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A squirrel who wants to meditate

I clear my throat in the silence of the sanctuary. Eyes closed, I offer the following:

The Baal Shem Tov -- regarded as the founder of Hasidism -- offered the following teaching about what to do when you are engaged in prayer and foreign thoughts bubble up in you. When this happens, he said, don't castigate yourself for having these thoughts. Rather, recognize that the thoughts ultimately come from God.

He would say: if you are distracted from prayer because you've been caught up in fantasy about a beautiful woman, remember that the woman's beauty comes from God, and so does your desire. Don't think of it as getting in the way of your prayer; make it part of your prayer. Lift it back up to God.

The same is true for us. Whatever bubbles up in us, whatever thoughts or distractions -- whether about a beautiful woman or beautiful man, or about politics, or whatever it is -- we can just recognize what comes up, without judgement, and recognize that it comes from God, and lift it back up.

Some moments later, I am distracted from my meditation by a sound.

Scrabble scrabble thump. Scrabble scrabble thump.

Thump thump thump.

I open my eyes. A squirrel is peering into our sanctuary through the glass door. He takes a few steps away, then flings himself at the door, scrabbling to get in.

Then he tries the next little window. Scrabble scrabble thump.

And the window beside that. Scrabble scrabble thump. Scrabble thump. Thump.

Squirrel with churro. Photo by Lorianne of Hoarded Ordinaries.

By now I am holding back giggles as silently as I can. The squirrel is trying diligently to enter our sanctuary, poking and scrabbling at every single one of our small low windows, taking a few steps back and then flying through the air to bang into the glass again. THUMP. THUMP.

Our other meditators have also opened their eyes. We are all laughing. We have been sitting here in silent meditation every Friday morning, some of us for years on end, and we have never seen anything like this at all.

"Obviously he wants to meditate too," one of the women offers. "Their little lives are so busy."

Scrabble scrabble thump. THUMP.

A second squirrel has appeared on the patio and is watching the first one, head cocked. I imagine that he is thinking: what on earth are you doing? Why do you want to get in there?

Then the two squirrels run away. I close my eyes again and return to silence, but the silence is different now, charged with our laughter.

Sometimes thoughts bubble up. Sometimes it's squirrels. It all comes from God.

If this makes you grin, don't miss The squirrel said to the Buddha.

Cultivating equanimity

Equanimity (השתוות / hishtavut) is very important. That is, it should make no difference whether one is taken to be an ignoramus or an accomplished Torah scholar. This may be attained by continually cleaving to the Creator -- for if one has devekut [deep connection with God], one isn't bothered by what other people think. Rather, one should continually endeavor to attach oneself to the Holy Blessed One. 

That's a teaching from Tzava'at HaRivash, the collected teachings of the mystical Jewish rabbi known as the Baal Shem Tov. (A different translation of this passage appears here at Chabad.) This Eul, I find myself returning to this teaching again. I admire the ideal of equanimity, of responding to whatever arises from a place of centered acceptance and calm. As long as I do my best to be the kind of person I mean to be, to serve God and my communities in the ways I strive to serve, then that's what matters most. If I focus on my connection with something greater than myself, then I can handle things which seem in my limited understanding to be "good" or "bad" with equal grace and presence.

Even if life throws me curveballs, even if something goes wrong or if someone thinks ill of me, shouldn't I be able to hold fast to my faith and my spiritual practice, and to accept both the good and the bad with a whole heart? All I need to do is maintain mindfulness of God's presence -- as the psalmist says, and the Baal Shem reminds us, שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד; "Sh'viti Adonai l'negdi tamid / I have kept God before me always." (The word shviti, "I have kept," shares a root with hishtavut, equanimity.) "Good" and "bad" are limited human concepts; from the perspective of the divine, whether someone calls one an ignoramus or admires one as a Torah scholar is beside the point. This is, I think, what the Baal Shem Tov is saying. 


Early American shviti papercut; 1861. (Source.) A shviti is a meditative focus: we look at it and are reminded to keep God before us always, as the verse from psalms says.

