which I share below is full of righteous fury. It riffs off of Robert Frost's The Gift Outright, which I have long loved -- but now that Erdrich has shown me the manifest destiny at the core of Frost's poem, his poem becomes problematized. I still love it, but I see it through different eyes.

Just so, the story of Thanksgiving. There's something in the narrative of the grateful Puritans feasting with the Wampanoag which still appeals to me; I'm moved by the idea of people coming together across their differences to break bread together and to express thanks to something beyond themselves. I learned that story when I was a child, and it still speaks to me now. But as a grown-up I have to acknowledge that narrative's biases and erasures, even as I enjoy this national festival of food and gratitude. The story of the Puritans coming to these shores is also the story of the beginning of a vast and painful paradigm shift for this country's Native peoples. I don't want to forget that, this Thanksgiving.

Continue reading "Two more poems for the week of Thanksgiving: Converse and Erdrich" »


New poem in Qarrtsiluni

One of my poems appears in Qarrtsiluni, as part of the special issue on Worship edited by Fiona Robyn and Kaspalita. It's called Without Ceasing, and that link will take you to the poem in both print and audio form.

Here's how it begins:

The wash of dawn across the sky
reveals your signature.

Cicadas drone your praise
through the honey-slow afternoon.

The angular windmills on the ridge
recite your name with every turn...

You can read the whole thing at the magazine; if you do so, feel free to comment there or here. As always, I'm honored to be in such fine company. Thanks, editors.


Two poems for the week of Thanksgiving: Rudolph and Weigl

Here are two poems which felt, to me, appropriate for the week of Thanksgiving -- found via the ever-wonderful Poets.org (At the Common Table: Poems for Thanksgiving). Neither of these are Thanksgiving poems per se, but they spoke to me this week; perhaps they will speak to you, too.


Little Prayer in November

by Lee Rudolph


      That I am alive, I thank
      no one in particular;
and yet am thankful, mostly,
although I frame no prayer

      but this one: "Creator
      Spirit, as you have come,
come again", even in November,
on these short days, fogbound.



Home
 
by Bruce Weigl

I didn't know I was grateful
            for such late-autumn
                        bent-up cornfields

yellow in the after-harvest
             sun before the
                        cold plow turns it all over

into never.
            I didn't know
                        I would enter this music

that translates the world
             back into dirt fields
                         that have always called to me

as if I were a thing
              come from the dirt,
                          like a tuber,

or like a needful boy. End
             Lonely days, I believe. End the exiled
                           and unraveling strangeness.



Transforming the pepper-spray cop

As I've been reading about the UC Davis police officer who sprayed pepper spray into the eyes of seated peaceful demonstrators (UC Davis pepper spray incident goes viral at the Christian Science Monitor, UC Davis pepper-spraying raises questions about role of police in the Washington Post) I've felt horror, outrage, empathy, sorrow.

But after a while, the news coverage begins to blur. The story becomes familiar, the repeated image or video clip becoming almost like wallpaper. Yes, ho-hum, we've all heard about (or read about, or maybe even watched on YouTube) the cop who attacked the protestors. The story and its attendant images become commonplace, no longer remarkable.

Enter the power of transformative works: Pepper-spray cop works his way through art history. (For more, there's now a whole pepper spraying cop tumblr.)

For me the two most powerful images in this meme are the one which speaks through, and transforms, the Sistine ceiling:

Pepper-spray-cop5

and the one which speaks through, and transforms, a painting by Andrew Wyeth:

Pepper-spray-cop9

There's something about seeing this act of police brutality transposed into these otherwise bucolic (and deeply familiar) images which highlights the act itself, and brings back my initial sense of horror. It's shocking. And again, I realize: that's right. This isn't normal. This isn't okay. This isn't the kind of police behavior we should condone, here or anywhere.

There's a delicate balance, for me, between my desire to keep my eyes open to the injustices of the world and my awareness that if I immerse too deeply in those injustices I may lose my sense of hope and my ability to be the rabbi, the mama, the partner and friend I hope to be. Still, there's something chilling for me in the realization that I can so easily become inured to stories of suffering. I don't want this kind of story to be commonplace, whether it happens in Davis or in Bahrain.

My thanks are due to the artists who created these mashups, which moved me again after the original story had ceased to register on my internal emotional scale.

 

 


On clementines, and there being nothing new under the sun

"I know what I should write about," I thought. "I just bought the year's first box of clementines." I was so excited that I ate one in the parking lot of the grocery store before driving home. I made the blessing for fruit of a tree, and recited a shehecheyanu too -- the blessing sanctifying time, which is also recited the first time one tastes something new, or the first time one tastes a beloved flavor again in a given year.

