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Living in Jewish time

It's a funny way of inhabiting time, this Jewish calendar of ours. Every seventh day a holiday. Every new moon a holiday. And then, studding the year like jewels in a crown, the festivals, each with its own music, its own flavor, both literally and metaphorically.

Right now we're ascending toward the full moon of Shvat, the New Year of the Trees. Making shopping lists: we'll need three kinds of fruit (fruits with shells, fruits with pits, fruits which are soft all the way through -- each representing a different sphere of existence, body and heart and mind), maple syrup (why not celebrate the rising of spiritual sap with some literal sap?), juices of different colors for the chemistry-set pleasure of slowly transforming the pale white grape juice of winter into the vivid flame of deep purple autumn.

One month later comes Purim. Our carnival holiday, costuming and amateur theatrics. The remembered taste of hamentaschen (I always love apricot and plum the best.) The annual re-enactment of the almost-tragedy which turned comic, Haman's attempt at a Final Solution which was deflected by Esther's bravery and wisdom, the villain ultimately hoisted by his own petard. I met this morning with a friend and congregant to plan our annual Purimspiel, and and together we dreamed up a scheme for bringing the art of Jewish puppetry to my shul. Now I am pondering hot glue guns and papier-mâché.

One month after that, Pesach. The season of our liberation. The remembering and re-telling of our Exodus from the Narrow Place of enslavement, in mythic history and in our own hearts. The fifteen steps of the seder, from sanctifying the day all the way to concluding the evening with song. I can almost taste the crunch of matzah smeared with horseradish; the matzah balls my grandfather (of blessed memory) used to make. The scent of roasted egg.

Jewish time has ebbs and flows. Right now our spiritual sap is rising. At Purim-time, we retell a story in which God is (on the surface) entirely absent -- and yet divine sovereignty is hidden in plain sight all over the columns of the holiday's text. At Pesach-time, we're called to take the leap of faith of leaving slavery and plunging into the sea, trusting God to part the waters when we get too deep. We spend seven weeks doing the inner work of preparing ourselves for Sinai, and then Sinai comes.

At Shavuot, we remember and re-experience the Sinai moment, a deep encounter of connection with the Infinite -- and then we head toward the burning heat of remembering the breach of Jerusalem's walls and our communal broken hearts. Then we immerse in the weeks leading up to the Days of Awe, another season of inner work, in order to emerge with due fanfare and whole hearts at Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur takes us inward; Sukkot is our chance to go outward; at Simchat Torah we dance circles with our circular story. In the dark of (northern hemisphere) winter we kindle tiny lights until the whole chanukiyah is ablaze. And then, after a fallow period, our sap begins to rise again as Tu BiShvat approaches.

It's a neverending spiral from one festival to the next. From rejoicing to mourning to rejoicing again, from extroversion to introversion and back, from autumn to winter to spring to the next autumn. The whole year is a slow wheeling dance with God.

I used to wonder what it was like to be a dancer. To have a whole choreographed performance internalized in your body, such that even as you're dancing one movement, you know what movements come next, and after that, and after that. I still can't imagine the literal experience, but on some level, I think maybe it's a little bit like this experience of being rooted in the Jewish year. Doing the dance steps of Tu BiShvat, knowing that the Purim steps come next, and the Pesach steps, the Omer steps, the Shavuot steps. It's a balancing act, being wholly in this moment even as I try to lay the groundwork for moments to come.

And this is something every Jew does, or can do, or might aspire to do. It's not because I'm a rabbi that I get to learn the steps of this year-long dance... though being a rabbi does give me, sometimes, deeper opportunities to practice the steps -- and the joy of knowing that keeping my community dancing is, quite literally, my job. What an inestimable blessing.

A thank-you from Temple Beth-El of City Island

Earlier in January, a dear friend's shul was vandalized and broken-into. I posted about it, and generous readers contributed $984. Here is a thank-you note from the leaders of that shul, to all of you.

To the contributors to Reb Rachel's "Pass the Hat for a Vandalized Shul Campaign,"

We at Temple Beth-El of City Island wish to express our endless gratitude for your generous gifts, for lifting us up in our time of distress. Indeed, we see the sparks shining through the darkness, as we feel held by many unseen hands. In turn, we send you our blessings for God's light and abundance in all realms.

-- Rabbi Shohama, Reb David, and Your Shul by the Sea

For views of Temple Beth-El and the larger story, see Community Looks To End Religious Vandals.

Hosting a conversation about spiritual life and poetry

For those who are interested in poetry conversations, feel free to check out the online poetry community [community profile] poetree, where moderator J.J. Hunter has graciously invited me to host conversations this week. (Luisa Igloria, whose work I greatly admire, was poetry host there last week. I'm in terrific company!)

I hope to post a few times over the course of the week, each time exploring a different facet of the the creative and spiritual life and how they intersect for me.

My first post, On weekly poems, scripture, inspiration, is now online -- check it out and join the conversation if you're so inclined.

Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach 7.2 - abridged AND expanded!

