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Now and later: beginning to approach the Days of Awe

I've had three long Skype dates recently with my friend and colleague David Curiel. David is an ALEPHnik who will be leading services alongside me during the Days of Awe. So far we've worked our way through planning services for both days of Rosh Hashanah, plus Kol Nidre, plus about half of Yom Kippur morning. (Our next call is scheduled for a few days from now.)

Each time we connect via Skype, we go through the machzor page by page: okay, this prayer, what do we want to do for this one? How about, you sing the first paragraph, I'll read the second paragraph, you sing the closing line. Or: I'll lead this one with guitar. Or: this one's all you. And so on, and so on. Slowly but surely my machzor is filling up with sticky tabs and pencil markings.

As a result my mind is overrun with high holiday melodies. The nusach, the specific melodic modes unique to these days. The individual melodies we'll be using for this prayer or that one. The niggun (wordless Hasidic melody) I want to use a few times during the service. Shir Yaakov's new setting for Rabbi Rami Shapiro's We Are Loved, which we're planning to teach.

And yet we're barely past Tisha b'Av. I still don't know what my Rosh Hashanah sermon is going to be about. It's peach season, corn season, the season of crickets and cicadas singing their rising-and-falling summertime song.

So many competing impulses at this moment in the year. I want August to last forever: so I can splash with Drew at Margaret Lindley pond, so we can eat ice pops on the deck after dinner, so I can revel in the harvest gloriousness of the Berkshires at this time of year. Corn and peaches and basil. The rustle of the deep green leaves. And yet I'm looking forward, anticipating what's next. Like a kid who's too restless to sleep, knowing that school starts soon. Excited and reluctant.

So many competing responses at this time of the year. I'm eager for the Days of Awe, for the sounds of the season, the taste of challah drizzled with honey, my parents' annual visit, the introspection of the teshuvah process. I'm anxious about the Days of Awe: so many people come to shul then who don't come at any other time of year! What if we don't give them what they need? Is there anything we could do to make them want to come back, to immerse more frequently in these waters?

There's always the reminder that my own teshuvah work needs to be paramount. If I don't do the discernment of figuring out where I'm missing the mark, then I miss the opportunity to do better -- to be better -- in the year to come. And yet it can be hard to make the space for my own teshuvah when that little voice in the back of my head keeps reminding me that I still don't have the perfect idea for that Rosh Hashanah sermon.

And through all of it, maybe the real challenge is balancing the need to make lists and plan and anticipate the future with the ability to be in this moment. End of July. This beautiful sunny day. This cuddle with my child, this blog post, this instant. This opportunity to be who I yearn to be, right here, right now.

A poem in Adanna, issue 2

I'm delighted to be able to announce that one of my mother poems -- "Weaning" -- has been published in issue 2 of Adanna, "A Journal for Women, about Women." Here's how editor Christine Redman-Waldeyer explains the name:

Adanna, a name of Nigerian origin, pronounced a-DAN-a, is defined as “her father’s daughter.”  This literary journal is titled Adanna because women over the centuries have been defined by men in politics, through marriage, and, most importantly, by the men who fathered them. Today women are still bound by complex roles in society, often needing to wear more than one hat or sacrifice one role so another may flourish.

My poem appears alongside many others which I quite like, by poets I know and admire -- Margo Berdeshevsky, Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Elliot batTzedek -- as well as poets who are new to me: Cathy Carlisi, Barbara Crooker, Suzanna Dalzell, Ruth Foley, Kristin LaTour, Marvin Shackelford, Carole Stone, Pramila Venkateswaran.

There are some haunting juxtapositions of image and theme here -- nursing, from my poem "Weaning" to Carlisi's "Milk Made;" miscarriage, from Dalzell's "North Dakota" to Foley's "Small Ceremonies." Feeding one another. Sickness and mortality. Loss. Memory. Joy. These are some of the big universals of human experience, evoked with carefully-chosen words.

I recommend this issue of this journal highly. You can buy a copy, or donate to the magazine, at their Purchase page. Thanks for including my poem, Christine!

New Torah poem - inspired by the book of Ezra



It's a hot day in Jerusalem.
Workmen wipe sweat, straining
to lift limestone into place.

A brass band: priests in white linen
playing polished trumpets,
Levites smashing cymbals in praise.

Old men weep who remember
when the rubble was whole
and teenagers scream for joy.

