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March 2012

Small Victories


Snowpants take time,
thick boots take time,
laboriously fitting small mittens
to small thumbs, but

when we finally exit the house
I have to shade my eyes
from the brilliance.
Without walls, breath expands.

Late February, early Adar:
every woodpecker and chickadee
is out today, calling
from one bare tree to the next.

Tomorrow morning
Monday's gears will grind again,
windshield glazed opaque
with petty frustrations

but now my son grips his shovel
like a proud orange flag
and valiantly climbs
what the snowplow left behind.

Sometimes merely making it outdoors feels like a victory, in late February when winter (even this mild winter) has settled me firmly in my groove on the livingroom couch. Sometimes merely noticing my amazing son and his enjoyment of the world feels like a victory. It's all too easy to take things for granted. How can we take these little victories with us into the week, talismans against whatever sorrow or indignation tries to weigh us down?

On meditation

The subject of meditation came up in conversation recently with one of my loved ones. They asked whether meditation is difficult, whether it's something one needs to go to a class in order to learn how to do. Or, they quipped, can one learn it on the internet?

What I said -- or at least, what I think I said; what I meant to say -- was no, meditation is not difficult (not in any technical sense, anyway), and classes are not necessary. Of course, I added, there are many different kinds of meditation. But here is the kind I try to practice:

Sit still. Take a few breaths. Try to focus on your breath as it rises and falls, as it comes and goes. Try to notice each breath: now I am breathing in. Now I am breathing out. Now I am breathing in. Now I am breathing out.

The mind will wander. That's what minds do. My mind wanders all the time. Whenever I notice it wandering off somewhere -- worrying about something that hasn't happened yet, or rehashing something that is already over -- I gently bring it back to this moment right now, this breath. In and out. And in. And out.

I try to be attentive to what arises in me as I sit and breathe. This is a very good way for me to figure out what I'm anxious about, or why I'm feeling wound-up, or what emotions exactly are roiling in me -- joy, pride, sadness, fear, whatever the case may be. Meditation isn't about tamping down my inner clamor, per se; it's more a practice of noticing.

Often there is some anxiety or worry or sadness tickling my consciousness somewhere. As I sit, eventually I notice it. I mentally say to it: I see you. I hear you. I recognize you. You've done your job. You can go now. And then I exhale and try to let it go. Whatever it is, I try to name it and let it go.

Sometimes I sit with a mantra, a word or phrase which I repeat in my mind and heart. Sometimes it's "Right here, right now," which I learned from Lorianne years ago. Breathing in: right here. Breathing out: right now. A reminder to be in the moment, this very moment. Resist the temptation to return to yesterday or anticipate tomorrow.

Sometimes I use "Heart, open." Breathing in, I say to my heart, heart? And breathing out, I ask it to open. With each breath, I try to open up: to myself, to whatever is arising in me, to whatever I am feeling and experiencing. To whatever comes my way today. The first two words of the shema work well in this way, too. Shema, Yisrael. "Listen, O Israel." Listen up, self. Listen and remember the unity of all things. And now, again, listen. And now. And now.

Sometimes, before I stop, I spend a few moments setting the conscious intention of being kind and compassionate. I envision compassion and kindness as a kind of soft light, and I imagine enveloping in that light first myself, then the people around me, then people further away. To people I love, and then to people who push my buttons. I see how far I can imagine extending that sphere.

And then I return to my day.

It's not difficult in the sense of having an elaborate process or lingo one needs to master. One needn't be able to sit in any particular position. What's difficult, often, is making the time to do it. Reminding myself that this is important and that I am calmer and more awake when I manage to do it regularly. And being compassionate toward myself even when I don't manage to do it as often as I would like.

There's no way to "fail" at meditation except not to do it. I do feel honor-bound to mention that if this kind of practice leads to enlightenment, I have yet to "get there" myself; this is not a practice which will turn you into someone who is instantly wise and serene! But I do find that this practice makes me more attentive. Sometimes it gives me a sense of perspective. And I think both of these help me get closer to being the person I most want to be.

I lead a weekly meditation group at my shul on Friday mornings at 8:15am. If this interests you, and you live nearby, all are welcome; no previous experience with meditation required.

Meditation resources:

A d'var Torah for parashat T'rumah: on gifts, sanctuaries, and hearts

Here's the d'var Torah I'll be giving tomorrow at my shul -- so if you're coming to services, you might want to skip this post! (Crossposted from my From the Rabbi blog.)

This week's parsha, T'rumah, begins with God telling Moshe to tell the children of Israel to bring gifts. Moshe is to accept gifts from "each person whose heart is so moved." The gifts -- leather and wood, fabric and gold -- will be used to build the mishkan, the portable tabernacle: the house for God's presence.