2015 Edited to add: you can always find the most up-to-date version of the VR Haggadah by going to and clicking through to the haggadah page.


Hey: did you realize that Passover begins in just over ten weeks? :-)

I've been working this winter on a revision of the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach -- specifically, a revision which is suitable for use at my congregation.

This is substantially abridged from the most recent edition of the VR Haggadah (7.1, released in March 2011). Over the years, my haggadah has grown by accretion (as indeed the classical haggadah did!) and I've added all sorts of fabulous things without removing the older material. When I use the haggadah at home, I pick and choose, depending on who's there and what I think might be most meaningful for them. But I want this edition to be user-friendly for a broad congregational audience, while still retaining the poetry and the beauty which make it my haggadah. So I trimmed it down -- 48 pages instead of 82.

Of course, I also wound up adding some material; I couldn't resist! There are a few new poems in this edition which weren't in the previous edition. I've added the order of the seder -- the fifteen steps from start to finish -- in Hebrew and in transliteration before each of the parts of the service, to make it easier to see where you are in the journey. There's a more complete Birkat ha-Mazon, Grace After Meals. There's some new formatting and there are a few layout changes, most notably on the prayer for Miriam's cup.

And there are many more images enlivening the pages -- in addition to the beautiful art donated to the VR haggadah by Beth Budwig, Aaron Livay, Emily Cooper, Howard Cruse, Allan Hollander, and Allison Kent, there are now other images I've found in various places (all used with credit, of course, and with great gratitude.)

Anyway: this new version of the haggadah, version 7.2, is enclosed below. Although it was designed for use at my shul, you are welcome to use it at your shul too -- or in your home -- or wherever you celebrate Pesach. (And of course you're welcome to stick with the previous version of the haggadah, too; whatever works for you.)


2015 Edited to add: you can always find the most up-to-date version of the VR Haggadah by going to and clicking through to the haggadah page.


Interview with Linda Hirschhorn now in Zeek

Two years-and-a-bit ago, at the ALEPH Kallah in Ohio, I had the opportunity to sing with Linda Hirschhorn. While I was there, I interviewed her for Zeek. (I mentioned that in one of my blog posts from the conference that year: Kallah, another day in the life.) For reasons which don't bear exploration at this juncture, the interview has just now been published! Hopefully it's timeless enough to still make good reading.

Here's a taste:

(From my introduction) A lover of Talmud and a college philosophy major, Hirschhorn sees polyvocal harmonies as emblematic of the same kind of diversity-within-unity found in the pages of Jewish sacred texts. She believes that different voices blending together in harmony is not only a metaphor for, but an example of, the kind of coexistence the world needs. And after a few hours singing under her enthusiastic tutelage, I’m inclined to think that she’s right...

LH: Harmony is like drash. Singing a song simply is like pshat; harmonies give you the chance to interpret text. If you hear a lyric, especially sung in counterpoint, the words coming at a different time, you’ll get a different experience of what the words might mean, what’s important. Major or minor, syncopated or lullaby: those communicate so much. It’s important to understand the text, to try to find how my song matches my understanding of the text.


LH: Everybody has some kernel that’s uniquely their own that they can offer. The best of my songs are something which cuts deeper, which looks at a universal experience in a particular way.

Read the whole thing at Zeek: In Song Together.

New essay in Religion & Literature: "Transformative Work: Midrash & Fanfiction"

Contributors' copies of Religion & Literature volume 43.2!

The genre is an ancient one. Throughout the history of the Diaspora, Jewish imagination has flourished through midrash, elaborating on the tales and characters of the Hebrew Bible. But the postwar period has produced a surge of provocatively original midrashic writing in America, which seems to be accelerating like a kind of cosmic dark energy...

A new midrash is a juicy green leaflet on an ancient tree. Yet contemporary midrash has less to do with faith, or even McClure's "partial faith," than with what Adrienne Rich once called "the will to change."

So writes poet Alicia Ostriker in her introduction to the Forum section of volume 43.2 of the journal Religion & Literature. Alicia edited this issue's Forum section, which consists of essays exploring different aspects of contemporary midrash.

The essays collected here display extraordinary depth and breadth. Rivkah Walton writes about the feminist midrashic poetry of the 1980s and 90s; Rabbi Jill Hammer explores the work of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and American poet Veronica Golos; Eric Selinger explores the theologically and politically challenging poetics of Joy Ladin and Peter Cole; Merle Feld explores her own play "Across the Jordan", which arose out of her experience doing Israeli-Palestinian dialogue in the 1970s; Peter Pitzele explores Bibliodrama as a place of collision between text and improvisation; Norman Finkelstein articulates discomfort with the claiming of the "modern midrash" mantle for contemporary English-language poetry; Monica Osborne writes about how literature of trauma functions midrashically.

And the final essay in the Forum section, I am honored and humbled to note, is my own: Transformative Work: Midrash and Fanfiction.

Continue reading "New essay in Religion & Literature: "Transformative Work: Midrash & Fanfiction"" »

Jewish Renewal and my red boots


I am utterly, endlessly, delighted to have sparked Rabbi Barbara (Shulamit) Thiede's essay Jewish Renewal's Red Boots.

