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Dick Jones' "Ancient Lights"

7862238I've been dipping into Ancient Lights: Selected Poems by Dick Jones, newly-released by Phoenicia Publishing (the press which published my 70 faces last year.) Dick blogs at The Patteran Pages, and I have long enjoyed his work, so I'd been eagerly anticipating the release of his collected poems. The collection was well worth the wait!

I find that Jones' poems are so evocative that I don't want to drink the whole book all at once. I pick it up, read a poem or two, stop and let the images settle and percolate. Then I pick it up again.

How could I not love a poem which begins "This hole is a clean wound / in the hill's skull. Turf / whiskers the rim, bedding // stitchwort and herb robert..." ("Lead Mine, Swaledale") Or how about: "Post-coitum, he relaxes back / into rumpled sheets, cat-happy." ("Certainty") Or the entirety of Sea of Stars, which I first read in the pages of Qarrtsiluni and which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2010?

Some of these poems are heart-wrenching in their intimacy. Like "Maisie Sleeping," which begins:

     Your soft clock
      scatters seconds like
      peas on a drum.

      A feather pulse
      stutters in your

Anyone who has watched a child sleep will resonate to Jones' words here.

Others sketch their unfolding on a broader canvas:

That was about as close as the war
had come -- censored letters, rumours,
like an invisible tide you can hear at the edge
of the world. Little to see beyond uniforms,

gas masks in boxes, gummed paper stretched
over windows...

("Flightpaths" part 2: "1940: A Dream of Aeroplanes.") What I love in these poems, I think, is some combination of their breadth and their restraint. Although the poems are drawn in fairly spare brushstrokes, their images expand to fill my reader's mind and heart.

I'll close this review by sharing in toto one of my favorite poems in the collection -- perhaps the most natural fit for Velveteen Rabbi readers, since it's a poem about faith. I could mention some of the techniques and turns I love in this poem, the plosives of "mortality / the cricket ticking," the string of ings in "touching, finger to finger / and breath quickening / to mingle"... but ultimately what makes Jones' poems work is his technique's transparency, atop a core of real feeling and real heart.

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A few teachings in advance of Lag B'Omer


A Lag B'Omer bonfire.

Today is the 30th day of the Omer. In three more days we'll reach the minor festival of Lag B'Omer -- the 33rd day of the Omer. ("Lag" is how we pronounce the Hebrew number 33, spelled lamed-gimel, ל''ג.) But beyond being the thirty-third day of the counting between Pesach and Shavuot, what's Lag B'Omer?

I'm so glad you asked! The simple answer is, there's no one simple answer. A few years ago I shared the following set of interpretations:

One interpretation of the chronology in Torah holds that on this date, manna first began to fall from the heavens for the Israelites in the desert. Lag B'Omer (celebrated with picnics and rejoicing) can be understood as a commemoration of that happy miracle.

Another story (found in the Talmud) holds that 24,000 of the students of the great sage Rabbi Akiva died from a plague during the counting of the Omer because they failed to give one another proper respect (or, in Reb Zalman's interpretation, they failed to see the chen, divine grace, in one another.) Many traditional Jews observe limited mourning customs during the first 32 days of the Omer, in remembrance of that plague; Lag b'Omer marks the day when the plague came to its end, and hence, we celebrate.

An alternate interpretation holds that the students died as part of the Bar Kokhba revolt against Rome (132-136 C.E.) We spend the first 32 days of the Omer mourning their deaths...until the 33rd day of the Omer, when we rejoice that the massacre finally ended. (The killing may have come to an end, but the outcome of the war was pretty bleak; the name Judea was erased from Roman maps, the study of Torah was prohibited, and Jews were barred from entering Jerusalem. Oy.) Fearing of reprisal from Roman authorities, the sages of the Talmud didn't want to mention the failed rebellion by name, so spoke of a "plague" instead.