The word mishkan comes from the same root as the word Shekhinah, the immanent, indwelling divine Presence. Shekhinah is the aspect of God which dwells here in creation; which dwells in us. And sure enough, in the verses we read today, God says, "let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them." Or, perhaps, "let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell in them."

We build the sanctuary out of our freewill offerings, the gifts of our own hearts. And in return, God dwells not in the physical structure, no matter how beautiful it may be -- but in us.

So if God dwells in us, why do we need to build the sanctuary?

Continue reading "A d'var Torah for parashat T'rumah: on gifts, sanctuaries, and hearts" »

Thoughts on Adar

Chodesh tov -- happy new month! Today is an extra-special new moon: we're entering the month of Adar.

"When Adar enters, joy increases." -- Ta'anit 29a (Talmud)

"The month which was transformed for them from sorrow to joy." -- Esther, 9:22

Adar is a month of joy for us because it contains Purim. Purim, when we celebrate the story of how the Jews of Shushan were saved from the plotting of the evil Haman, thanks to the righteousness of Mordechai and the bravery of his niece Esther. Purim, when we wear costumes and masks to disguise our usual selves (and perhaps in so doing, reveal some hidden facet of who we might be.)

On the surface, it seems obvious why Purim is a joyful holiday. We're celebrating yet another story in which our people survived against all odds! Purim features costumes, silliness, and commotion. At Purim, we stamp our feet and gnash noisemakers in synagogue to drown out the name of Haman. Purim plays (called Purimspiels) often feature ribald humor of the sort rarely otherwise heard from the bimah.

And, I think there are also other, maybe deeper, reasons why Purim is a time of joy. At Purim, we celebrate surprise twists and inversions. Haman plotted to destroy us, but instead he was destroyed; he erected a gallows for Mordechai, but swung on it himself. Purim reminds us that everything turns and changes, and that we can find holiness in the surprise twists and turns of our own story.

It appears at first glance as though the Purim story is entirely about good guys and bad guys -- but many Hasidic masters read this holiday as an opportunity to spiritually elevate ourselves beyond those distinctions. At Purim, we're instructed to become so "perfumed" by the celebration of the holiday that we entirely transcend the dualism of good and evil, moving to a place where all is God.

Speaking of God: at Purim, God appears to be entirely hidden. God's name is never mentioned in the megillah of Esther. (Those of you who've been reading this blog for some years have heard me say this before, but I think it is a gorgeous teaching every year, so forgive me, I'm offering it again.) It appears at first glance as though the story unfolds entirely without divine presence or divine help.

But many of the first several columns of handwritten text each begin with the same word: Ha-Melech, The King. The King, the King, the King. The Sovereign. The Ruler. Who is the real king in this story? Surely not Achashverosh, who comes across as something of a bumbling buffoon. The real king here is the one who is hidden, but is manifest everywhere for those who have eyes to discern: God. What greater reason could there be to awaken our communal sense of joy?


(Crossposted to my From the Rabbi blog, along with our Song for the Month of Adar.)

A really lovely review of 70 faces in the CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly


What a delightful surprise: The CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly (the magazine published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis) has reviewed 70 faces alongside three other collections of poetry (among them Merle Feld's and Yehoshua November's, both of which I reviewed for Zeek -- Feld's here, November's here.) The review, written by Rabbi Adam D. Fisher (the journal's poetry editor), can be found in the magazine's winter 2012 issue.

Here are some tastes of the review:

Rachel Barenblat, a rabbi living in Western Massachusetts, has given us a real gift -- a poem for each sidrah. They are beautifully written; accessible; and perfect for reading on a Shabbat afternoon or sharing with a community in a sermon, Torah, introduction to a Torah reading, or in a study group.

There are so many good poems with so many important insights it is hard to know where to start...

I'm pleased that the editors of the journal opted to run a review of the collection, and honored that Rabbi Fisher likes the poems so well. Here's more:

Rabbi Barenblat writes a wonderful midrash on Sh'mini where it tells us to break any earthen vessel into which something unclean falls. In "Vessel," she writes, "The heart is an earthen vessel, / the body an urn." She then provides us with beautiful images of ourselves when she says that we are "made from dust . . . and patched with slip, / divine fingerprints everywhere." After pointing out a few of the unsettling things that happen to us she says, "each of these charges the heart / with uncanny energy, untouchable. / /All you can do is break the clay / wide open, crack the very housing. / What hurts is what draws you/ ever nearer to what we can't reach."

Barenblat also helps us with some of the most difficult-to-explain passages. In "Like God" (Tazria) she begins, "When a woman carries a grain of rice /invisible inside her rounded belly" then tells us some of the difficulties of pregnancy, and "when a woman gives birth to an infant / even the air around her crackles . . . /changed by the enorrnity of being like God/ and shaping new life in her compassionate womb." She gets us beyond the sacrifices and the ritual uncleanness, and gets to the heart of the matter: the wonder of pregnancy and childbirth. Barenblat, who has a son, doesn't romanticize pregnancy and childbirth but she does understand Tazria in terms of its most fundamental meaning.