Reb Shulamit and I were admitted to the ALEPH rabbinic ordination program at the same time. (Somewhere I still have the email which Reb Marcia, our dean, sent to the student e-mail list in which she invited them to welcome two extraordinary new talmidim). Reb Shulamit and I were in DLTI together; we took countless classes together; and last year we were blessed to receive smicha together.

And at this year's Ohalah conference, to which I took only two pairs of shoes (including the pair of burgundy-red knee-high Doc Martens which Ethan gave to me for my thirty-fifth birthday), she found inspiration in my footwear.

She writes:

What is Jewish Renewal?

It’s so very hard to describe something that ranges from starshine to sunshine, something that sparkles and sings and calls on the deepest spaces and places of the soul while making you laugh with recognition...

...[When we gather] we pray all at once together or in the spontaneous creation of a kind of complicated twenty-part madrigal. It's awesome, actually.

As are the Velveteen Rabbi’s red boots. They are the example you need to understand Jewish Renewal.

Curious? Read the whole essay at her blog Adrenaline Drash.

Thank you for honoring me with this essay, dear Reb Shulamit! And thank you also for speaking such wonderful truths about our transdenominational Jewish community, our values, and our vision for the world -- and the Judaism -- we hope to help midwife into being. Boots and all.

On plagues and hardened hearts (d'var Torah for parashat Vaera)

Here's the d'var Torah I'll be offering during services at my shul this morning.

This week we read one of the most dramatic narratives in Torah: the story of the ten plagues. (Or, at least, the first eight plagues; the final two will come next week.) Intriguingly, the idea of calling these "plagues" is rabbinic; in the Torah they are called "signs," demonstrations of divine power and might.

Moshe and Aharon ask for the Israelites to be released, but Pharaoh's heart stiffens and he says no. The Nile turns to blood, and all the fish die; Pharaoh's heart stiffens and he says no.

Frogs die in heaps in the fields, and Pharaoh is stubborn and says no. When the dust of the earth is transformed into lice, Pharaoh's heart stiffens and he says no once again.

After the swarms of insects, Pharaoh gives the Israelites permission to go a short distance away in order to make offerings to God, and the plague is lifted...whereupon, you guessed it, Pharaoh's heart becomes hard and he says no again.

The Egyptians' cattle die, but Pharaoh remains stubborn. Then God tells Moshe and Aaron to cast soot from the kiln toward the Egyptians, and the soot turns into boils. This time, God hardens Pharaoh's heart, and Pharaoh again says no.

When hail levels the crops, Pharaoh apologizes for his misdeeds. But when Moshe raises his hands and the hail ceases, Pharaoh's heart once again stiffens, and he says no yet again. That's where this week's portion ends.

Every time I read this, the vindictiveness troubles me. On the Egyptian end of things, Pharaoh will not let himself see the Israelites' anguish. Even when his own people are suffering in retribution, Pharaoh refuses to relent.

And on our end, we see a vision of God Who is pretty vindictive, too. God punishes the Egyptians not only for their misdeeds, but also for their leader's unwillingness to hear the call of justice. And the one time in this parsha when Pharaoh does not harden his heart, God hardens his heart for him. What can we make of that?

Continue reading "On plagues and hardened hearts (d'var Torah for parashat Vaera)" »

VR Podcast Episode 1: Morning Practices

Several of y'all have asked, over the years, whether I have considered podcasting. This winter, I thought I'd give it a try.

I'm not promising that these podcasts will come out on any specific timetable. (I'm a congregational rabbi and the mother of a toddler; I've got all the deadlines I can handle!) I'll release them periodically. The first episode lasts just over 15 minutes; I'm guessing episodes will generally between 15 minutes and 30 minutes.

Subject matter: Judaism, spiritual practice, Jewish Renewal, prayer, the intersection of prayer and poetry, niggun and chanting, integrating spiritual practice with "ordinary life" -- in other words, the same stuff you already come to Velveteen Rabbi to find.



VR Podcast Episode 1: Morning Practices.

Three melodies for "Modah Ani," reflections on beginning the day with gratitude, the birchot ha-shachar / morning blessings, blessing yoga, prayer in the shower, and beginning the day how one means to go on. Duration: 16:06.

To listen online:


If you're so inclined, you can subscribe via iTunes -- for now, that link includes both the recordings of poems which I post here, and also formal podcast episodes; if/when that changes, I'll let y'all know.

Give it a listen, and let me know what you think? All comments / feedback welcome!

A psalm for wintertime




The wind whips spirals of snow
dervishes dancing across icy asphalt

snowplows call out to one another
backing up to ply their routes again

the atmosphere looms, pregnant
with the promise of precipitation

and I? I scatter handfuls of cat litter
across the driveway's uneven terrain

casting prayers for the safe passage
of all who come, and all who go

I've recently been rereading the Worship issue of Qarrtsiluni -- including my own poem Without Ceasing. That poem was written in high summer, and its metaphors reflect that season. This week I've caught some glimpses of what makes this season -- deep winter -- also beautiful here. And, of course, if the windmills and cicadas can offer praise, why not the snowplows?