Some Jews celebrate the yarzheit (death-anniversary) of the sage Shimon bar Yochai on this day; he was a student of Rabbi Akiva's, and it is to him that the Zohar -- germinal work of Jewish mysticism -- is traditionally attributed. In this understanding, we light bonfires to symbolize the way his teachings illuminated the night.

It interests me that these are the stories we tell about this minor holiday. [Lag B'Omer] is a day for remembering how important it is that we see the grace in one another, and honor one another's learning. It's a day to remember the dangers of following messianic figures into violent rebellion. And it's a day for celebrating illumination: not just the literal illumination of burning sticks and logs, but the metaphysical and spiritual illumination embodied in the wisdom of Torah and the Jewish mystical tradition.

The remainder of that post contains a beautiful Hasidic teaching. You can read it here: The bonfire of the expansive heart. (2009)

This year, Lag B'Omer will begin on Wednesday evening at sundown. Some of the traditional ways of celebrating Lag B'Omer include bonfires and barbecues, archery and ballgames, even getting one's hair cut (some Jews observe a prohibition against hair-cutting during the "semi-mourning" period of the first 32 days of the Omer, and that ban is lifted on Lag B'Omer.) Ifyou're interested in an alternative set of ideas about how to celebrate Lag B'Omer, try the latter half of the post Plagues? Rebellions? May Day? Lag B'Omer. (2007)

How will you be celebrating Lag B'Omer? Even if there are no bonfires or picnics in your plan for this week, can you imagine a way of making the day meaningful for you?

Rumi service PDF

A number of people asked whether I would be willing to share the liturgy for the Rumi Shabbat service which I led at my shul this past Shabbat. I am happy to do so! The service is attached as a pdf. I welcome responses of all kinds!




Rumi Shabbat


interweaving the poems of Sufi mystic

Jalal ad-Din Rumi (d. 1273)

with the Shabbat morning liturgy



  Download Rumi-Service [pdf, 2MB]

This week's portion: on loving our neighbors

Here's the d'var Torah I'm planning to offer at tomorrow morning's Shabbat if you're coming to our Rumi service, you might want to skip this post so you can hear it tomorrow with fresh ears!

On loving our neighbors

הריני מקבל עלי
את מצות הברא
ואהבת לרעך כמוך
לרעך כמוך!

Behold, here I am
accepting upon myself
the mitzvah of the Creator:
to love my neighbor, my "other"
as myself
my other as myself.

I love this verse. It is one of my very favorite verses in the Torah -- and not just because there's a beautiful melody for it. It's the verse in the very middle of the Torah, more or less; the middle of the book of Leviticus, which is the middle book of the five. This is the very heart of the Torah. But the verse doesn't stand alone.

First we get ethical teachings about agriculture. When you harvest your fields and your vineyards, don't go all the way to the edges; leave something there so that the hungry can glean. Leave food for the poor and the stranger.

Few of us are farmers today, though here in northern Berkshire I know that some of us have gardens, and others are members of CSAs like Caretaker Farm. Caretaker gives surplus produce each week to the Berkshire Food Project. But for those of us who garden at home, how many of us could imagine opening our backyards to the needy? Maybe that prospect seemed less scary in Biblical days. Or maybe it didn't -- maybe this teaching was always meant to push a little bit beyond our comfort zone.

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Torah poem: For a Reason



Everything happens for a reason.
No before or after in Torah.
Happy families are all alike
but every unhappy one's unique.

No before or after in Torah.
When Joseph went down into Egypt --
every unhappy one's unique
but he was not afraid.

When Joseph went down into Egypt
despite the sandy-bottomed pit
he was not afraid
his sons had Egyptian names

despite the sandy-bottomed pit
he flourished where he was planted
his sons had Egyptian names
the first in all the generations

to flourish where he was planted.
Unknown Ephraim and Menashe
the first in all the generations --
may all our sons be like you!

unknown Ephraim and Menashe
who rewrote our family karma
may all our sons be like you
sweet as parchment's honey.