Rabbi Fisher has kind things to say about the cycle of akedah poems, about the Jacob and Esau poems, the Moshe poems. He quite likes my poem for parashat Chukat: "She is especially inventive and playful in 'Red Heifer' (Chukat): 'Could Moshe have imagined / the Red Heifer Steakhouse / on King George Street/ in Jerusalem? He never crossed/ /the Jordan, a Diaspora Jew /to the last of his days...'"

And here's how his review ends:

Not every poem will strike a chord within all us -- no book could do that -- but there are such riches here that everyone will find many, many poems that will help him or her see these passages with new eyes.

Thank you so much, Rabbi Fisher! (As a reminder: 70 faces is available directly from the publisher, or on Amazon.)


Worth reading: two posts about Israel

I'm on the road and don't have time to write anything substantive this week, but I wanted to signal-boost a couple of things I've read in recent days.

The first is an essay by Israeli Dahlia Scheindlin: Dear liberal American Jews: Please don’t betray Israel, published in the online journal +972. (If you're unfamiliar with the magazine, here's their About page.) Dahlia's essay calls on liberal American Jews to resist the temptation to turn away -- and also the temptation to remain silent.

I am particularly moved by her point that it seems, sometimes, as though American Jews love Israel only when we are shown its beautiful side. I think she's right that many of us who yearn for Israel to be the fulfillment of our highest ideals of righteousness have a difficult time facing some of what's happening there. But I suspect my Israeli friends would agree with her that we must resist the temptation to turn away. More: we must stand with our Israeli friends, relatives, and colleagues as they do the hard work of repairing their nation.

The other thought-provoking (though depressing) post I've read about Israel recently comes from Israeli-American Emily L. Hauser. Her post is called The Khader Adnan case and Israel’s criminal stupidity, and it's about Palestinian Khader Adnan who is being held in "administrative detention" (which is to say: arrested without charge and held indefinitely) and who is near death from a longstanding hunger strike. (My colleague Rabbi Brant Rosen also posted about Adnan recently.)

Emily doesn't shy away from the reality that she doesn't like Adnan and she doesn't like Islamic Jihad, but she argues (and I agree with her) that administrative detention and torture are still unethical. She also makes the case that they are unwise -- that the Israeli government's treatment of Adnan only raises the profile of Islamic Jihad and creates another very high-profile martyr. (Rabbis for Human Rights has an excellent selection of Jewish teachings about torture and indefinite detention -- intended to spark conversation about U.S. policies, but the texts and teachings are equally valid here.)

I pray for peace and for transformation, in the Middle East and every place where violence and hatred mangle human lives. Please, God, speedily and soon.

Dear Velveteen Rabbi readers: please remember that I am traveling with my son and my online time is limited; I will not be constantly online to keep conversation civil. Comments are unmoderated for now, but please don't take that as an opportunity to speak unkindly toward or about anyone. Thanks, y'all.

Commentary on Mishpatim

My good friend Reb Jeff put up two posts recently about this week's Torah portion, Mishpatim. Here's a taste of one:

The rabbis loved the Torah so much that they struggled to find meaning in it, even in the places where it seems harsh or difficult. 

We do the same thing with the people we love. When you love someone who has a difficult personality, you take extra pains to know that person more deeply, to understand the experiences that have shaped him or her so you can respond compassionately and with forgiveness, even when that person is being difficult. The Torah is like that, too. It was raised in an age when slavery was common, when men had tremendous power over women, and when most people had little control over their destiny. The Torah is shaped by those experiences. Because the rabbis loved the Torah, they probed it deeply to understand it and to read it compassionately as a text that brings deeper spirituality and meaning into life.

In our own day, we continue the process of interpreting the Torah. We don’t need to reject Torah to deal with its difficulties. In fact, we embrace the idea that Torah should be difficult. It should challenge us to find meaning in our lives. Life, we know, is not easy and we need to learn how to negotiate life’s challenges and hardships while maintaining our ability to find joy in it.

Read the whole thing here: Mishpatim: the Purpose of the Torah.

The other is a Torah poem, called simply Mishpatim. Here's a taste of that:

The legal jumble wants to be sorted
Like a box of samples and scraps.
What is cherished, what discarded,
What left-overs are sewn into my 
Patchwork acceptance of the yoke?

Both are really worth reading. Thanks for your Torah teaching, dear Reb Jeff.

(And for those interested in Torah poetry, here's the poem I wrote out of this portion a few years ago: Like a feast. It also appears in 70 faces, though I think I revised it before publication there.)

