Previous month:
March 2012
Next month:
May 2012

New poem: Bedikat chametz in the toddler house



What does it mean to remove chametz
when my cupboard overflows
with toddler-friendly goldfish
and mini-muffins? If there is

any chametz I do not know about
-- odds are good there are stale O's
in the crevices of the car seat,
but the rest of our leaven is

in plain sight, soft whole-wheat
awaiting jam's unfurling --
that I have not seen or removed,
I disown it.
That part

of the formula at least still works.
An invisible line: between
his english muffins, his toasted bread
and my boxes of matzah, waiting.

Even if I don't light a candle
Ribbono shel Olam, help me
to sweep the crumbs from even
the ill-tended corners of my heart.

The too-sour puffery of ego,
the impulse in me that needs
to be in charge, needs to be right,
needs to be praised. The part of me

that forgets the daily importance
of prayer and kindness. I disown it.
I declare it to be nothing
as ownerless as the dust of the earth.

Bedikat chametz is the ritual of removing leaven from one's home on the night before Pesach begins. Having otherwise removed every bit of leaven (and everything leaven-able) from one's home, one "hides" crusts of bread and then, by candle-light, finds them and sweeps them up with a feather and a wooden spoon in order to burn them the next morning. The italicized words in this poem are the traditional words one recites after having done the ritualized search for leaven.

This is the latest poem in my "...toddler house" series, though I think it may hold meaning for others who for reasons other than parenting a picky two-year-old may not have pitched or sold all of their leaven this week. There are many people I know and love who, for one reason or another, don't wholly remove chametz from their homes: maybe their housemates aren't into it (or aren't Jewish), maybe their partner, maybe their parents, maybe their kid(s). Can those who are in that situation still find meaning in the old ritual and its language? I hope so.

First day of the Omer

It's the first day of the Omer -- the spiritual journey of counting the days between Pesach and Shavuot, between freedom and revelation. Here's what I posted at my congregational blog for today (I won't cross-post all of these, but wanted to share the first one here too -- if you want the next 48 days, you can subscribe to the Omer tag or choose that blog's "follow blog by email" option, in the sidebar.)


Chesed b’Chesed
Lovingkindness within Lovingkindness

The first week of the Omer is the week of chesed, divine lovingkindness. It begins with the day of chesed within chesed, lovingkindness squared.

This is the week for reflecting on how love manifests in our lives — divine love, and also human love which is (in my understanding) a reflection and refraction of the love God feels for us. Chesed is limitless love, limitless kindness.

This week we ask: how can I be kinder and more loving? To those I meet — to the people I know, and the people I don’t know — to those who agree with me, and even those who angrily disagree with me? How can I be kinder to myself — how can I do the work of discerning what my heart and soul most need, and then kindly and graciously filling that need for myself? Can I feel, deep in my bones, that the universe is a kind and loving place for me to be? Can I extend lovingkindness to myself, and then once I am feeling whole and healed, extend it to those I meet?

Take a moment to think about compassion and lovingkindness. Remember a moment when someone has responded to you with kindness and love. Remember a moment when you responded to someone else in those ways.

Cultivate lovingkindness today in your heart and your actions. This is the first step toward Shavuot, toward revelation, toward Sinai.

As I count the Omer, let my counting create a tikkun, a healing, between transcendence and immanence, God far above and God deep within.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵינוּ רוּחַ הַעולָם, אָשֶר קִדשָנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָנוּ אַל סְפִירַת הַעמֶר.

Baruch atah, Adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al sfirat ha-omer.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being, who makes us holy with mitzvot and gives us this opportunity to count the Omer.

Today is the first day of the Omer!

Happy Pesach to all!

Cups for Elijah and for Miriam.

Today, after leading the weekly meditation group at my shul, I'll be heading to Boston for first-night seder at my sister's house. This has been our tradition for several years. I'm looking forward to playing the "Kadesh urchatz" song on my sister's guitar, to my sister's herb jam spread on matzah, to reading Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb's beautiful poem about removing hametz from our lives, to seeing what unfolds in us this year as we tell the story of the Exodus.

And then I'll turn around and come home again, so that on Saturday night I can lead the second-night community seder at my shul. I've attended that seder before, but have never led it; this will be a new adventure for me. I'm looking forward to pray-testing the new abridged VR Haggadah, to introducing my community to a few of the melodies and traditions I love, and to learning from my community what matters most to them and what they love about Pesach.

Pesach has always been my favorite holiday. When I was a kid, I looked forward to seeing all of my cousins (here we are in 1983), to upturning my aunt and uncle's house in search of the hidden afikoman, to singing the Four Questions. These days I look forward to the songs and the story, which resonate for me in new ways every year. And now I also get to look forward to teaching Drew all of these things too! Though I think this year, his understanding of Pesach is mostly that it involves a "big cracker," as depicted in Hoppy Passover -- and that's okay, too.