Who rewrote our family karma?
Happy families are all alike.
Sweet as parchment's honey.
Everything happens for a reason.



This poem came about in a roundabout way. I settled in to respond to the poetry prompt in the latest issue of Diane Lockward's poetry newsletter, which invited me to come up with lists of clichés and advice and to make use of anaphora, a kind of verbal parallelism. By draft three, I could see that there was something there, but the form wasn't quite working for me, so I deleted everything except the lines I liked -- most of which had something to do with Torah and with the Joseph story.

The emerging Joseph focus wasn't all surprising, since I came to work on the poem after spending some time with Avivah Zornberg's take on Joseph (specifically the essay "What if Joseph Hates Us?" in her brilliant The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious.) So I decided to run with the Joseph idea and see what happened. The desire to use repeated lines led me to the pantoum form. This is the third or fourth draft of the pantoum. It's a long way from the poetry prompt which started the whole journey, but I'm pretty happy with it.

If the names Ephraim and Menashe don't ring a bell, you might enjoy my post This week's portion: the blessings of Ephraim and Menashe. The notion that there's no before or after in Torah (ein mukdam u-muchar ba-Torah) is a classical rabbinic dictum and exegetical tool. (In other words: Torah often operates on levels beyond the linear. As, I suppose, do pantoums.) All thoughts / comments welcome!

Thanks, brother Thầy

This week I've brought a few more of my books to my office at the synagogue. As I add each one to the bookshelves, often I am tempted to open them and remind myself why I wanted to bring them in the first place. This afternoon I picked up Thich Nhat Hanh's Being Peace, and the page to which it opened told me this:

Even though life is hard, even though it is sometimes difficult to smile, we have to try. Just as when we wish each other, "Good morning," it must be a real "Good morning." Recently, one friend asked me, "How can I force myself to smile when I am filled with sorrow? It isn't natural." I told her she must be able to smile to her sorrow, because we are more than our sorrow. A human being is like a television set with millions of channels. If we turn the Buddha on, we are the Buddha. If we turn sorrow on, we are sorrow. If we turn a smile on, we really are the smile. We cannot let just one channel dominate us. We have the seed of everything in us, and we have to seize the situation in our hand, to recover our own sovereignty. When we sit down peacefully, breathing and smiling, with awareness, we are our true selves, we have sovereignty over ourselves.

I'm struck by the notion of smiling to one's sorrow: not despite it, not through it, but to it. And I'm moved by his suggestion that each of us can choose to which emotional channel we turn. I think he's right that we are "more than our sorrow" -- and that even in the midst of sadness or anger, one can choose to try to tune in to the channel of compassion and kindness.

I am not a serious student of Buddhism -- not in the way that many of my friends are -- but I have learned so much from the Buddhist teachers who I have encountered, both in person and in print. I haven't read this book in years, but I'm glad it remains on my shelf. What a lovely teaching to carry with me for the rest of the day and into tomorrow morning's meditation minyan. Thank you, Brother Thầy.


On divestment

There's been a great deal of conversation in the American Jewish community about divestment resolutions the United Methodist Church has recently pondered and the Presbyterian Church will soon be pondering. These resolutions would lead each church to divest their funds from three companies -- Motorola Solutions, Hewlett-Packard and Caterpillar -- which profit from Israel's policies in Gaza and the West Bank. (For more: Understanding United Methodist Divestment and Presbyterian investment committee recommends divestment.)

Some two dozen rabbis and Jewish clergy signed a letter in support of these Christian churches' consideration of divestment from Caterpillar et al. Here's an excerpt from that letter:

To advocate for an end to an unjust policy is not anti-Semitic. To criticize Israel is not anti-Semitic. To invest your own resources in corporations which pursue your vision of a just and peaceful world, and to withdraw your resources from those which contradict this vision, is not anti-Semitic. There is a terrible history of actual anti-Semitism perpetrated by Christians at different times throughout the millennia and conscientious Christians today do bear a burden of conscience on that account. We can understand that, with your commitment to paths of peace and justice, it must be terribly painful and inhibiting to be accused of anti-Semitism.