When I had my strokes, several years ago, I spent a lot of time talking with my mashpia (spiritual director) about equanimity. I was struggling to come to terms with what had happened to me, and with my desire to know why I'd had the strokes and to reach some certainty that I wouldn't have another one. My mashpia at the time brought a variety of BeShT teachings to bear on our conversations. (I touched on this in my 2009 essay Different Strokes.) I seem to remember that I was able fairly easy to respond with equanimity to the immediate experience of the strokes; I found it more difficult to maintain equanimity as we moved into the realm of longterm medical uncertainty.

Maybe because spiritual lessons recur as our life circumstances unfold, this Elul I find that I'm working again on cultivating this middah (this quality) within myself. There's much in the world today which challenges my equanimity.

I know in my heart that the Baal Shem Tov was wise, on this issue as on so many. If I could encounter rejoicing and sorrow alike without being shaken, if I could receive insults and compliments alike without paying either one any mind, remaining focused on connecting with the Holy One of Blessing and bearing in mind what's really important (pro tip: not my own ego), that would be a high spiritual state indeed. I try, every day, to get a little bit closer. I do know that when I'm able to achieve something like devekut -- cleaving; attachment to God; deep connection with something far beyond myself -- everything in my life, both good and bad, takes on a different tone.

Sometimes I reach a kind of devekut when I'm leading prayer and we reach the bar'chu, the call to prayer. I find sometimes that when I'm playing guitar and singing the bar'chu something shifts in me. I can feel my voice changing, coming from somewhere deeper in my body. It's as though I'm no longer praying the prayer; instead the prayer is praying me. In that moment of singing and praying and praise, it doesn't even occur to me to wonder whether I'm leading a good service, or whether people like what I'm doing. It doesn't occur to me to remember that unkind thing someone said last week or the mean-spirited email I got the other day.

Sometimes I reach a kind of devekut when I am cuddling with my son. At night, him in his pyjamas, the two of us in the gliding rocker where we used to nurse. I'm singing him his goodnight songs, he's giggling and squirming in my arms, and I catch his laughter and then I'm connected to something so much bigger than myself. In those moments I forget my consternation at reading the news; I stop dwelling on mistakes and unkindnesses. It's like the Sfat Emet teaching about Purim, where one ascends so high -- beyond the top of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; beyond dualities -- that everything is good, everything is God.

I'm not sure that's equanimity; it's more like bliss. Maybe equanimity is the quality which enables us to encompass both the moments of blissful connection and the moments of agonizing disconnect. Because I can't stay in that lofty headspace and heartspace, no matter how I wish I could. At some point, we always have to leave mochin d'gadlut (expanded consciousness or "big mind") for mochin d'katnut (constricted consciousness or "small mind.") For me, the question is: once I'm back in "small mind," how will I respond to the world around me? How will I respond to injustice, to unkindness, to lack? How will I respond to compassion, to connection, to joy?

Striving for equanimity helps me respond to my life with gratitude, to relate to the world at large with the kindness and compassion I most value. Sometimes I manage it, for a while. Then something shakes me and my balance wobbles. Then I take a deep breath and seek balance again. I don't think equanimity is something one reaches once and then the journey's over. There's a reason we use the language of gardening to describe this kind of work: it's a slow and steady cultivation. Once it's planted in the heart, equanimity may be a perennial (to run with that metaphor a bit further), but it still requires tending, and watering, and care.

Season of transitions

It's a season of transitions, all sorts. After daycare, I picked Drew up and we went together to a local orchard in search of an afterschool snack and a bag of peaches. But they were out of peaches, though they promised to have more later in the week; what they had instead were some of the season's first glorious honeycrisp apples. So Drew enjoyed an apple cider donut with cinnamon sugar (and so did I!) and I bought a few big beautiful apples. Down the street at the farmstand we got half a dozen ears of corn for a song; I saved one to boil for him to eat on the cob, and stripped the corn from several others to make a corn pudding.

But I'd had my heart set on doing something with peaches. Was I too late? Had I missed the season? Thankfully, although the orchard itself was sold out of peaches, our wee market -- right around the corner from both the orchard and Drew's daycare -- still had a basket of local orchard peaches for sale. We brought some home, with great glee. I saved a few for Drew to eat in slices, and prepared the rest to become a crisp. Peach season is giving way to apple season. The days are still warm, even hot, but the nights are cooling. The hills are deep rich late-summer green, but here and there the first maple branch blazes red. Everywhere, goldenrod is tipped with yellow.