I wish all of you a zissen Pesach, a sweet Passover. May we each be blessed to truly experience this festival of liberation, to exit the narrow place and enter the expanse of freedom together. See you on the other side!

Making matzah

Several years ago, my friend Reb Jeff taught me how to make matzah. Early this morning, when Drew was still in his PJs, I made it again.


The recipe is very simple -- you can find it in my 2004 post Hametz and matzah. The ingredients are really just flour and water. (I meant to add a bit of salt this time, but I forgot. Whoops.) I measured out the flour and the water from our well and set the oven to preheat. Once it was hot, I asked if Drew wanted to help. He was a bit dubious, but when I opened up the step-stool and offered him a wooden spoon, he was intrigued enough to climb up and lend a hand.

Drew stirs.

He enjoyed taking turns with me doing some of the stirring. I tried to interest him in rolling out the balls of dough with the rolling pin, but I think that was a bit sophisticated for two and a half; he poked at the dough a bit with the rolling pin and then announced "all done!" So I released him to play with his toys while I finished the matzah. I was on a deadline, after all; no more than 18 minutes could elapse between the moment when water hit flour, and the moment when the matzah entered the oven.

One matzah, cooling.

I rolled and floured and rolled, and used a fork to prick the resulting sheets of dough. My efforts yielded five beautiful matzot. (Also one badly torn one -- I rolled out my first attempt too thin, and it tore irrevocably while I was getting it into the oven, so I let that one go.) I know that at the first-night seder at my sister's house we'll have gorgeous handmade matzot from Clear Flour, so I'll probably save these to serve at the second-night community seder at my shul.

I like the stuff that comes from a box, too. That's the matzah of my childhood, the matzah with which all of my lifelong seder memories are linked. Its crunch, the way it tastes lightly spread with horseradish (the flavor of our affliction mingled with the bread of our freedom), its texture and flavor. But there's something wonderful to me about making homemade matzah. It's the easiest of breads, after all: the waybread our ancestors baked in tremendous haste to take with them on the journey. And maybe, if I'm lucky, the work of baking these will have helped to prepare me for my own journey, too.

Matzah; open space; constriction

Hametz and matzah. Leaven, and unleavened. The bread of ordinary life, and the flat cracker which represents our dash to freedom. The two words, in Hebrew, have similar letters: המץ, מצה. The only letter which differs is the initial letter of hametz (a chet, ח) and the final letter of matzah (a heh, ה). They look almost identical, except that where one has a tiny opening, the other is all the way closed. Just so, our sages tell us, hametz and matzah are almost the same: made from the same ingredients, but with matzah-consciousness comes the awareness of our liberation. (For more on this, I highly recommend Reb Jeff's post Matzah and Chameitz.)

Slavery remains real, even in today's enlightened world. Sometimes it goes by other names: indentured servitude, the grueling life of a migrant worker, factory employees who are oppressed and mistreated. Poverty, too, can feel like a kind of slavery. Some of you who are reading this have to choose between medicine and rent, between a new pair of shoes for your kid and keeping the heat on. Others struggle with the mitzrayim, the "narrow place," of mental illness, of PTSD, of having survived rape and abuse (did you know that April is sexual assault awareness month?), of watching a beloved child (or parent) struggle with illness which won't go away.

In light of all of these forms of suffering, there's something painfully glib about the assurances I want to offer about Pesach. Each year I offer the traditional teaching that each of us is commanded to experience the story as though we ourselves had been liberated from the Narrow Place: not our ancestors, but we ourselves. This festival comes to tell us that we can experience liberation in our own lives! Liberation from sorrow, liberation from despair, liberation from our constrained and broken spirits, liberation from whatever constrictions have been part of our story. What a glorious promise.

And yet. There will be people who feel -- there will be times when each of us will feel -- that mitzrayim is ongoing, that we cannot break free. That God doesn't lift people out of anywhere with a mighty hand or an outstretched arm anymore.

To those caught in a constriction which will not let go, I offer this prayer: that this Pesach may offer you an expansive breath through that tiny open space which turns hametz into matzah. A glimpse of freedom, a foretaste of the world to come. May it give you the space you need in order to cry out, as tradition tells us the Israelites cried out in our agony. May you find meaning in the story, the prayers and the songs, the familiar tastes, even though your liberation is not yet complete. And may those of us who do not (currently) feel bound remember you at our seder tables, and offer you every kindness we can.

Worth reading: Seon Joon Sunim on ordination

Probably the most evocative and powerful post I've read recently comes from Buddhist nun Seon Joon Sunim: Bhikkuni Ordination, April 3, 2012. With words and with images, Seon Joon opens a window into her experience of being ordained as a bhikkuni, a fully-ordained female monastic, after years of study and training.