Shabbat shalom from south Texas!



Last time we visited Texas, my son was 18 months old:

My son and my dad. June 2011.

This time, he's two years and 2.5 months. (Eight months make a big difference at this age.) I'm looking forward to once again reintroducing him to my hometown, and to his extended Texas clan.

I'm not sure he understands when I say we're going on a plane to see his grandparents, though he repeats the words: "onna plane! See Na, see Pop!"

And while we're there, we get to celebrate the wedding of one of my cousins. A joy all around.

Blogging will be minimal (or nonexistent) while we're on the road. So will my ability to respond to email and comments. Thanks for understanding. See y'all on the flipside.

Three scenes from congregational life


On Shabbat morning I give a blessing to a nonagenarian in my kahal, who when I was in rabbinic school used to shake my hand after every service I led and tell me "good job." He has been a pillar of so many different communities and institutions around these parts (among them the local high school basketball team). He hasn't come to daven in a long time and there is joy in seeing him back in his usual sanctuary seat. I offer to bring the aliyah to him (our small sanctuary is intimate) but he wants to come up to the bimah. He slowly and painstakingly brings his tzitzit to touch the Torah scroll and recites the blessing with his daughters; then I read "Honor your father and your mother" and the room murmurs with appreciation at the confluence of life and verse. What an extraordinary blessing, to be able to do this, even though my voice is occasionally a bit scratchy all morning long.



On Sunday morning I stand in for our usual Hebrew school storyteller and tell a fictionalized version of the story of Honi and the man who was planting a carob tree. Jane usually personalizes her stories, I've noticed. And having just read a version of the tale which is transplanted (as it were) into modern times, I decide to make the story about myself as a girl at a peach orchard in the Texas hill country. When we do our belated Tu BiShvat seder later in the morning and we reach the tale of Honi the kids make noises of recognition: they see what I did there. (I pause the seder to tell them the rest of the story -- about Honi sleeping for 70 years -- though I don't go as far as the ending, where he chooses death over solitude.) The dried figs are especially delicious, and the tiny cups of coconut water we drink in lieu of eating coconut. But my voice is only semi-present; I manage to lead them in a call-and-response rendition of Adamah v'shamayim but it's a near thing.



Today a light snow has fallen. The new year of the trees may have come and gone, but the landscape is a white page marked only by animal tracks: winter has returned. Today I have no voice at all. An opportunity to imagine myself on a silent meditation retreat, I suppose, and to consider carefully everything I want to say before I type or write. Some of the things I do, as a rabbi, can be done in silence: emails following up on conversations, leaving little notes for congregants on Facebook, arranging this and that, planning future Hebrew school lessons for days when I have the voice to offer them. But most of what I do, I'm realizing, requires voice. My pastoral presence relies on my ability to respond to what's said. Even Torah study, our tradition teaches, is best done in hevruta, in the context of the friendship which arises through the back-and-forth of learning in conversation. What will I learn, I wonder, from the Torah of this experience, being temporarily unable to speak?

Caring for others, caring for ourselves - a d'var Torah for parashat Yitro

Here's the d'var Torah I'll be giving tomorrow morning at shul (so if you're going to be davening at CBI, you might opt to skip this post!) -- crossposted from my congregational From the Rabbi blog.


This week's Torah portion, Yitro, begins with a story about Moshe Rabbeinu -- our teacher Moses -- and his father-in-law Yitro, a Midianite priest. Moshe greets his father-in-law with a low bow and with kisses, both signs of great respect.

The next day, Moshe sits as a magistrate among the people all day long. By nightfall, Yitro counsels him: you can't do this alone -- the task of leadership is too heavy for you. Instead, Yitro advises him to establish a system of judges who can share the burden, and Moshe does exactly as his father-in-law suggests.

Immediately after that comes the passage we read in shul today, which tells how on the third new moon after the Israelites went forth from Mitzrayim, they enter the wilderness of Sinai. In that wilderness, they prepare themselves for revelation, and then God speaks the Ten Commandments -- tradition says, not only to those who were there that day, but to all of us throughout time.

But before the commandments, before that mystical Sinai moment, God says:

If you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you will be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5-6)


וְעַתָּה, אִם-שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-בְּרִיתִי-וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, כִּי-לִי כָּל-הָאָרֶץ וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ


The earth and all its inhabitants are God's, but Torah says that we are something special. If we live in covenant with God, then we are God's סְגֻלָּה / segulah -- precious possession or treasure; we are מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹ / mamlechet kohanim v'goy kadosh -- a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

What can we make of this, and how does this relate to the story of Yitro with which the parsha began?