Next week Drew will attend one last day at this beloved daycare, and the next day he'll begin attending a community preschool near my synagogue. He's two years and nine months now; old enough to start in the youngest preschool room, which he and I have visited before. I know he'll flourish there. But some part of me is a little bit sad to be leaving the in-home daycare which we, and he, have so loved. His daycare provider is equally wistful, I think. "They'd better take good care of him there," she told me today. "I don't want him to get lost in the shuffle." I promised her that I was pretty sure they would -- and that we would visit her from time to time, too.

Change can be hard, even when it's a change one has looked forward to. One of my Torah study colleagues told me recently that when he dropped his daughter off at college, he had the distinct feeling that she had just begun preschool the day before, and now suddenly she was moving into this whole new adventure, leaving him behind. I know I'll feel that someday, too: weren't we just giggling and cuddling in the gliding rocker, watching early-morning cartoons, splashing in the kiddie pool?  I hope I can model grace and gratitude for Drew as we move through this change in his life and in ours, as we move from daycare to preschool, as we move from Elul to the High Holidays, as we move from summer to fall.

Revision / reprint of a poem from 2003


I don't want to write about the girl
    killed by an Israeli bulldozer while
        trying to protect a Palestinian home.
Don't want to write about mentioning it
    in casual conversation and finding myself
        weeping uncontrollably into my dishtowel.
Don't want to write how politics
    have infected every email list I'm on,
        how poets across the nation are arguing
whether those who voted Green
    in the year 2000 got us into this mess
        instead of debating the merits of form
and free verse like we used to. I thought
    those arguments were dull, repetitive, but
        today I'd pay to see my inbox overflowing

with impassioned pleas for a return
    to iambic pentameter, diatribes about
        how "women's poems" differ from whatever

the alternatives are. I don't know what
    the alternatives are. I keep lending out
        that article about healing through "dark" emotions,

the one that says anger and sorrow
    aren't the problem, the problem is
        when we stamp and tamp them down

so the pressure of our denial shapes
    the slicing stone-edges of despair, but
        I can't see the darkness around us lifting.

I've always said hopelessness
    isn't an option, if we don't believe
        in tikkun olam we might as well be dead, but

I don't know how to get through this.
    This is not a poem about "them" or what
        they're doing to "us," this is not a poem about

politics or regime change, this isn't even
    a poem about the horror of Iraqis hissing
        that the mothers of the American soldiers
will weep tears of blood, or the shame
    of Americans braying that those people
       are animals, not like us, don't respect life.
This is a poem about forestalling despair
    by taking a breath and diving as far as I can,
        wishing that I could surface in a kinder world.



This is a revision of a poem I wrote in spring of 2003, around the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the death of American activist Rachel Corrie. It was originally published in The Pedestal in the fall of 2004 (see Rachel Barenblat: No Alternatives.)

I returned to it this week in the wake of the court decision exonerating the Israeli government of responsibility for Rachel Corrie's death. The poem has changed shape, I've trimmed a bit (from 51 lines down to 42), and there's a new ending. If you read both the new version and the original, I'll be curious to hear which one you think is a better poem.

Some of this poem feels dated to me now, even in revision. The Iraq War has been a reality of our world for so many years that it's hard to remember what it was like to think that we could have prevented it. But some of this poem still feels current (war, despair, hatred: unfortunately not out of style), and the ending speaks directly from my heart.

The "article about healing through 'dark emotions'" was an essay by Miriam Greenspan in Tikkun. It later became a book with  that same title.

This is real, and I want to be prepared: Elul, Selichot, and Rosh Hashanah

26ac228348a01076986d3110-lThis coming Shabbat at my shul we'll continue 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 move through this season. This year, I'm sharing that practice with my community.

If you live locally, I hope you'll join us at CBI this Shabbat for a discussion of the middle three chapters of this book (come at 11am -- or join us at 9:30 for davenen first!) We'll be discussing chapters 4-6: "The Horn Blew and I Began to Wake Up: Elul," "This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: Selichot," and "The Horn Blows, the Gates Swing Open, and We Feel the Winds of Heaven: Rosh Hashanah." (Even if you don't have a copy, or haven't done the reading, you're welcome to join us; I've put together a handout of choice quotes from these chapters which should give us plenty to talk about.)