In this post, she writes about her decision to study to ordain in Korea:

People ask me why I came to Korea, why I chose to ordain, why I chose to ordain in Korea. I am not singularly a Zen practitioner. I freely describe my practice as a hybrid between Korean and Tibetan practices. I also feel the Tibetan canon has much to offer that the Chinese canon (the one which is authoritative in Korea) cannot. I am more of a Madhyamakan than a Tathagatagharban; big trouble in East Asia. Given all that, Korea is not the logical choice for me. It was a choice among others, and I made it partly because I was told I could study the sutras and sit Zen if I wanted, but even more so, because I could receive precepts from the double platform. As a woman and an American, I cannot tell you all how important this was to me. From the day I met the Buddha-Dharma, I also met the sangha; and from the moment I met nuns (Tibetan-tradtion nuns, in Nepal), I wanted to be a part of their community, in the widest sense of “female monastics.” I also felt that ordination in America would be very difficult. I did not have a strong relationship with any one Tibetan teacher, and didn’t know how to forge one to seek ordination. I didn’t find any large communities of bhikkunis in the West at that time. I did not have a connection with Thich Nhat Hanh’s community, even though the Plum Village and Deer Park Monastery communities are among the most stable and structured large-scale monastic communities in the West. Other than going East, I just did not know what to do. Something just didn’t feel right for me in the States.

And she also writes beautifully about the experience of the ordination itself:

I’m not sure how much I can talk about the details of the ordination ceremony. Sometimes ordination ceremonies are public, sometimes they aren’t; in Korea, outsiders are not permitted in, and certainly no non-monastics or monastics who are not of the correct monastic age (a novice nun who hadn’t received her intermediate precepts would not be allowed to even observe the ceremony, for example). But it was beautiful to me. The liturgy, a mixture of classical Chinese and formal high Korean, was intelligible to me for the first time ever; I understood only the Korean of my novice ordination and only bits of my intermediate/probationary ordination two years ago. The call-and-response, the swell of voices, the ritual of requesting everything three times; calling all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to witness us and be our teachers and guides; the array of senior nuns on the platform, their severity, their grace; the sear of the precepts’ burn, the piney smell of the mugwort and incense as they smoldered; the hummingbird-beat of the moktak while we chanted the great dharani; the weight of the seven-patch robe of a dae kasa, the kasa of a fully ordained bhikkuni, the stiffness of the new material, the way I couldn’t untangle mine enough to give me space to properly fold my feet under it while we knelt, and so I kept tugging and tugging at while tucking my feet into a small ball so they wouldn’t peep out from under my robes; the nuns intoning in the dark and then the monks several hours later, “You will now receive your precepts-body;” the injunction to only use our Dharma names. Hearing that the Buddhas of the ten directions, the protectors, and all beings rejoice when someone receives precepts. Being told that our practice, as bhikkuni, is to “cease all wrong-doing, cultivate all good actions, and benefit all beings.” Hearing and feeling, truly and deeply and with incredible gratitude and joy, that as of this moment, I have a new life.

Different from my rabbinic ordination -- and yet I can see overlap, too.

Seon Joon also takes beautiful photographs, and this post is no exception. Anyway: I commend it to anyone who's interested in Buddhism, monasticism, or the examined life writ large. I was blessed to meet her in person seven years ago this month; how amazing it is to reread my account of that meeting, and to reflect on how the seeds we were both nurturing in 2005 have so beautifully flowered.

Three reminders before Pesach


If you're still looking for a haggadah, there are two versions of the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach online: version 7.2 (48 pages, abridged and expanded, 2012) and version 7.1 (84 pages, 2011). Both are available for free download.



 During the 7 weeks of the Omer count, I'll be posting daily Omer reflections to my congregational From the Rabbi blog each day. If you use an RSS reader, you can subscribe to the Omer category; alternatively, you can sign up to receive the blog via email (in which case you'll receive daily Omer posts plus whatever else I share there during those seven weeks.)



There's a lovely little ritual which is done on the evening before the first seder -- this year, Thursday, April 6. It's called Bedikat Chametz. You hide some bits of bread around your house, and then -- using a feather and a wooden spoon, by candlelight -- gather up the bits of bread and then burn them the next morning. (If you have kids, this can be a fun sort of scavenger hunt for them.) And once you've found all of the hidden bits of bread, there's a simple blessing to recite.

In the Hasidic understanding, hametz (leaven) can be understood to represent the puffery of ego. (If you're interested in this, I recommend a post from a few years back -- Passover, matzah, dialectics.) Finding the hidden leaven can represent the process of soul-searching and discernment involved in cleansing your spiritual "house" on the cusp of this festival of liberation. Anyway, if you're interested, here's a simple one-page ritual for Bedikat Chametz, the ritual search for leaven: BedikatChametz. [pdf]

Wishing all of y'all a zissen Pesach, a sweet Passover!