Continue reading "Caring for others, caring for ourselves - a d'var Torah for parashat Yitro" »

How to have a Wednesday

Wake up before the alarm.
Linger in bed for five more minutes.
Shower. Recite Modah Ani in the shower. Dress.
Listen for the toddler: not making any noise.
Good, a few minutes to check email. Check email. Respond.
Close up laptop, go downstairs, enter the toddler's room.
Watch him sleep, a comma curled at one end of his crib, breathing slow and steady.
Feel tenderness. Feel regret at having to turn off the white-noise machine.
Listen to his breathing change and his babble begin.
Chat with him. Change his diaper.
Pull a green shirt with a moose on it out of the drawer.
When he refuses it, put it back and look for a blue shirt, per his request.
Feel relief that he accepts a shirt with blue stripes.
Give him goldfish. Play with trains.
Pile him in the car, go to daycare, drop him off.
Drive north to the coffee shop.
Get a cup of joe and a bagel with chive cheese.
Read email again. Respond.
Meet with colleagues. Talk about life. Study some Torah.
Talk about possible themes for Shavuot. Inside / outside. Otherness. Harvest.
Meet with the youth group leader to plan a trip to the big city.
Feel chagrin about not having time to dedicate to the youth group.
Remind yourself again that this is a half-time job.
Answer more email. Tell a friend you love him.
Dash to the high school. Find the principal's office.
Meet there with two principals and another rabbi to talk about diversity.
Discuss the invisible backpack of privilege, Anne Frank, living color.
Emerge into the sunshine. Head to the grocery store.
Choose fruits with shells, fruits with pits, fruits which are soft all the way through.
Nab a plate from the salad bar because no way is there time for lunch.
Stop at the liquor store, pick out some wine with pictures of trees on the label.
Chat with the salesman about the bourbon made just down the road.
Race to synagogue. Unload the groceries. Eat lunch at the desk.
Cringe to notice your lousy posture (again) and your kinked-up back (again.)
Choose green tablecloths for the seder table.
Pick up fallen branches from the woods behind the building, for a centerpiece.
Trim the centerpiece because otherwise it's going to poke people in the eyes.
Answer email. Schedule a puppet-making workshop.
Research blessings for aging. Dig up Reb Zalman's Elder Creed.
Realize you don't have a text for Torah study this week.
Browse a few different books before deciding to check out Kedushat Levi.
Translate a short text. Ponder the translation. Revise for clarity.
Dig up a citation and read that. Format a handout. Answer email.
Take a phone call, offer condolences, feel sorrow.
Take another phone call, say yes of course there's always room at the table,
run out to move the tables and add more chairs.
Make five more copies of the haggadah for Tu BiShvat, collate, staple.
Send an email about a shiva minyan.
Make a handout for Shabbat morning.
Tidy the sanctuary. Drag the classroom table out, set the chairs back in semicircles.
Practice guitar chords. Finish setting the Tu BiShvat table.
Take a phone call from a woman in dire straits a thousand miles away.
Offer her a blessing for her luck to turn, promise to do what you can.
Wish you had any idea how to verify her story. Wish you had money to send.
Rub your eyes, which feel gritty and leaden.
Put on your coat, go outside, daven mincha.
Marvel that at 5pm it is not dark. Know that spring is coming.
Change gears. Welcome people into the building.
Celebrate Tu BiShvat with a potluck seder.
Know that the sap is rising: in the maples, in the cosmic tree of life.
Know that we can eat in a way which creates healing on high.
Wonder whether you've communicated these things with anyone.
Talk about foreign languages; attempt to answer a Harry Potter riddle.
Drive home, too late to see the toddler.
Thank your in-laws for looking after him.
Have a glass of wine.

Etrogcello for Tu BiShvat

Remember last Sukkot? The sound of cornstalks rustling on the roof of my car as I drove slowly home from Renton's farmer's market. The trees on our hills still bright with fading leaves. Carrying my lulav and etrog out to the sukkah in the rain-washed morning, and shaking them in all four directions as I dodged the raindrops still dripping from the sukkah's so-called roof.

And then, when the festival was over, my reluctance to discard the beautiful fragrant etrogim. They had come such a long way to reach us, just in time for the festival! So I peeled them, and poured vodka over the thin shavings of yellow skin, and set them in a cupboard to wait in the dark. At first the shavings sat at the bottom of a bottle of clear liquid. Over time, some alchemy transpired. The liquid became golden, the peel ever-more translucent. Now, some months later, they have been transformed from this:

Etrog, sliced open.

To this:

Before decanting.

I open the jar and am washed with a heady wave of the scent of etrog. Surely smell is one of the most evocative senses: one whiff and I'm transported back to the day before Yom Kippur when I first lifted last year's etrogim out of their foam cradles and brought them to my face to inhale their extraordinary scent. Nothing else smells quite like an etrog. It's lemony, yes, to be sure, but it's more than that. Richer, sharper, more complicated. Over the years I've experimented with etrog preserves, but no jam ever quite captures the way an etrog smells -- the way it makes me feel -- when I first press it to my nose before the festival begins.