And for those who don't live nearby, I thought I might share those choice quotes here, along with a few thoughts about them. I hope you'll find these passages as thought-provoking and inspiring as I do.

"Look! I put before you this day a blessing and a curse." So begins parshat Re'eh, the weekly Torah portion we read as the month of Elul begins. Look. Pay attention to your life. Every moment in it is profoundly mixed. Every moment contains a blessing and a curse. Everything depends on our seeing our lives with clear eyes, seeing the potential blessing in each moment as well as the potential curse, choosing the former, forswearing the latter. (pp. 65-66)

I really like the way R' Lew connects his Elul teachings with the flow of the Torah portions we're reading this month, and I like what he has to say about this blessing-and-curse passage (which is, as it happens, also the portion my community reads on Yom Kippur morning.)

    [T]he month of Elul -- a time to gaze upon the inner mountains, to devote serious attention to bringing our lives into focus; a time to clarify the distinction between the will of God and our own willfulness, to identify that in us which yearns for life and that which clings to death, that which seeks good and that which is fatally attracted to the perverse, to find out who we are and where we are going.
    All the rabbis who comment on this period make it clear that we must do these things during the month of Elul. We must set aside time each day of Elul to look at ourselves, to engage in self-evaluation and self-judgement, to engage in cheshbon ha-nefesh, literally a spiritual accounting. But we get very little in the way of practical advice as to how we might do this. So allow me to make some suggestions.
    * Prayer -- The Hebrew word for prayer is tefilah. The infinite form of this verb is l'hitpalel -- to pray -- a reflexive form denoting action that one performs on oneself. Many scholars believe that the root of this word comes from a Ugaritic verb for judgment, and that the reflexive verb l'hitpalel originally must have meant to judge oneself. This is not the usual way we think of prayer. Ordinarily we think we should pray to ask for things, or to bend God's will to our own. But it is no secret to those who pray regularly and with conviction that one of the deepest potentials of prayer is that it can be a way we come to know ourselves. (pp. 67-68)

I love the fact that our Hebrew word for prayer connotes judging oneself, looking inward, coming to know oneself. Because boy, do I agree with Rabbi Lew on this one: regular prayer, like regular meditation practice, is a way of coming to know my own internal landscape and coming to understand myself in a deeper way.

* Focus on one thing -- It may not be realistic to expect a significant number of people to suddenly begin showing up at prayer minyans or meditation groups during the month of Elul -- some of us are simply not made to engage in these activities; not in Elul, not ever. Many will never get over finding the daily prayer service tedious and opaque. Many others will always either be frightened to death or bored to tears by the prospect of meditation and the blank wall of self it keeps throwing us up against so relentlessly. So I am pleased to inform you that it is perfectly possible to fulfill this ancient imperative to begin becoming more self-aware during this time without doing these things... Just choose one simple and fundamental aspect of your life and commit yourself to being totally conscious and honest about it for the thirty days of Elul. (p. 72)

I love the way that, after spending many paragraphs describing prayer and meditation and how valuable they can be, he acknowledges without judgement that for many people, they just don't work. Daily prayer can be tedious and opaque; meditation can be either terrifying or deadly dull. But, he says, that's okay! You don't actually have to do those things! What Elul calls us to do is to be conscious, to be present, to be awake. Just choose one aspect of your life (he suggests a few, among them eating, sex, and money) and be totally conscious and honest about it for thirty days. Easy, right?

Continue reading "This is real, and I want to be prepared: Elul, Selichot, and Rosh Hashanah" »

If you're attending shul during the Days of Awe...

This is a draft of something I'm hoping to make available at my synagogue during High Holiday services. It's loosely based on something I remember reading when I was an undergrad. I welcome responses, comments, and suggestions. Have you ever tried something like this? What did your version say?

Welcome to High Holiday services at CBI!

Over the course of the Days of Awe, we gather frequently to pray. At most services, we'll experience some of the elements of daily and weekly prayer: psalms of praise and thanks, the Shema and its blessings, the chance to stand before God -- whatever you understand that word to mean, God far above or God deep within -- during the standing prayer called the Amidah. At our morning services we'll read from Torah, as we do every Shabbat.