I hadn't had clementines since the tail-end of last winter, which was last year in Jewish time. The last of the clementines are always overpriced and not quite as sweet and juicy as I want them to be. The first, on the other hand -- glorious! Here in western Massachusetts our summer is full of fresh produce and seasonal delights; November, not so much. Cranberries and clementines are all that's seasonal here and now -- and neither actually comes from our soil, though they're very much the flavors of this time of year for me.

Fine, then: I would post something about my first clementine of the year. Except, when I sat down to rhapsodize about these little orange suns, I had the niggling feeling I might have made such a post before. So I looked, and found "Oh my darling..." -- written as a one-sentence blog entry in 2004, in companionship with a blog which no longer exists.

I suppose there's something comforting in recognizing that each year, as the wheel of the seasons unfolds, I find joy in the same little rituals which repeat. Though there's a bit of chagrin in recognizing that the post I wanted to make today is one I already made -- with more concision and beauty than I might have managed this morning -- seven years ago!


On prayer, gratitude, darkness, praise

It is good to give thanks to Adonai, to sing praises to the Most High!

That's a line from the psalm for Shabbat. It's running through my head because I've been practicing the guitar chords for a setting of it which is different from the one we usually use at my shul. And as I hum it, over and over again, I find myself meditating on what it means.

It is good to give thanks to God. Good for whom? Good, I would argue, for us. I don't know what impact -- if any -- our thanks have on the Holy Blessed One. But I know that when I can remember to offer thanks, the act of so doing positions me in a posture of gratitude. And that, in turn, changes how I experience my world.

It is good to give thanks, to sing praises. Good, but not always easy.

We're entering the darkest days of the year. Where I live, the recent clock change (away from Daylight Savings Time) means that the skies are darkening at 4:30pm when I fetch my son from daycare. In return we've received a temporary morning reprieve, though over the next six weeks or so as we spiral down to the winter solstice the days will shorten at both ends.

I've always been sensitive to the changing light. As the days grow colder I curl into myself, soak in hot baths, make endless pots of tea, keep a fire burning. I listen to Värttinä, hoping that in soaking up these Finnish melodies I might also be absorbing some far-northern resilience in the face of the changing season.

Sometimes on a dark and gloomy afternoon, it's hard to sing praises. Sometimes when people around me are quarreling, it's hard to sing praises. When I read awful news stories, when I hear the latest horrifying insult slung in an online battle of perceptions, when my toddler wakes screaming at 4:30am, it's hard to sing praises.

And yet I keep trying. Because my tradition tells me that it is my job to offer praise to the One Who speaks all things into being. Because I know that I am healthier and happier when I remember to say "thank you" and to respond to the world with a feeling of "wow!" And on the days when I can't quite access the praise I know I'm capable of, I try to offer whatever thank-you I can, in hopes that saying thanks will stimulate the gratitude I can't always quite feel.

In one of my old commonplace books, I copied a quote from Julia Cameron about the fallacy that in order to write one needs to be "in the mood." In the case of writing, as in the case of lovemaking (she argues), waiting for "the mood" to strike is a luxury. But if one begins to do the thing in question, the mood will arise. I feel the same way about prayer.

And yet how often do I postpone my own prayer life because there's too much to do or because I just can't seem to feel what I want to feel? This is, I think, how my yetzer ha-ra (my "evil inclination") manifests: by whispering in my ear that I don't have time to pray, or that because I'm not able to access joy or gratitude I can't articulate either one to God.

But I should know better. There is always time enough for prayer. And sometimes the best way to access thankfulness and praise is to offer them, and to hope that as I speak the words, the feeling will come.


Writing a spiritual will

One of the assignments for my class in Sage-ing is to write a spiritual will: a document which outlines what I hope to leave to those I leave behind, not in the tangible sense of possessions or money but in an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual way.

Writing this document -- mine takes the form of a letter to my son -- has been incredibly powerful for me. As it happens, I'm writing this first draft just on the cusp of Drew's second birthday. I hope that I have a long life ahead of me. So as I articulate here what I hope to leave to him, it also becomes a kind of roadmap for how I hope to raise him.

I recommend this exercise highly. If you have a child (or children), what do you hope to pass on to them? And if you don't have progeny, interpret the question more broadly: what do you hope to transmit to your friends, your students, your loved ones? What of you do you hope might live on in them when you are gone?