They don't know
that jealousy will stop
their construction in its tracks

that some unpaid scribe
will need to hunt the stacks
for a memorandum of permission

that this house too will fall
and the people will scatter
like cornmeal on a baking stone.

Today they celebrate: God
is on our side!
No one imagines
how much harder their story will get.

This poem arises out of the story of the rebuilding of the Temple, found in the book of Ezra, chapter 3 through chapter 6.

There's something very poignant for me about imagining the rebuilding of the Temple after the years of the Babylonian Exile. Those who remembered the first Temple must have been overwhelmed with joy to see their dreams take shape again.

From the vantage point of where we are now, it's easy to think of the two temples as almost a unit. There was a Temple in Jerusalem, and it was built twice, and then it fell, and Judaism has never been the same. But there was a moment in time when the second one was built, and no one knew it was going to fall just like the first one did.

For all that I cherish the shapes and forms of rabbinic Judaism (and I do!) -- and could not imagine returning to sacrificing animals on a stone altar again -- I can imagine how crushing it must have been when the House of God was toppled.

Thinking about the story of this rebuilding, I find myself holding my breath.

Tisha b'Av, the day when we remember the fall of both temples, falls this weekend and will be observed starting on Saturday night.

An unusual wedding

The state park arises out of nowhere. The countryside around it is quite built-up, highways and office parks and car dealerships, but then the road enters a new town, and the trees grow thicker, and suddenly there's an entryway to a state park. I drive in and up and around to the picnic pavillion at the end of the road.

A handful of actors and a musician are moving picnic tables to create the sacred space in which the ceremony will take place. We ponder which direction the sun will be coming from on the morning of the wedding, check weather forecasts on our phones, decide to set things up beneath the pavilion instead of in the field. We practice with the chuppah. I talk through the ceremony: this, then that, then a musical number, then another reading, then this next part...

In some ways this is one of the most informal weddings I've ever done. The brides will simply walk from the campfire circle to the chuppah once everyone is seated; there will be little pomp or circumstance. In other ways, this is among the most complex. There will be guerrilla theatre, performed by a group of friends who do this routinely at weddings in their circle. The brides don't know what exactly they will do, nor when they will do it, but they know an interruption is coming. Every time I think about it, it makes me smile.

Friends who are musicians will provide processional and recessional music, plus three musical numbers during the ceremony itself. In the late afternoon light, as we relax at the picnic tables after our very laissez-faire rehearsal, groups of singers gather with guitar and portable keyboard to practice the music. Even though they start and stop a few times, and they're still working out the details of how their voices will play off of one another, it is surprisingly glorious. I wonder what it will be like when they are singing for the hushed and anticipatory crowd.

In traditional circles where the Three Weeks are considered a period of mourning, weddings are not performed during this time. In Reform circles, as this Ask the Reform Rabbi column notes, some rabbis abstain from weddings at this time, but others don't. I've come to think of the Three Weeks as a time when we are particularly attuned to suffering, and a time for discernment and teshuvah, but for me this isn't a period of mourning per se. I grieve for what is broken, but I also recognize that without the Temple's fall, rabbinic Judaism might never have arisen.

I find that I'm happy to be doing a wedding during this first week of Av. There's been so much sorrow already during these Three Weeks -- the bus bombing which killed Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, the shooting at the movie theatre in Aurora, various personal sorrows among people I know and love -- that this feels like an antidote, a tikkun: a healing. When I sing "soon may we hear, in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem, the voice of joy and the voice of cheer, the voices of beloveds rejoicing in one another" it will be an extra-fervent prayer this year.

May our sorrow turn to joy, speedily and soon.

On bathrooms, blessings, and a learning experience

About a year ago, I printed out the following on a flyer and posted it inside the stalls of the bathrooms at my shul:

Asher Yatzar / Blessing for the Body

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶת הָאָדָם בְּחָכְמָה וּבָרָא בוֹ נְקָבִים נְקָבִים חֲלוּלִים חֲלוּלִים. גָּלוּי וְיָדוּעַ לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶךָ שֶׁאִם יִפָּתֵחַ אֶחָד מֵהֶם אוֹ יִסָּתֵם אֶחָד מֵהֶם אִי אֶפְשַׁר לְהִתְקַיֵּם וְלַעֲמוֹד לְפָנֶיךָ.בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' רוֹפֵא כָל בָּשָׂר וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשֹוֹת.