We'll also experience some things during these services which aren't part of daily and weekly prayer at CBI: a reading from the prophets (called the Haftarah -- this is done weekly at many synagogues, though not at ours), a sermon from the rabbi (which only happens here during the Days of Awe; the rest of the year, if I offer any remarks, they take the short and informal form of a d'var Torah), and a variety of special prayers written for use during the Days of Awe.

It is my deep hope that these services will resonate with you. I hope that the prayers, in their music and in their language, will open something in your heart and in your spirit, and will help you feel connected with God, with our community, and with our tradition at this holy time of year.

But I know that prayer services don't speak to everyone. And these are some of the longest, and most intellectually challenging, services of our year. If you find that our services aren't speaking to you, here are some options. You might:

  • leaf through the machzor (high holiday prayerbook) in search of pages which resonate with you or interest you -- Torah readings, poems, meditations;

  • move to the back of our sanctuary and pull a book off of the shelves in our library, which surrounds the big sanctuary -- all of our books relate to Judaism in some way, and who knows, you might pull exactly the book you didn't know you needed to read;

  • sit in silent meditation and let the service wash over you, taking care to be attentive to your breath and to what arises in you as you listen to the singing and the prayers;

  • slip outside and experience connection with God through walking in the grass and near the wetlands beside our synagogue, or through sitting in our gazebo; you might try the practice attributed to the Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, who had the custom of walking in the fields or in the woods and speaking quietly with God as he went;

  • find your way to the back of our sanctuary, claim some space for yourself, and do some gentle yoga while you listen to the davening;

  • visit our classroom, where there is childcare during many of our services, and connect with divinity through spending quality time with the next generation of our community.

This is a unique season in our year, and I want you to experience it wholly. Your shlichei tzibbur (leaders-of-prayer) will do our best to keep our services meaningful and engaging, but if what we're doing isn't speaking to you, we hope you'll forgive us -- and will do whatever you need to do in order to connect with the Days of Awe, with our traditions, and with God.

(Though please don't text or engage with social media in our sanctuary while others are in prayer.)

Wishing you every blessing as we move through this holy season!

Reb Rachel

Wishing for a different communal discourse

Late last week, I was forwarded links* to two Republican organizations trying to shame Rabbis for Obama by mis-representing several of the rabbis in that group (particularly Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb) as "anti-Israel activists."

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb first traveled to Israel in 1966, when she spent a year as an exchange student at Leo Baeck High School in Haifa. She experienced the call into rabbinic service the Shavuot she was fifteen, when she gave a speech called "Man and the Moral Law." (Women didn't begin receiving rabbinic smicha in the United States until Rabbi Sally Priesand in 1972, but Rabbi Gottlieb was one of the first eight women ordained as a rabbi when she was ordained in 1981.) Her first pulpit was Temple Beth Or of the Deaf. She's a trailblazer in the field of feminist liturgy (I use one of her poems in my seder each year.) And she's the coordinator of the Shomer Shalom Network for Jewish Nonviolence. A few years ago I interviewed her for Zeek, along with several other rabbis, in a roundtable about Israel: Roundtable: The Synagogue/ Israeli Politics Mash-Up. She is not anti-Israel, and neither are the rest of us who have subsequently been called out.

As this has unfolded, the xkcd cartoon has come to mind:

"Someone is wrong on the internet!" Courtesy of xkcd.

The cartoon is funny because it's true. Of course some part of me wants to rise to the bait, to correct the record because what is being said is not true. And then I think: why would I allow people who misrepresent us in these ways to define the terms of the conversation? And why does it matter to me that someone is, as the cartoon says, wrong on the internet?

Continue reading "Wishing for a different communal discourse" »

Susannah Dainow's "Fallow"

The envelope was surprisingly small and decorated with stamps. Inside was a copy of a wee chapbook of poems, Fallow by Susannah Dainow. I started reading it with a pile of mail wedged beneath one arm, walking from the post office to my car, and then I sat in the parked car and kept reading until I was done.

These poems are sharp and evocative. Here there are relationships made out of silence and shared choices, a city where even the snow speaks Anglo, sisters who rarely speak, an angry father's fist, illicit sexual thrills turned to blood and rubble, pigeons like grey rats and a murder of crows, moments of insight and memory and sorrow pressed between the pages like dry flowers.