In case reading my spiritual will might be helpful or inspiring to you, I'm enclosing it below. (And if you do this exercise, and want to share with me/us the results or any insights the process opens up for you, drop a comment!)


The Spiritual Will of Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (2011)

 

Dear Drew.

I am writing the first draft of this spiritual will at thirty-six. I have every hope that a long life stretches ahead of me! But the sages of our tradition tell us to make teshuvah -- to repent, to atone, to clear the spiritual decks -- every day of our lives as though it were our last. We never know what lies ahead. So I write these words to you now, hoping that I will have many opportunities to revise them and add to them in years to come.

Continue reading "Writing a spiritual will" »


Responding to heartbreak

Some days it is hard to avoid despair. A fellow poet on a poetry email list to which I belong sent the following link this morning: Jesse Kornbluth: The Police Riot at Berkeley: If They'll Beat a Poet Laureate, Will They Kill a Student? The headline looks alarmist, but once I read the story and watched the videos, I understood its tone.

The police attack peaceful protesters who are standing up against, among other things, an 81% tuition hike. The protestors -- poetry graduate students, professors of media studies -- wind up in the hospital with broken ribs. What on earth is wong with my country, that a peaceful protest about economic realities leads to this? Think what you will about the Occupy Wall Street protests; I have some mixed feelings about their ultimate usefulness, myself. But this is police brutality. This is appalling.

That's the heartbreak at the top of my inbox. There are others. Too many to count, once one starts paying attention.

What to do? There's a very real temptation to crawl back into bed, literally or metaphorically -- to say, I can't deal with this today. It hurts too much. And I want to say: if that is where you're at, if that is where I'm at, that's okay. That's a reasonable response. It's a human response. We need to take care of ourselves, and sometimes that means stepping away. Closing the browser window. Retreating to bed, or to a cup of coffee, or to a loving embrace, or to tears. (Or all of the above.)

Sometimes all we can do is weep. Sometimes all we can do is pray. I try to remember that if the sorrow of the world is too much for me to bear, I can always reach inside myself and hand the suffering to God. God can handle it. There is no shame in giving it to God to carry for me.

Sometimes we can take steps to fix the things which are broken. And sometimes the things which are broken are systemic, or seem so far away from us that we can't begin to imagine how we might make them better. I don't know how to impact the police department in Berkeley which is home to the officers who beat a poet and English professor until his ribs broke. I don't know how to help the victims of the Penn State rapes reach healing.

So I do the only things I know how to do. I pray. I ask my heart to open, even though sometimes it opens to realities which hurt. I try to be kind and compassionate in the world. Maybe today I can find someone who needs a kind word, or for whom I can do a small favor, and in that way I can ever-so-slightly tip the worldwide scales toward grace and compassion, just the tiniest bit.

It's not enough. But it's what's in my hands.


Covenant

I promise to try to begin and end each day with gratitude.

I promise to try to remember to say thank you for everything which sustains me: morning shower, cup of coffee, the reheated leftovers of the meal my husband lovingly made last night.

I promise to do my best to pay attention to the world: the illimitable stream of beauties and surprises and sweetness, and the endless unfolding of sorrow and hurt.

I promise to try to find the blessing in everything.

I promise to try to relate to each person everywhere as a holy being who merits my respect.

I promise that I will try to be kind, and I will try to keep my heart open.

I promise that I will try to be compassionate with myself when I fail to live up to these promises, when I have to pick myself up and try again, and again.

In return, God promises me this breath, and the next, and the next -- until such time as my breathing comes to an end. God promises me this moment.

God promises to continue speaking creation into being and breathing life into all things.

God promises to stream blessing into the world.

God promises to take me where I need to be, even if it isn't always where I want to go.

God promises to be in relationship with me always, even though I can hardly grasp what that relationship would mean.

God promises to listen when I speak, even if God can't talk back.

God promises that I will never be alone.

 

This week in our b'nei mitzvah prep program we're studying brit -- covenant. As Jews we understand ourselves always to be in perennial communal covenant with God, a covenant which is symbolized by our keeping Shabbat and practicing brit milah. I believe we're also always in individual covenant with God, too, and I'll be inviting the students to write their own personal brit with God. I didn't want to ask them to do something I hadn't tried first myself, so here is mine.


Because we teach each other: The Deal, a mother poem

THE DEAL

 

Teach me to startle
at the first crow's caw
echoing overhead

to bid farewell
to the bit of snow
along the driveway

to exult in wonder
every time
a schoolbus passes

in return I offer
a word for every thing
in the wide world

rules against hitting
or pouring crackers
on the carpet

a shoulder to rest
your head on, a song
at the end of the day.