In fact, many of us in the Jewish community recognize that the continuing occupation of Palestine itself presents a great danger to the safety of the Jewish people, not to mention oppressing our spirits and diminishing our honor in the world community.

You can read the whole letter at

Meanwhile, some 1200 rabbis have signed a letter decrying the proposed divestment. I've been able to dig up a JTA news story about the 1200 rabbis signing the anti-divestment letter, but haven't been able to find the letter itself online -- if anyone out there has a link to the actual letter, please let me know.

All of this has piqued the attention of Bishop Desmond Tutu, who wrote a powerful (and saddening) op-ed called Justice requires action to stop subjugation of Palestinians. In responding to the 1200 rabbis who signed the letter opposing this divestment, he writes:

I recall well the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in which he confesses to his "Christian and Jewish brothers" that he has been "gravely disappointed with the white moderate … who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action;' who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom."

He adds a further caution:

If we do not achieve two states in the near future, then the day will certainly arrive when Palestinians move away from seeking a separate state of their own and insist on the right to vote for the government that controls their lives, the Israeli government, in a single, democratic state. Israel finds this option unacceptable and yet is seemingly doing everything in its power to see that it happens...

I understand why many American Jews respond to any talk of BDS (boycott, divestment, and/or sanctions) with instinctive rejection. But these resolutions don't suggest divesting from Israel or from Israeli businesses. The question is one of continuing to invest in major corporations -- Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, and Caterpillar -- whose products are used to create and sustain injustice. That's not a threat to Israel or to Jewish life. Beyond that, I would posit that all of us who are fortunate enough to have investments should strive to be mindful of the implications of where we choose to put our money.

I don't know how much money these churches have invested in these corporations. I suspect that one way or another, this isn't going to make or break Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, or Caterpillar! The divestment would be a symbolic gesture more than a fiscally meaningful one. But we who have chosen to dedicate our lives to serving God and our religious communities tend to be pretty passionate about the value and meaning of "mere" symbols.

In this week's Torah portion we read "Do not profit by the blood of your fellow" (Lev. 19:16) -- often understood to mean "do not pursue your livelihood in a way which endangers another." Reading this verse this week, as this conversation has unfolded, it strikes me that the verse could also be understood to be an injunction against passively permitting one's investments to cause or further bloodshed. I tip my kippah to the clergy and laypeople in these churches who are wrestling with the implications of who profits from their investments.

As it happens, the Methodist church voted this week to pass a different resolution, one which calls instead for positive investment in Palestinian economies rather than divestment from these corporations. (See the New York Times: Methodists Vote Against Ending Investments Tied to Israel.) I think it's arguable that positive investment, however well-intended, may not go far if the bigger picture of the occupation isn't addressed. But I'm glad to see these issues being discussed by some of my Christian colleagues and friends.


For further reading:

Y'all be holy, now

This week, in our weekly Torah lectionary process, we're reading Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. I wanted to share again a d'var Torah arising out of this Torah portion which I wrote back in 2010, which I offered at my parents' congregation in San Antonio. Here's a taste:

"You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy." This instruction is at the heart of this week's Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. The Hebrew word for "holy" is kadosh, קדש kuf / daled/ shin: this is the root of the word kiddush, the sanctification of wine; kaddish, the prayer which sanctifies the name of God; and kiddushin, the ring ceremony through which one partner in a marriage is sanctified to the other. This root is usually understood to mean separation or withdrawal. Something which is kadosh is set-apart.

Torah uses this word to describe Shabbat, the festivals, and the Jubilee year, all set apart from ordinary time; the Temple, a place set apart for God (and Jerusalem, in which the Temple once stood); the Israelite community, set apart from other communities; and God, who is the ultimate in set-apart. And in this week’s Torah portion, we're told that this word needs to apply to us, too.