I had fun with the alliteration and assonance in this draft. I'm still pondering the poem's stresses -- the first few lines have four stresses per line, the fourth line has five stresses, the fifth line has three and the sixth line has only two. (All the remaining lines have four -- at least I think they do.) I can't decide whether or not this bothers me. Read the poem, listen to the mp3, let me know what you think?

Stop SOPA and PIPA


Image borrowed from this post at storify.

Many of the internet's leading websites are "going dark" today to protest, and raise consciousness of, the danger of the impending passage of SOPA and PIPA, two pieces of US legislation which run the risk of destroying the internet as we know it.

I'm not going dark per se, but instead of posting new Velveteen Rabbi content today, I'm linking instead to the following articles. Please become informed on this issue and (if you are a US citizen) consider reaching out to your elected representatives to urge them not to let these bills pass.

  • Boing Boing will go dark on Jan 18 to fight SOPA & PIPA. "On January 18, Boing Boing will join Reddit and other sites around the Internet in "going dark" to oppose SOPA and PIPA, the pending US legislation that creates a punishing Internet censorship regime and exports it to the rest of the world."

  • "Internet Censorship Affects Everybody": Rebecca MacKinnon on the Global Struggle for Online Freedom."If we want democracy to survive in the internet age, we really need to work to make sure that the internet evolves in a manner that is compatible with democracy," MacKinnon says. "And that means exercising our power not only as consumers and internet users and investors, but also as voters, to make sure that our digital lives contain the same kind of protections of our rights that we expect in physical space."

  • MIT Media Lab opposes SOPA, PIPA."SOPA – the Stop Online Piracy Act – and a sister bill, PIPA – the Protect IP Act – seek to minimize the dissemination of copyrighted material online by targeting sites that promote and enable the sharing of copyright-protected material...[E]ntrepreneurs, legal scholars and free speech activists are worried about the consequences of these bills for the architecture of the Internet."

  • OTW action on SOPA/PIPA."The internet has been abuzz recently with comments about the 'Stop Online Piracy Act' (SOPA) currently under debate in the US House of Representatives, and its counterpart the 'Protect IP Act' (PIPA) in the Senate. Organizations such as the EFF and the Library Copyright Alliance have raised concerns that the bills - which are ostensibly aimed at curbing 'rogue' foreign sites - have significant implications for the web internationally, and will work to curb free speech and online creativity."

  • SOPA/PIPA: What's Up With That? "First up, this infographic, which sorted my brain and the various bits of disparate knowledge I had in it about these pieces of legislation in about 30 seconds flat (below it, you’ll find a few links to more information)..."

  • Stop American Censorship. "On Wednesday Jan. 18th thousands of sites will go dark to protest SOPA & PIPA, two US bills racing through Congress that threaten prosperity, online security, and freedom of expression..."


Contemporary poems for Shabbat morning prayer

This coming Shabbat, I'm planning to lead a service at my shul where contemporary poetry is juxtaposed with the traditional Hebrew liturgy. My hope is that the poems will offer new ways of understanding the liturgy, and vice versa. Just as a diamond-cutter uses one diamond to open new facets in another, just as Hasidic scholars use one verse of Torah to open new facets in another, we'll use these poems to reflect new understandings of the traditional liturgy...and perhaps the liturgy will be brought to bear on our understanding of the poems, too.

Some years ago I wrote a poem which imagines what it might be like if we read poetry with the repetition and fervor which characterizes our study of Torah and our prayer -- People of the Book. This service arises, in some way, out of the impulse which that poem both describes and enacts. And it also arises out of a wonderful morning service I attended at Ohalah, about which I posted here: Rumi illuminating morning prayer. In that service, a set of Rumi poems were linked with the traditional poems in the Hebrew morning liturgy. We would read a Rumi poem, then pray the Hebrew prayer which Reb Ed had linked with that poem -- and as the Rumi material shed new light on the prayers, the prayers too shed new light on the Rumi. I'm planning a Rumi service for my shul in May, but in the meanwhile, the experience of davening the morning liturgy alongside Rumi poems made me want to try the experience of davening the morning liturgy alongside poems by a variety of writers.

At my shul we daven from Mishkan T'filah, the current siddur of the Reform movement. (I posted some initial reflections on MT back when it was first published: A place where prayer can dwell.) Usually I lead the service which called, in that siddur, Shabbat Morning I. This is a service which pairs the traditional liturgy with "faithful translations" as well as with contemporary poems and readings chosen by MT's editors. I like it because it is flexible. I can lead a service which features more Hebrew or more English, more traditional text or more contemporary reflections, depending on how I'm feeling, who's there, how I sense they're responding or not responding, and so on. This time, I'll be leading from Shabbat Morning II, which features only the traditional material -- it doesn't have contemporary poems on the facing pages. Instead, we'll be using the poems I've chosen, reading each one alongside the prayer I think it speaks to.