Blessed are You, Adonai, source of all being,
who formed the human body with wisdom
and created within us various openings and closings.
It is known before Your throne of glory
that if one of these were to be open where it should be closed,
or closed where it should be opened,
we would not be able to stand before You and offer praise.
Blessed are You, Adonai,
healer of all flesh and worker of miracles!

This blessing, which teaches us to notice and appreciate the marvel of a human body which works, is traditionally recited upon going to the bathroom. (It originates in Talmud.)

I was inspired by the memory of the old Elat Chayyim Jewish retreat center in Accord, where I first encountered this blessing ten years ago. It was posted on a laminated sign outside the bathroom door as a reminder to be mindful of the miracle of having a body which works. (The sign wasn't exactly this one, but it was similar. Nor was it as lovely as this all-Hebrew one crafted by soferet Jen Taylor Friedman, but it was the same general idea.) I didn't grow up with this blessing, but when I first encountered it as an adult, I loved it. What an amazing set of intentions for noticing and recognizing an everyday miracle.

In more recent years I've developed a special relationship with this blessing. During my pregnancy with Drew, I needed to give myself an injection of blood thinner in my belly every day. I fear needles, so this was a major hurdle for me. I got myself through it by reciting this blessing as I pushed the plunger home. The injection kept my blood flowing smoothly and prevented another stroke; the blessing kept me able to make the injections. Anyway: the blessing has become a part of my daily spiritual practice, and I wanted to offer it to my shul. We often recite this blessing near the beginning of morning services -- but most of our members do not come to services frequently, and those who do are often not there at the very beginning. So I posted it in the bathrooms.

Over the months after I posted the blessing I received a lot of feedback, mostly positive. Several people came to me and said: what is that, where is it from, it's beautiful! Some asked me to email it to them so they could have a copy at home. Some visitors asked if they could take a copy home to their own shuls. People said that it had sparked new awareness in them -- both of the miracles of their own bodies, and also of the reality that Judaism contains a way of sanctifying even this most earthy of acts.

I also heard from a couple of people who found the posted blessing troubling. God's name, they argued, shouldn't appear in such a room. From a traditional halakhic perspective, that is correct, and when these members raised this issue I did some renewed learning about it. At that time, I decided that that since many (perhaps most) of our members do not understand themselves to be bound by halakha, the consciousness-raising upsides of the posted blessing outweighed the halakhic prohibition. And then a few weeks ago, the newly-revitalized religious practices committee asked me to take the blessing down.

Continue reading "On bathrooms, blessings, and a learning experience" »

A prayer from Reb Zalman for Tisha b'Av

Here's a prayer for Tisha b'Av, written by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a.k.a. Reb Zalman.

This comes from the Reb Zalman Legacy Project blog; in this post he explains the origin of this prayer. It's meant to be recited on Tisha b'Av, the day when we mourn both fallen Temples, which this year begins on Saturday, July 28, at sundown. I find it both beautiful and meaningful; I hope you do too.


This week's portion: redeeming the instructions to displace and destroy

Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday morning at my shul, on last week's Torah portion, Matot-Masei.


God spoke to Moshe on the plains of Moab near the Jordan, and said: speak to the children of Israel and tell them: when you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you will displace all who dwell in the land... and if you do not, they will be as thorns in your eyes, they will wound your sides...and I will drive you out of the land instead of them. --Numbers 33:55-56


Some weeks it's difficult to draw a clear connection between the Torah portion and contemporary reality. Not this week. This week we're in parashat Matot-Masei, which contains instructions for displacing the Canaanites, as well as instructions regarding the future borders of the promised land.

There are those who hold that this week's Torah portion is justification for establishing Jewish sovereignty over "Greater Israel." Are our only options either to accept that interpretation, or to disregard these verses altogether?

The Hasidic rabbi known as the Sfat Emet reads this text creatively. He says that we ourselves are the "borders" into which holiness can flow. Those other inhabitants, he argues, weren't able to experience the holiness inherent in the land. Only when the Israelites entered did the supernal land of Israel, the ideal Israel on high, merge with the earthly land of Israel here below. And when we prepare our hearts and souls with Torah, he says, God causes holiness to flow into us, contained by the borders of who we are.