But this etrogcello comes close.

A few weeks ago I made a Splenda simple syrup and added it to the jar, then returned it to the darkness. Yesterday, Tu BiShvat almost upon us, I washed out two plastic bottles and prepared them for their new contents.

The 2012 vintage.

We actually still have a couple of tiny flagons of last year's etrogcello left over. It's not as bright or as pungent as this year's stuff, though it's still tasty. I brought some to our Simchat Torah celebration last fall -- after we danced the Torah scrolls around the Williams College Jewish Center, when the traditional schnapps and vodka were brought out for toasting, I added a wee bottle of etrogcello to the table. It was a surprise, a special treat -- a little taste of Sukkot although Sukkot had just ended.

But really the reason I make the etrogcello is so that we can drink it at Tu BiShvat. The New Year of the Trees; the birthday, according to Talmud, of every tree, no matter when it was planted. The date when (our tradition says) the sap begins to rise to feed the trees for the year to come; the time when cosmic sap begins to rise, renewing our spiritual energy for the welter of spring festivals ahead. How better to celebrate Tu BiShvat than with this pri etz hadar, this fruit of a goodly tree, which we so cherished back at Sukkot? It stitches the harvest season to this moment in deepest New England winter. It reminds me that everything which has been dormant can once again bear fruit.

Tonight at our seder I will raise a glass: to the memory of last Sukkot, to the anticipation of next Sukkot, to the trees which bore this etrog, to the many hands which brought it here, to the Source of All from whom all blessings flow. L'chaim!

What I Carry

 for Dale


It was said of Reb Simcha Bunim that he carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one he wrote: Bishvili nivra ha-olam -- "for my sake the world was created." On the other he wrote: V'anokhi afar v'efer -- "I am but dust and ashes."


In my pockets: receipts
for last autumn's drycleaning,
tampons, tissues,

the crumpled ticket stub
from a Paris airport train,
worn from repeated fingering.

The whole cosmos unfolds --
from the Big Bang to right now
-- so I could wear these boots.

But I'm one tiny dot
on a vast pointillist canvas.
From a distance, no self matters.

The real trick, you're right,
would be to swap the papers.
Which shell is the pea under?

Maybe I'm insignificant.
Maybe I'm everything.
Watch me open my hand.

On caring for the home care workers who care for us


Image borrowed from Mercy Caregivers.

As part of my class in sage-ing last semester, I imagined my own death. We all did -- everyone in that class -- and once the meditation was complete, we talked about it with one another. I found it quite powerful to imagine what I might want my deathbed scene to be. I would like, if I have the choice, to die at home, surrounded by family and friends. I would like, if I have the choice, to go into that transition mindfully. To tell my loved ones that I love them, and then to consciously give myself permission to let go.

Of course, before that moment of death, there may be declining health. There will, I hope, be all the vagaries of old age. (I say "I hope" because if I don't get to experience old age, then I will have died sooner than I wish!) I want to die in the comfort of my own home, but before then, I expect I will need people who can care for me here.

I learned this week from the Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jewish Funds for Social Justice that most home care workers in the United States do not earn a living wage. They have been considered exempt from minimum wage and overtime laws.

Think for a moment about what that means. The people -- mostly women; often women of color -- who work as home care aides, caring for our sick and our elderly, holding their hands and providing their meds and washing their bodies and cooking their meals and doing all of the things that people in this field do every day -- they do this work without earning minimum wage, and without any protection against overtime and overwork. Flip burgers at a fast food joint, and you get minimum wage; care for the elderly or disabled in their own homes, and there's no such guarantee.

No small wonder that turnover in this field is incredibly high. It's work which is often difficult both physically and emotionally. These workers help those who are elderly and/or disabled to walk, to bathe, to eat, to dress, to take their meds on time -- and I suspect they often wind up providing a shoulder to cry on and a listening ear, which constitutes a kind of pastoral care in my book. What kind of society are we, that we value this work so little that we don't even ensure minimum wage for the people who do these holy tasks?

The number of people over 65 will nearly double in the United States over the next two decades. Most of us would prefer for our loved ones (and ourselves) to be cared-for at home, rather than being placed in a nursing home or other similar institution; overall, home care costs far less than institutionalized care, and it's also more personalized, more comfortable, more heimish. But what does it say about us that we allow the people who provide this care to work without a living wage and without protection from overwork?

Last December, President Obama proposed a rule change to the Fair Labor Standards Act which, if approved, will provide some measure of justice to American's 1.7 million home care workers who have long been exempted from minimum wage and overtime laws.  As things stand now, people employed in the home cleaning industry are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, but not those who care for our elderly and disabled family members. I'm glad to know that those who clean our houses are guaranteed minimum wage and reasonable working hours -- but chagrined to learn that our elder care workers don't receive the same treatment. We can do better than this. We must do better than this.