Probably my favorite poem in the collection is "Whalebone Corset." Here is a taste:

I was born asleep, slid
into a corset
of tapestry and whalebone,
invisible to the world, save
for my women -

mother and grandmother pulled and pulled
both sides to tighten me, evening
through the fight, wrench
out one side, then caress,
stretching the other -- I
came to crave the tug, the yank,
the spin-round push-pull as affection...

I especially love the way the poem ends. These are among the most hopeful lines in the collection, for me.

we are
decorseting -- peeling off
the skins and bones, one strip
at a time, we are taking
the echoes of whalesong and building
her back from memory, the record whole
and shaking oceans

An earlier version of this chapbook was a finalist in the 2011 Qarrtsiluni chapbook contest. Susannah Dainow's collection Fallow can be purchased for $14 by emailing the author directly: [email protected].

Why I'm a Rabbi For Obama

Four years ago I spent the summer in Jerusalem. When I got home, my shiny new ברק אובמה ("Barack Obama") sticker was waiting for me in my mailbox; it went on my car post haste. I've sported it proudly ever since. Of course, four years ago I wasn't yet a rabbi. Now I am, and I'm delighted to be able to say that I'm part of the renewed Rabbis For Obama. Here's a taste of the press release:

This group of over 613 rabbis - more than double the number of when Rabbis for Obama launched in 2008 – from across the country and across all Jewish denominations recognize that the President has been and will continue to be an advocate and ally on issues important to the American Jewish community...

Why am I a Rabbi for Obama? Because while we don't agree on everything, there's a lot that he's done -- and a lot that he's said -- which is in alignment with who I am and what I believe.

There's the Affordable Care Act, for starters (which OHALAH, my rabbinic association, formally supports.) And he gave a speech in Cairo a few years ago -- about America and Islam, about our responsibilities in an interconnected world, and about the need to move beyond the Palestinian/Israeli stalemate -- which moved me then and still inspires me now. (Here's what I wrote about it then.) He signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act. He recently denounced Representative Todd Akin's offensive and patently spurious claim that women who suffer "legitimate rape" rarely get pregnant, and spoke out in favor of women being able to make decisions about our own health care and our own bodies. ("Obama: Rape is Rape," Huffington Post.) He signed the Children's Health Insurance Reauthorization Act, which provides health care to 11 million kids -- 4 million of whom were previously uninsured. (see Children's Health Insurance Program info.) He supports stem cell research. (see Obama on Stem Cell Research.) He established the Credit Card Bill of Rights, preventing credit card companies from imposing arbitrary rate increases on customers (see Your Credit Card Bill of Rights Now in Full Effect), and he's making it easier for people to pay back their student loans without bankrupting themselves. (see How President Obama is Helping Lower Monthly Student Loan Payments.) He's got an admirable record on civil rights (see Equal Rights -- President Obama), repealed "Don't Ask Don't Tell" making it possible for GLBT American servicemen and servicewomen to serve our country openly and honestly without fear, signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, and came out earlier this year in favor of marriage equality. (see Obama Embraces Marriage Equality.) (For more, see WTF Has Obama Done So Far?)

There are things he hasn't managed to accomplish which I had hoped he would do. Actually closing Guantanamo Bay, for instance. (see Guantanamo Bay: How the White House Lost the Fight to Close It, Washington Post.) Brokering a real and lasting two-state peace in Israel/Palestine. (Though the Jewish Journal reports that David Hale, Obama's envoy to the Middle East, continues to pressure Israel, Palestine in peace talks.) But I continue to believe that he is good for this country and that he's working to make the United States, and the world, a better place.

This week's portion: Justice Shall You Pursue

This week we're in parashat Shoftim, late in the book of Dvarim (Deuteronomy.) This parsha is the source of one of the most well-known verses from Torah: "Justice, justice shall you pursue!" In this parsha we read: establish towns where someone who has accidentally committed manslaughter can flee, so that the spiral of violence and retribution doesn't self-perpetuate. We read: do not punish someone on the testimony of a single witness.