I love the idea that we ourselves are the "borders" into which holiness can flow...but I chafe at the ethnocentrism. I espouse a post-triumphalist Judaism; I understand other religious traditions as meaningful paths to God. I can't accept that only we are capable of true holiness and true connection with our Source.

What, then, can we do with these verses?

Continue reading "This week's portion: redeeming the instructions to displace and destroy" »

Rosh Chodesh Av; Ramadan Mubarak

A sliver of new moon.

This morning I woke to an email from Rabbi Arthur Waskow which began:

Tonight (July 19, 2012), as the New Moon glimmers, the Jewish and Muslim communities both enter a solemn month, known to one as Ramadan and the other as Av. In both, fasting takes on great importance as a way of focusing spiritual energy.

During the whole month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. As they do, they turn their attention from material gain and physical pleasures to the call of God to serve the poor, to work for justice, to meditate on what is deep joy rather than immediate pleasure...

Jews enter the month of Av with an eye toward its ninth day, Tisha B'Av, a day of lament for the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem. On that day, Jews fast for 24 hours, from sunset to sunset of the next day. This year the ninth day of Av falls on Shabbat; so the fast and lamentation are postponed to begin after Shabbat on Saturday night, July 28, leading into Sunday, July 29.

Read the whole thing at the Shalom Center website: When Ramadan and Av unite.

The Muslim calendar is purely lunar; the Jewish calendar is lunisolar. (What does that mean? Here's the Wikipedia entry on the Hebrew calendar -- basically, we insert a "leap month" in 7 out of 19 years to keep our spring festivals in the northern-hemisphere spring, and our fall festivals in the northern-hemisphere fall. As previously noted, the rabbis who originated our calendar were clearly not thinking about life in the global South.) Ramadan moves around the solar calendar year; a few years ago it overlapped with the Jewish month of Elul (see Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan and Elul, 2009.) And this year Ramadan overlaps with the lunar month of Av.

I had the feeling I had written about that particular confluence before, too, so I checked my own archives. Sure enough, last year Av and Ramadan coincided as well, and I wrote:

In the confluence of our calendars this year I find a powerful reminder that we and our Muslim cousins -- descendants, our tradition says, of the half-brothers Yitzchak and Yishmael, Isaac and Ishmael -- are walking parallel paths toward the Holy Blessed One. During the coming lunar month, as the moon waxes and wanes, both communities (in our varied forms -- Jews whose practice ranges from Reform to Hasidic, in Israel and in Diaspora; Muslims of Arab, South Asian, African American, and every other descent, all around the world) will be engaging in prayer, in fasting, and in giving generously to those in need, in order to more wholly align ourselves with God's will.

Read the whole post: Approaching Av...and Ramadan.

To my Jewish friends and readers I wish a meaningful month of Av, replete with awareness of our communal journey from the depths of sorrow (during this last of the Three Weeks and through Tisha b'Av) into comfort and joy. And to my Muslim friends and readers, a blessed Ramadan! May both of our communities find blessing in this month of prayer and reflection, and may this month strengthen our sense of our common ground.

This is real, and I want to be prepared: beginning the journey

This coming Shabbat at my shul we'll begin discussing one of my favorite books: This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation by Rabbi Alan Lew. I've posted about it several times before. I try to make a practice of rereading it each year as we enter this season.

If you live locally, I hope you'll join us at CBI this Shabbat for a discussion of the first three chapters of this book (come at 11am -- or join us at 9:30 for davenen first!) And for those who don't live nearby, I thought I might share a few favorite passages here.

26ac228348a01076986d3110-lThe journey I will describe in these pages is one of self-discovery, spiritual discpline, self-forgiveness, and spiritual evolution. It is the snapshot the Jewish people pull out every autumn of the journey all human beings must make across this world: the journey from Tisha b'Av to Sukkot, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, from birth to death and back to renewal again. Seeing yourself in this snapshot will help you chart the course of your own spiritual evolution. Every soul needs to express itself. Every heart needs to crack itself open. Every one of us needs to move from anger to healing, from denial to consciousness, from boredom to renewal. These needs did not arise yesterday. They are among the most ancient of human yearnings, and they are fully expressed in the pageantry and ritual of the Days of Awe, in the great journey we make between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

I love this way of describing the journey of this season. And I love Rabbi Lew's assertion that every soul needs to express itself, every heart needs to crack itself open, every one of us needs to move from denial to consciousness...and that the meaningful dates on the Jewish calendar over the next few months, from Tisha b'Av all the way to Sukkot, are designed to be our spiritual touchstones on this recurring journey.