The U.S. Department of Labor is accepting public comments on the proposed change, which would correct part of a longstanding legacy of devaluing the work of women and African Americans. You can learn more about how to support the home care workforce at the PJA/JFSJ website; at that website you can also click over to submit a comment to the Department of Labor to tell them why this matters to you. Comments need to be submitted by February 27, so the time to speak up is now.

A gorgeous teaching for this week: on Honi the circle-drawer

One of the stories we read at Tu BiShvat (the New Year of the Trees -- this Wednesday) is the tale of Honi ha-Magel, Honi the Circle-Drawer. Honi was a Jewish miracle worker during the first century before the Common Era, known for his ability to bring rain.

It's a fascinating story. The version we tell at our Tu BiShvat table, and the version I will teach to our Hebrew school kids next weekend, is only the kernel at the heart of the story -- the part having to do with planting trees for future generations. But the whole story is worth reading. Here's the story as it appears in Talmud; I've italicized the section we typically tell at Tu BiShvat, but I hope you'll read all four paragraphs.

Rabbi Yohanan said: "This righteous man [Honi] was troubled throughout the whole of his life concerning the meaning of the verse, 'A Song of Ascents: When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like dreamers.' [Honi asked] Is it possible for seventy years to be like a dream? How could anyone sleep for seventy years?"

One day Honi was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked, "How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?" The man replied: "Seventy years." Honi then further asked him: "Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?" The man replied: "I found [already grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me so I too plant these for my children."

Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept a rocky formation enclosed upon him which hid him from sight and he slept for seventy years. When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and Honi asked him, "Are you the man who planted the tree?" The man replied: "I am his grand-son." Thereupon Honi exclaimed: "It is clear that I have slept for seventy years." He then caught sight of his ass which had given birth to several generations of mules, and he returned home. There he inquired, "Is the son of Honi the Circle-Drawer still alive?" The people answered him, "His son is no more, but his grandson is still living." Thereupon he said to them: "I am Honi the Circle-Drawer," but no one would believe him.

He then repaired to the beit ha-midrash [study hall] and there he overheard the scholars say, "The law is as clear to us as in the days of Honi the Circle-Drawer,”"for whenever he came to the beit ha-midrash he would settle for the scholars any difficulty that they had. Whereupon he called out, "I am he!"  But the scholars would not believe him nor did they give him the honor due to him. This hurt him greatly and he prayed for mercy, and he died. Raba said: "Hence the saying, 'Either companionship or death.'"

That's from the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Ta'anit, page 23a. It's a bit mysterious, isn't it? The story raises more questions than it answers. First there's the oddity of Honi sleeping for 70 years, a kind of Jewish Rip Van Winkle. But how does the story flow from the initial quote from Psalms, "When God brought us back to Zion we were as dreamers"? And what can we make of the way this story ends? Everyone likes the theme of planting for our children, and with good reason, but there's far more going on here than just that.

Allow me to recommend a terrific commentary on this Talmudic tale. The essay is called The Dream of Exile: A Rereading of Honi the Circle-Drawer, [pdf] and it's by Rabbi Hyim Shafner, who serves Bais Abraham congregation in St. Louis. R' Shafner explores the parallels between sleep and exile, the value one can find in journeying, the importance of having dreams for the future, what it means to be a luminary for (and within) one's own generation or moment in time, the similarities between Honi and Moses, and the power of childlike prayer. Here's a taste:

Honi discovers that even if it were possible to eliminate exile and jump to the time of redemption, the price he must pay is the sacrifice of himself, of his own lifetime. One cannot go to a different time and still be oneself. We must be who we are, suggests this story in the Talmud, we each have our role in the universe. Whether to plant or to reap, to dream or to wake, to be in exile or to be redeemed, it is of no matter; one state is not less valuable than another, and both are interdependent. Being satisfied where one is, even if that means living in a state of unredeemed expectation, is as worthwhile as being redeemed, at least according to the carob tree planter...

This is beautiful stuff, and it illumines the story of Honi for me in new ways. I particularly love R' Shafner's assertion that Honi is a kind of mystic; he is like a child in his state of natural, unmediated closeness with God. Read on:

Part of Honi’s inability to comprehend the preparatory exilic state is that he is beyond it. In exile the Divine is mostly hidden and so we do not see our prayers immediately answered. But for Honi, there is immediate gratification. For him God is not in hiding, He is revealed to Honi and close to him like a parent. Honi is not bound by the limitations of the veiled physical universe. Though this Divine awareness is the source of his greatness, it also prevents him from relating to its opposite, exile — our people’s exile, its value and necessity. Honi’s despair in the face of exile/planting/dreaming results from his inability to fathom, and therefore experience, distance from the Divine.