I haven't written a mother poem in a while. (Sometimes I can hardly believe I wrote a whole manuscript during the first year of my son's life!)

This one arises out of the experience of parenting an almost-two-year-old. Every day I am amazed by his wonder at the world around us, his eagerness for language...and, okay, yes, also sometimes his age-appropriate temper tantrums!

He does greet schoolbuses, by the by -- I'm not making that up. Probably his longest sentence to date is "Bye, yellow school bus! All gone." It's incredibly charming.

I know he won't remember me singing his goodnight song every night, but I hope I never forget the sensation of his long tall body going still in my arms and his head lowering to my shoulder as I sing to him and dance him over to his crib.


On the sexual abuse story coming out of Penn State

This post may be triggering for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. If that is you, please guard your boundaries carefully, and feel free to skip this one if you need to.

When I hear about a child who is sexually abused, my heart breaks. I am horrified into silence. What can I say in the face of the suffering of a child who is raped by an adult into whose care that child was placed? Whether the abuse is at the hands of a parent, a teacher, a babysitter, a coach, it is unthinkable to me. And if I allow myself to imagine someone hurting my child in this way (God forbid, God forbid, God forbid) I overflow with fear and rage.

Among the circle of people I know and love there are many victims of sexual abuse. Most are women, though some are men. Many were abused by people who were supposed to be taking care of them. One of my dear friends was raped by her father. Another was raped by his babysitter. These stories are real and they are everywhere.

I have some sense of how childhood abuse and sexual assault has hurt, and continues to hurt, these people that I love. And I know that as the story of the allegations of sexual abuse at Penn State unfolds, many survivors of rape and sexual abuse are suffering all over again, remembering their own histories -- and maybe remembering, too, what it was like to be told that this "couldn't" have happened to them or that they "shouldn't" make such accusations about people everyone knew were honorable.

If that is your story: please know that you are in my heart today. Please take care of yourself.

To those at Penn State, and those who have an emotional investment in the football program there, who are feeling anger at the firing of Joe Paterno: I hear your fury. But I ask you to hold your attachment to the Penn State football program up against the pain of eight boys who were sexually abused by someone they trusted. Please don't give those boys, and others like them, any reason to believe that you value Joe Paterno's (or Jerry Sandusky's) reputation more than the integrity of their bodies and their hearts.


Zornberg and a cup of joe

My Wednesday morning clergy Torah study group has begun reading Avivah Zornberg's The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious. (There's a terrific review in the Forward -- The Other Side of Silence: Listening Into the Bible.) We meet at the local coffee shop; greet people, order our coffee and bagels, sit down and schmooze a bit about whatever's unfolding in our lives; and then we make the bracha for Torah study and open our books.

Today we read maybe four pages, pausing to talk as we went. Zornberg is an amazing writer, and she frequently offers sentences which take my breath away. Beyond her prose, though, what's really amazing is the breadth and depth of her knowledge. Today we read (and talked) about language acquisition and fragmented consciousness, the birth metaphor in the expulsion from Eden, TS Eliot's J. Edgar Prufrock, Freud and psychoanalysis, connections between poetry and prophecy, the difference between Adam naming the animals (speaking their essence into being) and the kind of speech of which Adam was capable after he had eaten the fruit of the tree, God's desire to enter into language with us. Along the way we made frequent divagations into our own reflections on consciousness, language, childhood, nostalgia, union.

There's something very powerful about studying Zornberg's writings on desire, on language and on the unconscious at this season of mothering an almost-two-year-old. As I watch Drew acquire language, I marvel at the way he is soaking up new words -- and I know that the days of his delicious nonlinguistic babble are numbered. Once we have language, we can't recapture what it was like to be prelinguistic. He still inhabits a state of living entirely in the moment; that, too, is almost impossible to wholly re-enter once one has left it. Zornberg talks about the expulsion from Eden not (as common Christian parlance would have it) as a fall but as a movement-outward, a going-forth. Almost a birthing. "Paradise is lost, but a larger, if more agitated life looms." What a powerful metaphor that is for me.

I feel really fortunate to be part of this group and to have this weekly time set aside for learning Torah lishma, for its own sake. And I can tell that this is a book which will merit not only reading but rereading. "Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it" indeed.


Mourning the mother of a friend

Longtime readers may remember that a few years ago, before we had a child (before we were even trying to conceive), I spent a summer in Jerusalem. I rented an apartment (sublet it, actually) with a friend from the ALEPH rabbinic program; I shared that flat with my friend Yafa, her husband, and their then-four-year-old little girl.