Many religious traditions call their participants to holiness. But Torah doesn't just tell us to be holy as individuals. We're called to be a mamlechet kohanim and a goy kadosh, a kingdom of priests and holy nation. Specifically, in this week's portion, it says: k'doshim tiyihu -- "Y'all shall be holy." The injunction is in the plural.

Torah isn't just saying that you should be holy, and you, and you—each one of us finding her own path. Torah says "y'all be holy, now." What does it mean to be holy as a community?

Read the whole thing: On Holy Community.

(And if you're so inclined, feel free to check out my VR Divrei Torah index, which contains links to all of the divrei Torah I've posted about this week's Torah portion -- and every other! -- both in prose and in poetry. I'm still particularly proud of the sestina I wrote for parashat Acharei Mot...)


Profile of Chava Weissler in Zeek

My profile of Chava Weissler went live in Zeek earlier this week! Chava is a writer, scholar, and folklorist who teaches Judaism, folklore, and women's studies at Lehigh University. Her book on tkhines (Jewish women's prayers of the 17th and 18th centuries) is one of the most widely-read resources in that field; she's working now on a book about Jewish Renewal.

I spoke with her about her work on the Havurah and Renewal movements, their similarities and differences as alternatives to the more mainstream denominational paradigm, the blurry boundaries which come with being a participant-observer, and why she's fascinated with the Jewish life of "non-elites." Here's a taste:

ZEEK: I read in your bio that you were interested in how these "counterculture" folks created surprisingly traditional Jewish lives for themselves. Is there overlap between that work/that finding and the work you're doing now researching Jewish Renewal?

CW: Yes! I often use the following metaphor: the Havurah movement represents the Misnagdim and the Renewal movement the Hasidim of the Jewish counter-culture. The style of the Havurah movement is more cognitive, and the style of Renewal is more expressive and devotional. Also, the Havurah movement has a deep aversion to the "rebbe" model, while the Renewal movement has seen it as a way into a heightened spirituality.

ZEEK: The Hasidim/Misnagdim analogy is a fascinating one, though I can see how some folks in the Havurah movement might have bones to pick there.

CW: Especially because we saw ourselves as reinstating Hasidism, or parts of it. Some years ago, a well-known Renewal teacher taught at the Havurah Institute. I asked him how he felt it compared to the Kallah and Renewal. And he said, 'the havurah movement is so unspiritual, it really bothered me... when they have a study class, they go in, open the text, study, close the text and you're done. When I teach a class, we sit in silence, we open our hearts to the text, we sing a niggun, we study the text, we process what's happened to us, then we sing another niggun and sit in silence again to receive what we've received.'

My havurah friends were outraged that he would say the Havurah movement isn't spiritual! But it’s a different model of spirituality and also of study...

Read the whole thing here: Chava Weissler: Tradition and Renewal.

First of May

Hills on May Day.

This May Day is cool and green-grey. All the world seems chartreuse today. The grass is vivid, the forsythia bushes have mostly shed their yellow blooms, new leaves are pushing their way forth like tiny wet handkerchiefs.

The higher hilltops are still pale purple-brown, but the valleys vibrate at the unmistakeable frequency of new spring. And the color is on its inexorable march up the hillsides. Another few weeks and the green will win.

I moved my three geraniums outside today. They've held on through another indoor winter of too-dry air and my forgetfulness with the watering can. Now they're on the deck drinking in the light rain.

We used to invite friends over for May Day. May poles and bonfires and face paint. Maybe someday when our current crop of kids is old enough to enjoy it, we'll revive those traditions. I like to imagine our boys laughing, running, weaving ribbons.

It's the 24th day of the Omer, the day of tiferet (balance, harmony) within netzach (endurance). I can feel the natural world in balance today, winter gone but summer not yet here. Every plant, tree, blade of grass lives, thrives, endures.