Continue reading "This is real, and I want to be prepared: beginning the journey" »

Writing about the Three Weeks for On Being

My thanks are due to the folks at On Being who asked to reprint one of my recent VR blog posts. I'm a longtime fan of On Being with Krista Tippett  -- I posted about one of its episodes a few years ago, when it was still called Speaking of Faith (TV and religion on Speaking of Faith, 2009) --  and I'm tremendously honored by the reprint! Here's how they're promoting my post in the sidebar of the main On Being website:

During this sacred time of year for Jews, the Velveteen Rabbi ponders how she can not only stop seeing the faults in people but 'to perfect the art of seeing the good in people.'

You can read it now at the On Being blog: Healing Our Sight: Training Ourselves to See the Best in People during The Three Weeks. Thanks, On Being editors! I'm so glad to see that post reaching a wider readership.

New film about the Baal Shem Tov

"The Baal Shem Tov was so different than other teachers of his day. They were studying the texts that were in books. And they were so smart about those texts, they were able to find the very fine finesses between one statement and another statement, and do a kind of philsophical building that they called pilpul... It led to cleverness, but it didn't lead to wisdom. The Baal Shem, on the other hand, didn't study at any of these schools. He lived and studied in nature. When people would say, he knew the voices, he could hear the speech of birds and of the trees -- it's not that they were speaking human language! It means that he had tuned in to the frequency where they were communicating."

That's my teacher Reb Zalman, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. (If you can't see the embedded video, above, you can go directly to it: A Clip from the Film.) This is part of an interview with Reb Zalman which appears in A Fire in the Forest, a new film about the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. Here's how the filmmakers describe it:

Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760), known as the Ba'al Shem Tov, is one of the most beloved and celebrated figures in Jewish history, but also one of the most elusive. Today, Jews all over the world, and even many non-Jews, revere him as the founder of the Hasidic movement, and as a model of piety and mystical spirituality.

But many also find it difficult to say why he is so important to them, and to characterize his unique contribution to Jewish spirituality. Thus, A Fire in the Forest, a new documentary on the life and legacy of the Ba'al Shem Tov, sets itself the task of answering these basic questions, exploring how the Ba'al Shem Tov’s teachings can be applied to our lives today.

To do this, the filmmakers traveled with Rabbi Marc Soloway, our guide on this journey, around the world, talking to leading rabbis, scholars and teachers of Hasidism, traveling to the graves of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s spiritual heirs, and to his own prayer-house and grave in the town of Mezhibozh in the Ukraine.

I'm really excited to see this. I've ordered myself a copy, and I'm looking forward to settling in with it -- both to watch the film proper, and to take in the extra interview footage that's part of the dvd extras. One of the other teachers featured in the film is Rabbi Burt Jacobson, with whom I was blessed to study the BeShT a few years ago. (See Two short teachings from the Baal Shem, 2009.) R' Burt has dedicated his life to immersing in the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, and he is an amazing teacher of those texts and of their meanings.

The film features interviews with a number of other rabbis and scholars who I admire greatly, as well: in addition to Reb Zalman and Reb Burt, the list includes Rabbi Dr. Mimi Feigelson, Dr. Susannah Heschel, Rabbi Dr. Art Green -- as well as others who I don't yet know but feel certain I will learn from as I watch. I'm looking forward to hearing what they have to teach about the "Master of the Good Name" and about the continuing relevance of his teachings in today's world.

Three more from Before There Is Nowhere To Stand

NowheretostandHere are three more poems from Before There Is Nowhere to Stand, a collection of poems arising out of the conflict in Israel / Palestine. (I have two poems in this collection as well; I am honored that my work is in print alongside these varied and powerful voices.) I have read the entire collection through more than once, and every time I open it, a different poem moves me.

My previous post in this series featured one poem by Rick Black and one by Reja-e Busailah. When I made that post, I was asked whether I felt I was equalizing the experiences of the two sides in this conflict. Am I implicitly saying that the each side has suffered the same amount, or that each side is equally righteous? It's not what I mean to be saying. But I'm not particularly interested in rehashing old arguments about which side has committed greater atrocities.