Many of the poems I collected for this purpose have been in my regular re-reading rotation for years: poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Norman Fischer, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Seamus Heaney, Adrienne Rich, William Stafford, Marge Piercy, Jane Kenyon. Often I read these poems as prayer, whether or not their authors intended them that way. These are some of my favorite poems, and I am excited to introduce them (or reintroduce them) to this community in this way.

Others are poems I have only recently come to know: by Esther Cohen, Karel Kryl (I found that poem here at 如 (thus) 是), Anne Porter. And still others are poems I found by rereading the Worship issue of Qarrtsiluni -- which has been spectacular from start to finish, and was well worth re-reading.

Anyway, here's the handout we'll be using in this weekend's Shabbat service. Each poem here is meant to be read alongside a particular prayer; the page numbers on this handout come from Mishkan T'filah, but the prayers themselves are ones which appear in any siddur (Modeh/Modah Ani, Baruch She'amar, Psalm 150, Yishtabach, etc) so this handout could easily be used for any morning service. Feel free to borrow it, adapt it, transform it -- and if you use it, either as-is or in an adapted version, please let me know how it works for you! This is an experiment and I'm really looking forward to seeing what works and what needs tinkering before next time we try it again.

PoemsForPrayer [pdf]

Three Tu BiShvat Haggadot (Tu BiShvat is on its way!)

The moon of Tevet is beginning to wane. It will shrink down to nothingness and then grow again. When it next reaches roundness, the date will be the 15th of the month of Shvat: the full moon of the deep-winter lunar month when, Jewish tradition tells us, the sap begins to rise again to nurture trees for the year to come.

Tu BiShvat is the (observed) birthday of every tree, also known as the New Year of the Trees. It offers an opportunity to take a journey through the four worlds of existence (action / physicality, emotions, thought, and essence) and to experience those four worlds and the round of the seasons through consuming fruits and juices with holy intent.

This is a holiday I didn't grow up celebrating, but it's become a favorite in my adult life. In south Texas where I grew up -- and in the part of the world where the Tu BiShvat seder originated -- trees are preparing now to bloom. Here in western Masschusetts, this time of year is usually characterized by ice and snow...though also by the rise of sap in the sugar maples, followed by plumes of sweet steam rising from sugar shacks all over the hills.

Back in 2006 I shared a Tu BiShvat haggadah here. (Hard to believe that was six years ago!) This winter I've had occasion to revise it. It now exists in three editions: one for adults and teens, one for kids in first through fourth grades, and one for little kids. We'll use each of these three versions of this haggadah at my shul in our various Tu BiShvat celebrations this year.

These haggadot contain poetry, environmental teachings from Jewish tradition, kabbalistic (Jewish mystical) teachings about the four worlds, and illustrations of fruits to color in. (You can probably guess which of these three haggadot is geared in each of these ways.)

And I share them here, in case any of y'all need a Tu BiShvat haggadah this year! Feel free to use these as-is, or to use them to spark your own Tu BiShvat creativity. (I only ask that you keep the identifying information there, and/or credit me for the editing / compiling / creativity.) May your celebration of the New Year of the Trees be joyful, meaningful, and -- perhaps quite literally -- sweet.

Tu BiShvat Haggadah for Adults / Teens [pdf]

Tu BiShvat Haggadah for Kids  [pdf]

Tu BiShvat Haggadah for Little Kids [pdf]

Passing the virtual hat for a vandalized shul

Just before this past Shabbat, a small shul in New York City was broken-into and vandalized. The shul is Temple Beth-El of City Island -- "your shul by the sea" -- and its spiritual leader is Rabbi Shohama Wiener, the director of the ALEPH Hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) ordination program through which I was just ordained as a mashpi'ah. Working by her side is rabbinic student David Markus, one of my dearest friends. (Members of CBI, my shul here in the Berkshires, may remember him from his most recent visit to lead davenen with me -- he taught us to sing "Mi Chamocha" to the tune of "The Water is Wide"...)

TBE is unaffiliated with any denomination. It is the only shul in the area, and the community's been around for more than seventy years. They've been in this space since 1957. Reb David reports:

We had broken windows, thefts include all Torah crowns (retailing for thousands in silver, adorning Holocaust-era Torah scrolls), our silver kiddush cups and candleholders, etc. The place is a mess. Burglers tried to take our electronic equipment but dropped them in the sanctuary and fled; we can't use them while the NYPD investigates.

The community is under 100 but growing against substantial odds, reaching out to disaffiliated, young and old, interfaith families; non-Caucasian communities and elderly Jews who have little else. We are egalitarian and spiritual: we did one of the first same-sex marriages after New York legalized, and we mobilized heavily after 9/11 (we could see the Twin Towers from our street). Our dues are virtually nil and our doors are open free of charge during the holidays to ensure that everyone has somewhere to go.

So this vandalism is as much an emotional blow as a financial one, but we hope and pray that the larger community comes to our support in all the ways that we've tried to support the community over the years -- and that we'll emerge stronger and more united behind our values of inclusion and holy community.