The whole essay is very worth reading. Take a look.

For me, the most poignant part of the story of Honi is its ending. He is fundamentally displaced; the scholars of the future don't believe Honi's identity, and he becomes so inconsolable that he asks God for mercy -- which is to say, for death. On the basis of this, Raba teaches us that in Jewish tradition, companionship -- hevruta, friendship in which we learn with and from one another -- is so important that without it, one might die. That's a powerful teaching at any time of year.

We harvest from trees planted before we were born; we plant trees so that our children will have something to harvest after we are gone. This is both a literal and a metaphorical/spiritual truth. And this planting and harvesting connects us across the generations: as my grandparents planted seeds which bear fruit in my adult choices, I plant seeds for the grandchildren, and the students-of-my-students, who I may never know. But as important as these vertical intergenerational connections are, we also depend on horizontal connections in our own lifetimes. Our beloved friends, our study partners (both in Torah terms and in life-terms), keep us from dissociating from our lives as Honi ultimately did.

At this season of Tu BiShvat, may we be nourished by our deep roots; may we plant for our descendants, paying the blessing forward as it was given to us; and may we be blessed to experience the sustenance of friendship and hevreschaft, keeping us grounded in the here-and-now.

Torah poems for this week's portion, Yitro

I'm not writing weekly Torah poems this year. (Perhaps not surprisingly, I'm finding that balancing a congregational rabbinate and mothering a two-year-old is keeping me plenty busy!) But in years past I've written poems arising out of this week's Torah portion -- parashat Yitro -- and since poetry, like Torah, doesn't have an expiration date, I thought I'd point y'all to them this week.

Back in 2009 I posted The Deal (Yitro) -- which begins

Three months out
we enter the wilderness,
a new landscape of the heart...

And last year in 2011 I posted Coming Back Down, a poem which is at once about the Israelites coming down from the Sinai moment and about my own experience of "coming down" from my rabbinic smicha (ordination) and beginning to integrate it into my new rabbinic life. That poem begins

After Sinai's synaesthesia
(power surge, transmission)

our ancestors blinked and backed away
already forgetting how to read
the Name in each others' faces...

I hope that both of these poems speak to you and open up this week's Torah portion in new ways. Read the whole of each one: The Deal (Yitro) and Coming Back Down.

A lovely review of 70 faces in Lilith!


Deep thanks to Lilith, the awesome magazine of feminism and Judaism, for the generous review of 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems  (Phoenicia Publishing, 2011). The review appeared in the Fall 2011 issue, alongside reviews of poetry collections by Linda Pastan, Merle Feld, and Adrienne Rich. (What company to keep! And as it happens, I reviewed this same collection of Merle's in Zeek a while back.)

Here's an excerpt from the Lilith review:

Rachel Barenblat's 70 faces: Torah poems also wrestles with the question of memory but from within the collective traditions of the Torah. The title of the project comes from a passage of Bemidbar Rabbah, "There are seventy faces to Torah: Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it." Barenblat turns through the old characters and narratives of the Torah as though she is holding a prism in light: her modes are distinctly personal and shine with her understanding of life as a woman, rabbi, wife, and mother. She places herself in the predominantly male tradition of midrash (exegetical stories that seek to understand scripture) and she asserts her own voice in this rich lineage. What unfolds is a set of poems, one for each Torah portion, that speaks to body, ritual, complex, familial relationships, and the very act of writing...

If this review makes you want to read the book, of course, you're always welcome to pick up a copy of 70 faces -- if you click on that link, you'll be taken to the publisher's website, where you can look inside the book, read some of the poems, hear me reading some of the poems aloud, and buy a copy directly from Phoenicia. (It's also available on Amazon, though the publisher and I each make a few more pennies if you buy from Phoenicia direct. Do what's best for you, though; what I really want is for people to read the poems!)

Thanks, Lilith -- as a longtime reader, it's really lovely to see my work reviewed in your pages.

Second post at poetree: on poetry, Judaism, and being (or not being) a religious poet

My second post is up at [community profile] poetree -- On poetry, Judaism, and being (or not being) a "religious poet". Here's how it begins:

A bit more than ten years ago I took my MFA at Bennington. It was an amazing experience. I still miss the ways in which being a poetry grad student gave me "permission" to focus on poetry. (It's a little bit analagous to how being a rabbinic student, later on, gave me permission to focus on Judaism and Torah.) But back when I was a Benningtonian, I did not think I would go to rabbinic school. On the contrary, I felt that Judaism and I were on the outs. And yet I found myself somehow irresistably drawn to reading Jewish literature, and to writing poems which had Judaic content...

Read the whole thing at poetree -- including the new poem "Morning Practice," written just this week -- and then feel free to join the conversation there.