As a poet and as a rabbi, I'm interested in the possibility that poetry might be able to help us hear one another. (If poetry can't, I don't know what can.) Some years ago, when poet Rachel Tzvia Back spoke at Williams, she quoted Susan Sontag, who said -- in accepting the controversial Jerusalem Prize -- that now, more than ever, we need poetry because it is poetry which "will open up avenues of compassion and remind us that we might aspire to be better than we had ever imagined ourselves to be." (By the by, I recently reviewed Rachel's latest collection of poems.)

Perhaps you would never sit down with a settler, or with an Israeli peacenik, or with a Palestinian in a refugee camp, or with someone whose spouse or child was killed in a suicide bombing, or with someone whose spouse or child was killed by the IDF. But I invite you to sit down with these poems, and with the realities to which they bear witness. The first is about the withdrawal from Gaza in 2009; the second speaks of Palestinian resistance; the third is another look at the aftermath of a terror attack. (=


Waters of Gaza

June 22, 2009

They moved out of Gaza
not without protest, not without prayer
feeling like ivy ripped off the walls
like irrigation pipes torn from the soil
they moved out on unwilling legs
on buses to nowhere
fathers, mothers, children
and children without fathers
without mothers

They moved into Gaza
not without covet, not without envy
feeling like water released from a dam
bursting into surrendering fields
carrying all before it, trees, houses
places of prayer, fences, gardens
waves breaking over alien temples
again and again til water covered all

After the water came briny hatred
lusting for a redder liquid
and the skies darkened again
lightning and thunder returned to Gaza
rained on this thin strip of unhappiness
writhing between the wrath of history
and the dark depths of the sea

-- Johnmichael Simon

Continue reading "Three more from Before There Is Nowhere To Stand" »

The Torah of Local Hero

When Helene invited me to show a favorite movie in what she was calling "The Rabbis' Favorite Films" series, I spent some time pondering what I might do. Finally I came to her and said, look, there are plenty of Jewish movies I've enjoyed, but the truth of the matter is, my favorite movie isn't Jewish per se. It's called Local Hero. (IMDB entry; Wikipedia entry.)

The Local Hero theatrical trailer. If you can't see it, you can go directly to it at YouTube.

To my surprise, her face lit up. She told me that she and her husband had been to Pennan, the small town in Scotland where most of Local Hero was filmed. It happens that so have I; Ethan and I went there on our honeymoon. We traded stories of Pennan and what it had meant to us.

That's it, she said; you have to show that film. What are the odds of two families in our tiny congregation having been to this remote bit of Scotland for the same reason, and having been so moved?

I never imagined, when I was a kid, that I would settle in a small town in New England. I'm a Texan born and bred. Maybe that's part of why this movie grabbed my heart and wouldn't let go. "Mac" MacIntyre is a quintessential Texan -- he works for an oil company, even -- but once he comes to Ferness, he makes connections he would never have imagined. That small northern town changes him.

My husband Ethan, who showed me Local Hero when we were first dating, says now that we don't choose favorite movies -- often, favorite movies choose us. So why did this movie choose me? And can I make it relevant to the themes you usually hear me talking about here at synagogue?

I could try to argue that Mac is secretly Jewish -- we learn early on that he's not Scottish; his father chose the surname MacIntyre upon immigration from Hungary because it "sounded American" -- but there's no textual evidence for that. Instead, I want to argue that there's Jewish value in this film not because it has any Jewish characters, but because it relates to Jewish themes.

For me, part of what makes Local Hero a good movie, and a movie that's worth watching many times, is that it isn't reducible to a simple message or platitude. But when I watch this film through Jewish eyes, I find three primary things which seem to me to be aligned with Torah teachings.

Continue reading "The Torah of Local Hero" »

New poem: Lunaria Annua

Lunaria-annua3LUNARIA ANNUA


Honesty blooms once a year.
It comes from the Balkans.

Left to its own devices
it turns up in unexpected places.

Its sillicles may become coins,
monocles, chips of the moon.

Its windchime orchestra
entices bees to dance.

Silver dollar, satin pod,
moonwort, money tree.

The Dutch will tell you
its papery seedpods rustled

in Judas' pockets
all the way home.

My friend Emily found a plant growing behind her house. My friend Chris identified it as lunaria annua, colloquially known as honesty. (Also as silver dollar, satin pod, moonwort, and money tree, among others.) Once I read a bit about it, the poem followed.