Celebrating Shabbat...with the poems of Rumi

Back in January, at Ohalah -- the annual conference of the association of rabbis for Jewish Renewal -- I attended a Rumi morning service led by my friend R' Ed Stafman. I found the Rumi service to be incredibly powerful. We prayed a fairly standard weekday morning service, with all of its component prayers, with one twist: accompanying each Hebrew prayer was a poem by the Persian mystic Rumi, as translated by Coleman Barks. I promised myself then that someday I would do something similar at my shul.

This coming Shabbat morning -- Saturday, May 5 -- I'll be putting that promise into action, leading what I'm calling our first-ever Rumi Shabbat service. I've adapted the liturgy which my friend R' Ed put together (his liturgy was a weekday one; this is a Shabbat liturgy, and I made a few changes to make the service hopefully fit my community as well as possible.)

I'm really happy with the end result: a 38-page booklet which contains each of the Shabbat morning prayers (either in abbreviated or fulltext form) alongside Rumi poems which speak to the same themes, and often reference the same scriptural stories, as do the prayers. I also spent some time browsing the internet in search of images to enliven and adorn the pages. So hopefully the physical document will be lovely to look at, as well as beautiful to read.

I'm hoping that this service will be meaningful to all who attend, and that it will open up some new ways of thinking about and understanding our liturgy. I know that for many people the beauty of the traditional liturgy is often obscure or hard to access. Perhaps these Rumi poems (which are quite beautiful, as poetry qua poetry) will help us see our familiar liturgy in a new light. And, of course, there's something wonderful about using the poems of a Sufi poet to illuminate new facets of Jewish prayer! The mystics of every tradition, I find, tend to be in-touch with the Oneness which underlies all differentiation.

The service will run from 9:30-11am, as usual, followed by kiddush (blessing bread and wine and gathering for a little nosh) and text study. This week I suspect our text study may take the form of a conversation about the service we will have just prayed.

If you are a fan of Rumi's poetry but have never spent much time with the Jewish liturgy -- or if you pray Jewish liturgy regularly but perhaps don't know Rumi's work so well; if you are looking for a warm and welcoming place to celebrate Shabbat, to offer thanks and praise, and to lift up your voice in song; if you're in or near western Mass.; I hope you'll join us.

To whet your appetite, here's a taste of the sort of thing you'll find in this service. Here's our setting of Psalm 150: a Rumi poem, the Hebrew text of the psalm and its translation. (The prayerbook booklet I'm making will also have transliteration, for those who are not comfortable reading in Hebrew.)

Psalm 150

Let the beauty we love

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

הַלְלוּיָהּ, הַלְלוּ אֵל בְּקָדְשׁוֹ, הַלְלוּהוּ בִּרְקִיעַ עֻזּוֹ:הַלְלוּהוּ בְּגְבוּרֹתָיו, הַלְלוּהוּ כְּרֹב גֻּדְלוֹ: הַלְלוּהוּ בְּתֵקַע שׁוֹפָר, הַלְלוּהוּ בְּנֵבֶל וְכִנּוֹר: הַלְלוּהוּ בְּתֹף וּמָחוֹל, הַלְלוּהוּ בְּמִנִּים וְעֻגָב: הַלְלוּהוּ בְּצִלְצְלֵי שָׁמַע, הַלְלוּהוּ בְּצִלְצְלֵי תְרוּעָה: כֹּל הַנְּשָׁמָה תְּהַלֵּל יָהּ הַלְלוּיָהּ. כֹּל הַנְּשָׁמָה תְּהַלֵּל יָהּ הַלְלוּיָהּ:

Praise God in God's sanctuary
praise God in the sky, God's stronghold.
Praise God for mighty acts;
praise God for God's exceeding greatness.
Praise God with blasts of the horn;
praise God with harp and lyre.
Praise God with resounding cymbals,
praise God with loud-clashing cymbals.
Let all that breathes praise God.