May it be so, speedily and soon.

Some of you may have donated last year when I was passing the virtual hat to pay for prayer rug cleaning at a New York city mosque which was desecrated. I'd like to orchestrate a similar drive now. If you have a few bucks to spare, please send them to me via PayPal (rbarenblat at gmail dot com), and indicate in the subject line of your email that this is a donation for TBE. Before next Shabbat, I'll collect whatever has been donated and will send a check to TBE. Your donation won't be tax-deductible (because I'm an individual, not a nonprofit) but let me know whether you want your name to be included on the list of donors or whether you'd prefer to give anonymously and I will honor your wishes either way.

I know these are tough economic times for a lot of us, but if you can spare a few dollars, please send them along. The money will help Temple Beth El of City Island restore their sanctuary and their precious ritual items, and the gesture of making the donation will help them know that they are in our prayers and in our hearts.

Edited to add: Thank you to all who donated; we raised $884 during the week following the break-in, and another $100 came in to my rabbi's discretionary fund earmarked for TBE, so all in all, we raised $984. Thank you, thank you, thank you. If you would like to donate further, there is now a PayPal button on the TBE website.


Names, and opening our eyes

Here's the d'var Torah I gave this morning at Congregation Beth Israel. (Originally posted at the From the Rabbi blog.)

In this week's Torah portion we re-enter one of my favorite stories, and one of the deepest stories, about Moshe Rabbenu, our teacher Moses. It is also, I believe, a story about each of us.

Moshe is tending sheep in the wilderness when something remarkable happens. An angel of God appears to Moshe in the midst of a burning bush.

According to the late 13th century Kabbalist Bachya ben Asher, there's a process here of opening of awareness. Moses first sees a bush, then he sees that it's on fire, then he sees that it's not consumed. He's really looking at what's there -- not just filling in the blanks of what he expects to see, which is the way most of us see things most of the time. Moshe, though: he looks deeper into the bush which burns, and then he's able to hear the voice of God.

Take off your shoes, God tells Moshe -- the Torah tells us -- for you stand on holy ground. In the Hasidic understanding, this isn't a literal instruction about footwear so much as an instruction about removing whatever impediments are keeping us from encountering holiness. Remove your habitual ways of seeing so that you can witness the miracle before your eyes. Remove whatever is keeping you distant from God.

This is going to sound like a digression, but I promise you it isn't. Every morning, in the blessings for the miracles of each day, we say the blessing Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam, poke'ach ivrim -- Blessed are You, Adonai, who opens the eyes of the blind. And then later, we say Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam, ha-mevir shena m'einai u'tnumah me-afapai -- who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids.

Why, the sages ask, do we bless God Who opens our eyes and only afterward bless God Who removes sleep from our eyes and slumber from our eyelids? Shouldn't it be the other way around? And our sages answer: it's because falling asleep can always happen. And waking, too. The film that covers our eyes -- sometimes we're not even aware that it's there. This isn't, in other words, about literal sleep or literal blindness.

Moshe looks at the burning bush and he sees that it's a miracle because his eyes are truly open. We, too, stand in front of the burning bush. It still burns. It's up to us to practice opening our eyes, on every level, so that we can see all of the miracles which are right in front of us. So often, we go through our days spiritually asleep: our eyes may be open, but we're so caught up in our anxieties or frustrations or distractions that we don't notice God's fire right in front of us.

At the bush, Moshe says: You're giving me a mission, but who shall I say sent me? And God says, tell them that you were sent by the God of your ancestors; tell them that Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh sent you.

Many of you know that the Tetragrammaton, the Name of God which we can spell but not pronounce -- Yud / Heh / Vav / Heh -- is often understood as a mysterious form of the Hebrew verb "to be." It seems to mean something like Was and Is and Will Be, all at the same time. And sure enough, God's name here is given as Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming. God says, tell them that I Who Am Becoming sent you.

We are made in the divine image. Like God, we are always becoming. And we don't know who we will become. In Stanley Kunitz's words, in his beautiful poem The Layers:

Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

The fact that we are always changing is part of what makes us like God. God isn't static, unchanging, always the same. On the contrary -- God is constant transformation. God is the force for transformation in our lives.

An invitation. To notice the miracles around us. To notice the bush as it still burns on. To remove whatever stands in the way of our encounter with God. To remember that, like God, we are always becoming -- and like Moshe, we are always confronted with radical new possibilities, if only we will open our eyes.

My second smicha

Getting my wings. Photo by Janice Rubin.

At the Ohalah conference of Jewish Renewal clergy this year I was ordained a second time, as a Mashpi'ah Ruchanit -- a Jewish Spiritual Director. This journey began three years ago, with the first winter intensive retreat of this second hashpa'ah training cohort; I wrote about that in the post Our first four days of hashpa'ah.

What is hashpa'ah? The Hebrew term comes from the root which connotes shefa, divine flow; a mashpia (M) or mashpi'ah (F) strives to help people discern the presence of God in their lives. (The most common English term for this work is spiritual direction.) For me, hashpa'ah is first and foremost a relationship. In my practice of hashpa'ah, I hope to help others navigate Jewish faith and practice in a way which encourages and fosters deeper relationship with the Divine -- as my own mashpi'ah does for me.