Sources: Lunaria annua Wikipedia entry; How to grow Honesty; Honesty Plant - Lunaria. (The image accompanying this post is by Linda and is published under creative commons.)

At least one other poet has written a short poem inspired by this plant. If you know of other lunaria annua poems, let me know!

Hagit Ofran on the Levy Report

Hebron, 2008.

This week in Israel/Palestine news everyone's talking about the Levy Report, which argues that the West Bank is not, in fact, occupied territory. (See Validate Settlements, Israeli Panel Suggests in the New York Times. For more context, see Bombshell for the settlement enterprise in Levy report in Ha'aretz and A Tale of Two Reports in Open Zion.) I recently sat in on a conference call with Hagit Ofran in which she offered some thoughts on all of this. Ofran is the director of the Settlement Watch project at שלום עכשיו / Peace Now. I've heard her speak before -- at the first J Street conference in 2009 -- about the settlements and the peace process. The call was moderated by Peace Now's Ori Nir.

Some part of me wondered whether attending the call, and writing it up for Velveteen Rabbi, was a good use of my time. The internet is so often an echo chamber in which like-minded folks agree with one another, and those who disagree often engage unkindly with one another if at all. But I really did want to hear what she had to say. And I figured, as long as I was listening to her speak, I might as well share some notes here. What follows are some notes from her prepared remarks; then some information from the Q-and-A; and finally, information about Peace Now's 4% program. (Did you know that settlers make up only four percent of the Israeli public?)



Ofran noted that Netanyahu nominated this committee to provide recommendations to the government. Their recommendations are not obligatory, but rather advisory; the government can accept or reject, and that's in the hands of the Attorney General and the government.

"In my view [the report] could be potentially a challenge for us," she acknowledged, since the committee was officially nominated by the government and it includes former a Supreme Court judge. But the assertion that Israel's presence in the West Bank is not occupation "sounds absurd," and therefore people may not take the report very seriously. "If it's not occupation, what is it -- annexation? If it's annexation, how can you explain the discimination, why Jews are citizens and Palestinians are not citizens?" These questions will be opened if these findings are accepted.

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Rachel Tzvia Back's A Messenger Comes

In the beginning
it was sudden --
the world

that wasn't
all at once

out of formless void --

of the infinite
into pieces -- God

to make way
for perfect human


BackCover1This is a taste of the beginning of Rachel Tzvia Back's new book of poems A Messenger Comes (Singing Horse Press, 2012.) These short sharp lines are poised in the space between classical kabbalah, Luria's cosmogony and the breaking of the vessels, and Back's own hopeful-sorrowful sense of God.

Later, in that same poem, she writes: "That first day when / he moved / gentle over the face // of turbulent waters / his heart / was breaking --" This is a God Whose heart breaks into pieces, and those pieces become the building-blocks of our creation.

This first long multi-part poem, "The Broken Beginning," is steeped in Torah. This is Bereshit, Genesis, in the beginning: the stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs, reflected through this sparse and spare lens."[T]he giving of names / as in the garden" -- Jacob wrestling with the angel, seeking a blessing, a name, acceptance of his body's brokenness -- what it is like to wake "to something / broken." As we all do.

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The Three Weeks: healing our sight

According to Sefer Yetzirah, to each month of the Jewish calendar there corresponds a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, a zodiac sign, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, a sense, and a controlling limb of the body...

That's from The Month of Tamuz According to the Book of Formation (Sefer Yetzirah) at, a website which collects the kabbalistic teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh. R' Ginsburgh teaches that the sense associated with this month is sight. And the tribe associated with this month is Reuben -- a name which comes from the same root as the verb "to see."

Our task this month, he teaches, is to rectify, or heal, our own sight. "[O]ne must train one's eyes (both spiritual and physical) to see only the inner positive dimension of reality and not to focus upon reality's outer, negative 'shell.'" On another page at that same site -- The Month of Tamuz: The End of Tragedy -- we read:

The sense of the month of Tamuz is sight. This means that the month of Tamuz is the best month of the year to learn to exercise our sight in the most positive way possible. Rectified sight involves both shying away from that which is negative (an ability associated in Kabbalah with our left eye) and training ourselves to see things in a positive light (associated with our right eye). In essence, both aspects are included in the right eye, which means that we should seek to see only the good points in others.