Counting the Omer with chocolates and paper flowers

My handmade (edible) Omer Counter.

Yesterday, my b'nei mitzvah prep class and I made Omer Counters. (Well: we tried to, anyway. Some of the kids took home great handfuls of chocolates and slips of tissue paper, promising to finish their counters at home -- I admit I am a bit dubious!) I got the idea from soferet Jen Taylor Friedman, who posted how to make your very own chocolate omer counter at Jewschool a couple of years ago. It's pretty simple: you tie chocolates into little tissue paper bundles, write numbers on them, and attach them to a long string. Voila: an Omer counter!

I've got a beautiful collection of Omer-counting books here on my desk: Rabbi Yael Levy's Journey Through the Wilderness: A Mindfulness Approach to the Ancient Jewish Practice of Counting the Omer, Shifrah Tobacman's Omer / Teshuvah: 49 Poetic Meditations for Counting the Omer or Turning Toward a New Year, Rabbi Jill Hammer's Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, Rabbi Min Kantrowitz's Counting the Omer: A Kabbalistic Meditation Guide, Rabbi Simon Jacobson's A Spiritual Guide to The Counting of the Omer.

And I've queued up 49 Omer teachings to go out via email and RSS on my congregational blog -- hopefully receiving one of those each evening in my inbox will remind me to count, if I haven't already done so! But I suspect the chocolate omer counter will help me remember, too; if every time I look at it, I remember that once I count I get a sweet, that might help spur me to keep the Omer in mind.

I also really like the way it looks, adorning this bookshelf in my office. There's something festive about all of the tissue-wrapped candies -- they remind me of tissue-paper flowers, which in turn, at this time of year, make me think of the tissue-topped cascarones and the tissue paper flowers of Fiesta, which falls during the Counting of the Omer each year in the city of San Antonio where I grew up. (I've written about the confluence of Fiesta and Pesach before -- five years ago, in the post Almost here.) It'll almost be a shame to take this apart as I count...


Buy 70 faces during National Poetry Month!

It's National Poetry Month in the United States. (ETA: and in Canada, too, where Phoenicia, my publisher, is based!) Speaking of Phoenicia they're having a 10% off sale on all of their poetry titles during the month of April.

If you don't yet own a copy of 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems -- or if you've been meaning to buy one for a rabbi, a pastor, a friend -- this month is a great time to pick one up!


For more on 70 faces (excerpts from reviews and interviews, etc), visit the 70 faces category at the Phoenicia blog; or, from the book's page at Phoenicia, you can read excerpts, hear me read excerpts, and (hopefully) choose to purchase a copy! 70 faces is available from Phoenicia's online store, or from Amazon.

Happy poetry month to all!

Judge of beginnings, middles, and endings

ּ"Blessed is the true Judge."


In Jewish tradition, when we hear that someone has died, we say a blessing.

Sometimes, when I tell mourners this, I can see in their eyes that they are baffled, or even upset, by this custom. What can it mean to offer words of praise to God upon the occasion of a death? For most of us, in most cases, when someone has died, praise is not what comes first to our lips. And maybe that's part of our tradition's wisdom. When someone has died, we're asked to offer a blessing -- to praise God not despite our sorrow, but in and through that sorrow.

What is the blessing we recite? ברוך אתה ה', אלהינו מלך העולם, דיין האמת / Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam, dayan ha-emet, usually translated "Blessed are you, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, the true judge." (The full blessing is said by those who have suffered the loss; the rest of us use the first word and the last two words as our response to the news.  ".ברוך דיין האמת / Baruch dayan ha-emet," Blessed is the true judge.)

Whew. That can be a tough one for us to swallow. We moderns don't typically think of God as a judge; we're more comfortable with other metaphors. God as parent, God as Beloved, God as creator, wellspring, source. But Judge? We use judge and king metaphors during the Days of Awe, and often we struggle with them then. How can we relate to this metaphor in our moments of personal mourning? Perhaps especially if the death seems to us to be "unfair"?

Rabbi Marcia Prager teaches that one answer can be found in the very letters of the blessing -- specifically the Hebrew word אמת / emet, truth. The letters of the Hebrew word for "truth" are aleph, mem, and taf -- the first letter of the alef-bet, the middle letter, and the last letter. What is true of every life? Every journey has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

When we read Torah each year, the ending and the beginning kiss (on Simchat Torah, when we read the very end of the scroll and immediately turn around to read the very beginning.) In the lifecycle, too, every ending opens up a new beginning: for the soul of the person who has died, and for we who remain. When we make this blessing, we bless the One Who grants each of us our stories a beginning, a middle, and an end -- or maybe the One Whose presence we strive to discern in our journeys, as they begin, during the great middle of every lifetime (no matter how long or short it may be), and as each journey comes to an end.