The experience was amazing, profound, powerful, difficult on all sorts of axes. (And I blogged about it extensively in June, July, and early August of 2008.) One of the greatest joys of that summer was the simple fact of spending two months living with one of my classmates. Because ALEPH's ordination programs are low-residency, students and faculty live all over the world. We gather twice a year for intensive residency periods, and between those gatherings, we learn via teleconference and webconference and we learn with teachers in our own communities.

It's an amazing way to study (and clearly one which suits me -- this is how I did my MFA, too) and I love the way it creates a web of community which covers the globe. But what it doesn't offer, generally speaking, is the chance to hang out and cook and drink and schmooze and daven with our fellow students every day. Spending that summer with Yafa, day in and day out, was an incredible gift. I felt, by summer's end, that I had become part of her family.

I also got to know some of her birth family a bit while we were students. Yafa's mom Betsy used to come to smicha students' week, to watch Yafa's little girl while we were in classes. Betsy was always lovely and gracious to me; we had many conversations about Judaism and about her granddaughter and about parenting over the years.

Later this morning I'll drive north into Vermont, through the beautiful Green Mountains now bare of leaves and speckled with snow, to attend Betsy's funeral. It's rare for me these days to attend a funeral rather than conducting it. I didn't know her well, and I won't know the rest of the community. But it feels important for me to be there for Yafa, with whom I was ordained in January -- another experience which makes me feel as though we are sisters! -- and for her husband and daughter who shared my life that summer, too.

I know that even when we are apart, my loved ones and I remain connected. But at moments of great joy and moments of great sorrow, there's a particular blessing in being able to be physically together, to offer a palpable embrace. I can only imagine what it is like to lose one's mother, but I know what it is like to grieve.


Haveil Havalim (Jewish Blog Carnival) #336

Okay, so I hosted Haveil Havalim #36 back in 2005, and then I hosted #326 in August, at which time I promised I wouldn't wait quite so many years before doing it again. Turns out I'm doing it again right now!

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!")

With no further ado: a roundup of a wide variety of posts from the Jewish blogosphere. Go, read, leave comments, start conversations.

 

Torah

Reb Jeff presents Noah: the Redemption of God at A Rabbi's Search for Jewish Joy.

David Curiel presents Bereshit (and also the parshiyot which have followed it) at 40 Words of Torah.

Batya presents Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, A Cry to Break the Cycle posted at Shiloh Musings.

 

Holidays

Here at Velveteen Rabbi I shared a Sestina for Shemini Atzeret. (This may be the only sestina in the world written for this holiday!)

Rabbi Shulamit Thiede presents Turn it and turn it at Adrenaline Drash.

Tzvi Weissman presents Five "Lunar Lessons" In Honor of the New Moon (Rosh Chodesh -Mar Heshvan) at Jihadi Jew.

Continue reading "Haveil Havalim (Jewish Blog Carnival) #336" »


Shviti, a poem about finding God even in what hurts

Shviti



SHVITI

שִׁוִּיתִי יְי לְנֶגְדִּי תָמִיד / I keep God before me always. -- Psalm 16:8

 

Always before me:
in the checkout line
at the pharmacy
where I'm reading mail
on my phone, in the pixels
of my computer screen

in the locked ward
where I never know
who will want
to talk about God
and who will shuffle past
without meeting my eyes

in the stranger
whose barbed words
leave me sick and sad
and in the tallit
I wrap around my shoulders
to hold me together

in my toddler's cries
at four in the morning
in the painful conversation
I don't want to begin
in every ache
help me to find You


The title of this poem is the Hebrew word "Shviti," which means "I have set" (or, more colloquially, "I keep.") It is the first word of the line from psalms which serves as this poem's epigraph. Artistically, a shviti is an image (usually of God's name) designed as a focus for meditation on the presence of the divine. (Here are images of a whole bunch of them.)

The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, teaches that this word is related to the Hebrew word hishtavut, which means "equanimity." When I keep God always before me, then I have equanimity; nothing can shake me. (I posted about this teaching back in 2007.) This is not an easy teaching to embody.

It's easy (for me) to find holiness, and to find God's presence, in the world's beauty: the pink smear of sunrise across the horizon, a child's laughter, the embrace of a friend. It's a lot harder (for me) to recognize the presence of God in suffering and in discord. But even in what hurts, there is opportunity to open the heart to God.

Wishing all of y'all a Shabbat of wholeness and peace.