I love this idea: that this month it is our task to learn to stop seeing the bad in people, and to perfect the art of seeing the good in people. I make a year-long practice of trying to see the good in people, but there's something especially meaningful to me about the idea of strengthening that practice during this time.

We've entered the Three Weeks when we are bein ha-meitzarim, caught in the narrow straits of remembered grief and suffering. We remember the sack of Jerusalem and the fall of the Beit haMikdash, the house of holiness where we once understood God's presence to dwell. I keep returning to the text from Talmud which teaches that it was sinat chinam, needless hatred between and among our community, which brought the Temple down. And I find that I'm feeling even more keenly than usual the wish that I could create bridges of understanding between people who don't see eye to eye.

If we could all spend these Three Weeks healing our sight so that we truly only see the good in one another, how might the world be different? I'm not talking about superficial pretense, but about really training ourselves to see the best in people. Imagine seeing the best not only in your friends, but in the guy who cuts you off in traffic; in someone who looks different from you; in someone whose political positions are the opposite of yours.

Imagine Democrats and Republicans not just pretending to like one another, or focusing on their common ground in order to get along, but really figuring out how to see the good in each other. Imagine AIPAC supporters and Jewish Voice for Peace supporters doing the same. Secular Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Israelis. Soldiers and refuseniks. Israelis and Palestinians.

The classical tradition, I suspect, would argue that our task is to learn to see the best in each other within our community, not outside the bounds of our community. (Define those boundaries how you will.) But my teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has taught that in this age of paradigm shift, we need to move beyond triumphalism to an organismic understanding of our place in the world. Each religion is a necessary organ in the body of humanity; we need to maintain our differences, but we also need to communicate and connect. Maybe the best way to do that is to learn to see the best in one another.

May our vision be healed; may we learn how to look at each other and to see not our flaws and failings and differences but our holy sparks, our souls which shine, no matter who we are.


I'm collecting used eyeglasses at my synagogue during the Three Weeks, with the intent of donating them to OneSight after Tisha b'Av. If you live locally and might have eyeglasses to donate, you can learn more at my From the Rabbi blog.

New stories, new leadership, new hope

WASHINGTON -- When Waleed Issa walked into the Americans for Peace Now (APN) Washington, DC office on the first day of his summer internship in June, the 25-year-old Palestinian from the Dheisheh refugee camp south of Bethlehem was startled by what he saw.

"I never saw so much blue and white in my life," he says. "Everywhere you look, there's a Star of David and the colors of the Israeli flag. As a Palestinian, I thought to myself, 'This is not good news. How am I going to work here for the next six weeks?'"

That's the beginning of the article Jewish, Palestinian American groups 'swap' summer interns, originally published in The Times of Israel. Palestinian Waleed Issa has been interning with Americans for Peace Now, and Israeli Or Amir has been interning with The American Task Force on Palestine. Waleed grew up in Dehesha refugee camp in Bethlehem; Or is a former officer in the IDF's medical corps, formerly stationed outside of Gaza. Both are in the States this summer as part of a unique program:

Or and Waleed are among 10 young people - five Israelis and five Palestinians - brought to Washington this summer by a group called New Story Leadership which, according to its website, "introduces  a radically different approach to peace-building, one that does not pretend to solve the historical controversies or mediate between antagonists."

Instead, the group offers what it calls a "narrative-based program" that wants participants to focus on creating new stories based on mutual interest and cooperation, rather than "stories that endlessly recycle old grievances, inflate differences and inflame passions."

The whole article is worth reading. Every time I hear about a program like this one, another tendril of hope takes root in my heart.

Dancing With the Widow (reprint of an essay from 2000)

Like the others, she's clad in skirt and blouse with an extra yard of fabric wrapped shawl-fashion. Unlike the others, she wears a coarse rope around her waist. Sometimes another woman leads her by it, into the dancing, out of the dancing. Sometimes it just dangles. We are in the town of Medie. The bound woman is a new widow: the dancing is her husband’s wake.

Medie is a village not far north of Accra, Ghana's capital city. Medie is not a place many Westerners visit, although that may change in time. We are there because the elder brother of a close friend has died of lung cancer ("He wasn't Y2K-compliant," jokes our friend, familiar with the Y2K bug although he's never used a computer) and we are there for the last six hours of his two-day wake.


Xylophone music in Medie. A few years after this funeral.

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