ALEPH's spiritual direction training program is unique; as far as I know it's the only one of its kind (leading both to certification and to smicha, ordination). It includes four intensive classes (learning done in-person on retreat), three semesters of teleconference coursework, four semesters of supervised hashpa'ah practice with individuals and groups, and supplemental learning in related areas. Participants trained individually and in group settings with mashpi'im (spiritual directors) who supported our spiritual growth in relationship to God and sacred service, and who modeled different forms of spiritual counseling and spiritual direction for and with us.

Reb Zalman addresses the hashpa'ah musmachim. Photo by Janice Rubin.

The training culminated in a beautiful ceremony. Two by two we approached the bimah and placed items of personal meaning on the bedecked table which served as our makeshift altar. There was some chant, some learning (I especially enjoyed Reb Zalman's short history of hashpa'ah, from his experiences in Chabad in 1942 all the way through the foundation of this ordination program), and some presentations by the musmachim which aimed to offer glimpses of our training and our work.

And then we were each called up by name. Each of us stood with our teachers on all four sides: Reb Nadya behind us, Reb Shohama in front of us, Reb Sarah and Reb Shawn to left and right. One by one each of us was ordained to serve as mashpi'a(h) ruchani(t) and blessed to go forward from the place where our teachers stand. And then we left the bimah, collected our items from the makeshift altar, and processed down the aisle through the gateway of our teachers' arched hands... receive, with great laughter, pairs of beautiful bright red feathered wings. Because we learned a lot during these three years about angels in Jewish tradition, and this hashpa'ah smicha is sometimes jokingly referred-to in our community as "getting your wings." And while while we take the work of spiritual direction seriously, and we take the calling of helping others connect with the presence of God seriously, we tend not to take ourselves too seriously. The beautiful certificate of ordination, I'll frame and place in my rabbinic office; the wings, I suspect, may stay in my home office, mementos of a sweet moment at Ohalah 5772.

Dear ALEPH and Ohalah hevre

Dear ALEPH and Ohalah hevre,

Y'all are awesome.

Okay, I don't actually know all of you. Even after six Ohalah conferences, I don't quite know everyone in Ohalah, and it's a little bit surreal to discover that I don't know all of the ALEPH ordination students anymore, either. But many of you are among the people most dear to me, and many others among you are the kind of once-a-year-friends with whom I am always happy to daven, to eat, to sing, to exchange a beatific smile across the sanctuary or across the buffet line.

Some of you are people I met at my very first retreats at the old Elat Chayyim in Accord, New York, back when I was first discovering Jewish Renewal and learning that the Reb Zalman about whom I had read in The Jew in the Lotus really was as wonderful as he sounded. Some of you are people I met during my first smicha students' week, when I was in the process of applying to the ALEPH rabbinic program -- I remember raising a cup of ginger tea with some of you in the old Elat Chayyim dining room, toasting to "smicha or bust!" Some of you I have known since college; some of you I have only just met.

Some of you are teachers who have enriched my life with the wonder of Torah's endless riches. Some of you are my friends who have also become my teachers. Some of you are my teachers who have also, much to my delight, become my friends. Some of you laid your hands on me this time last year and ordained me to serve as a rabbi, which remains one of the most powerful experiences of my life. Some of you laid your hands on me this year and ordained me as a spiritual director, which was gentle and sweet.

During these five days of Shabbaton and conference we've davened, sung, studied, and chatted together. We've opened our minds and hearts to new ideas and new insights. We've luxuriated together in the hot tub under the stars. We've argued and discussed, learned and leyned. We know that these are things which have no limit, and that we are blessed to be able to do them together.

I love the fact that every year at this season I get to join you here in Colorado, to beam at you and embrace you, to catch up on your lives and to share news of mine, to show off photos of our children and our pets on our phones. I love the fact that when we daven together I get to sing favorite old melodies and also to learn new ones. I love how we break into impromptu harmony together, day after day. I love how every time we gather, the time since our last gathering seems to collapse in a kind of tesseract and it's as though we never parted.

Thanks for a wonderful Shabbaton and conference. I'm heading home happily exhausted, my brain filled with ideas and melodies, my heart filled with our connections. Cosi revaya: my cup overflows. May your travels home be safe and smooth, and may the Holy One of Blessing watch over you until we meet again.

Rumi illuminating morning prayer

Sufi calligraphy; image borrowed from Rumi Online.

You could be forgiven for imagining that all my rabbinic community does, when we get together, is pray. It's not true, of course. The Ohalah conference includes all sorts of plenary sessions and workshops. Also we schmooze, study together, break bread together, laugh and cry together. (Just within the first 24 hours of this year's conference, I got to study the halakhot of menschlichkeit with Reb Sami, to attend a tikkun olam committee meeting, and to pore happily over Rosensweig and Levinas with Reb Laura.) But the prayer is often a particular treat for me. I have other opportunities in my life for schmoozing and studying, but not always for encountering creative approaches to prayer.

Yesterday morning I attended a really beautiful service led by my friend Rabbi Ed Stafman -- a service in which each of the prayers of the morning liturgy was paired with a poem by Persian mystic poet Rumi. It was amazing. Reb Ed chose the Rumi poems so that each would illuminate a particular prayer or line of prayer. Some of the poems he chose were old favorites of mine; others were new to me. Many of them took my breath away, both as poems qua poems and as ways of expressing the ideas and themes I find in our liturgy.

I love the way that these poems offer me new understandings of the liturgy I know so well. And they're beautiful poems, too; they're excellent on their own. But used in this way, as lenses through which to read the traditional prayers, they open the liturgy for me in new ways.

Here's one of my favorites from that service. This is the Rumi poem which R' Ed paired with the blessing for peace which comes at the end of the amidah. (The translation is by Coleman Barks.)

One Song

Every war and every conflict
between human beings has happened
because of some disagreement about names.

It is such an unnecessary foolishness,
because just beyond the arguing
there is a long table of companionship
set and waiting for us to sit down.

What is praised is one, so the praise is one too,
many jugs being poured into a huge basin.
All religions, all this singing, one song.

The differences are just illusion and vanity.
Sunlight looks a little different
on this wall than it does on that wall
and a lot different on this other one,
but it is still the same light.

We have borrowed these clothes,
these time-and-space personalities,
from a light, and when we praise,
we are pouring them back in.

I love this poem, especially the idea that "what is praised is one, so the praise is one too, / many jugs being poured into a huge basin." And I also love it as a mirror for the Sim Shalom blessing, which asks God to grant peace (and also goodness, blessing, grace, lovingkindness, and compassion) to us and to our community and our people.

This is exactly the kind of thing which draws me back to Ohalah each year: not only the chance to pray and learn and laugh and sing and dine with dear friends, but also the chance to be enlivened by new ideas which I never would have imagined had I not come. I'm already planning a Rumi-based service for the congregation I serve. (It will be on May 5; if you're in or near Western Massachusetts, do join us.)

Amazing Shabbat morning prayer

There's really nothing like the experience of praying with a room full of people who I know and love (and who know and love me), all of whom know and love the liturgy, all of whom offer prayers with song and joy. This is one of the things which is most revitalizing to me about spending time with my ALEPH community.

Shabbat morning services at the pre-Ohalah Shabbaton this year were amazing. Everyone on the bimah was a dear friend of mine, which meant I felt an outpouring of warmth (in both directions: from me to them, from them to me) the moment I walked in the room. Two of my friends led an extraordinary psukei d'zimrah (the opening section of the service -- psalms and poems of praise), which featured chant and song and the tiniest tastes of silence to help the prayers reverberate within us.

I knew we were in good hands from moment one, so I was able to relax into the prayer experience right away. The music was so good -- and the prayers so heartfelt and fervent -- that I was honestly transported. After the first psalm or two, David leaned over to me and whispered "welcome home." And yeah: that's very much how this feels. Returning to a kind of portable home, constructed every time we gather, made from prayer and from song. And there was nothing else tugging at us, nothing else we were supposed to be doing or remembering or thinking about. It felt as though our only purpose, that morning, was to come together and sing praises. Which is what Shabbat is supposed to be, though it isn't always.

Singing the Iraqi setting for "Hallelu Avdei Adonai" (which you can hear recorded by Richard Kaplan and Michael Zielger if you're so inclined) was particularly sweet for me. There was good hand-drumming, and the community picked up the refrain easily and sang it with fervor. As the melody skated higher and higher I found myself teary with joy. "Offer praises, you servants of the Most High" -- it's amazing to pray those words when everyone in the room understands themselves to be such a servant. Rabbis, rabbinic pastors, cantors, spiritual directors: we've all dedicated ourselves to serving God and serving our community. We sang our hearts out. It was grand.

I could have been content to stop there, with just p'sukei d'zimrah and shacharit (the first two parts of the service) -- but of course there was more! And the Torah service was fantastic too. Another of my friends led us through that service, singing the words and melodies of bringing forth Torah in a way which made clear how much those words meant to her and to all of us. And still another of my friends gave the dvar Torah -- and in so doing, brought the room to a kind of charged anticipatory silence, as one might experience at a really good poetry reading or a really powerful wedding. We hung on his words and they opened up Torah for us in new ways.

From the very first wordless niggun at the start of the morning, to the closing Adon Olam at the end of the morning, we were awash in harmony and praise. It was pretty awesome, in the original sense of that word. I am so grateful.

Mountain streams

How lucky I am that these are two glimpses of my first week of January:

A stream running at the foot of Shaker Mountain, which I climbed last Wednesday
with dear friends on a geocaching excursion. (The mountain, I mean, not the stream.)

A stream at the trailhead of a trail somewhere in Boulder County
where I strolled on Friday with other dear friends before the beginning of the Ohalah Shabbaton.