We read: on the eve of war, if someone has planted a vineyard but not yet harvested -- built a house but not yet consecrated it -- become engaged but not yet wed -- let that person go home and fulfill those holy promises. (I wrote about that in 2006.) We read: when you approach a town to attack it, offer it terms of peace.

And we also read that if that town refuses the terms of peace, Torah says to attack them and then put all of their men to the sword and enslave their women. And that's only for towns which are far away; for the towns which are nearby, Torah says, the ones containing inhabitants who are known to be idolaters, kill them all. Ouch.

And then we read: even when you are besieging a city, you must not cut down its trees. Are trees human, the Torah asks, that they could flee before you? Therefore show mercy, especially to fruit-bearing trees.

As I study this parsha this year I'm struck by my own oscillation. Some of these verses are beautiful to me, while others make me squirm with discomfort. I don't want such violence to be enshrined in my holy text.

The theme of the parsha, as I understand it, is justice. The cities of refuge are a matter of justice. Releasing young soldiers who haven't yet lived full lives is a matter of justice. Sparing the trees is a matter of justice.

And in the Biblical understanding, the stuff about killing all the men in an enemy city -- or, worse, killing everyone, including the women and children -- is also a matter of justice. But in today's paradigm our understanding of what is just and righteous has shifted. Killing all the enemy men, or slaughtering men and women and children alike, may have been understood as justice in antiquity. Today it would be an unthinkable massacre. I am grateful to live at a moment in time when we understand this kind of violence as horrific.

But violence is still endemic. Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that "scores of Israeli youth" attacked a Palestinian teen named Jamal Julani in Jerusalem, rendering him unconscious and hospitalized. (NYT: Young Israelis Held in Attack on Arabs.) "If it was up to me, I would have murdered him," said one fifteen-year-old boy. Two of the other suspects in the beating are girls, one of them only thirteen years old. (The NYT blog The Lede has more: Account of a 'Lynch' in Jerusalem on Facebook.)

It's enough to make me wish for cities of refuge where people could go to break the cycle of the endless violence. Though in Biblical times, the refuge was only for accidental manslaughter, and it doesn't sound to me like the harm here was inflicted accidentally.

Fortunately Jamal Julani survived the beating. But what is wrong with our world that kids of thirteen and fifteen are swept up in so much hate? What is wrong with our understanding of Torah that we pay more attention to the injunction against cutting down a fruit tree (which is taught each year at Tu BiShvat with great gusto -- see, e.g., the beautiful exhibit "Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art, and Jewish Thought" at the Contemporary Jewish Museum) than to the injunction to pursue justice and righteousness with all our might? (Even fruit trees aren't always safe -- as described in this 2012 Rabbis for Human Rights report about settlers destroying olive groves.)

We've entered the month of Elul, a time for soul-searching and teshuvah. I know I need to make teshuvah for giving in to the inclination to turn away from stories like this one, for closing my eyes to injustice and suffering caused by people who share my religious tradition and my holy text. But Torah does not belong only to those who use it to justify such actions. Torah belongs equally to we who are horrified by these stories.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof: justice, justice shall you pursue. May we be strengthened in justice and righteousness. May we be brave enough to face injustice and to work toward transformation and healing, here and everywhere.


Recommended reading:

To-do lists, teshuvah, and whatever gets in the way of the work

I feel this week as though I'm running at a faster clock speed than usual. It's not quite mania, but it's not all that different from it, either. There's a low buzz of anticipation at the base of my spine. When I sit still in silence, a million waves of thought rise up and crash on the rocks of my consciousness. Elul is upon us, and I am vibrating.

Just before Shabbat began last week, I bought a copy of Rae Shagalov's Elul Book as a downloadable pdf, and I showed some of the calligraphy to my congregants on Shabbat morning. Here's the passage which particularly struck me. Here's the text (and a thumbnail which shows part of her calligraphy...)

7824828536_a00586b87f_mWake up from the beautiful dream of the whole year! If you received a court summons in the mail, you would feel a shock of fear. You would call the best lawyers. You would call all your friends and ask for their advice. You would carefully go through all of your accounts to determine the truth of your situation.

It's Elul! Your summons has come in the mail! Feel the shock! Call your lawyers! Call your friends! Go through your accounts today! Determine the truth of your situation! Who are your lawyers? Your mitzvahs. Who are your friends? Your good actions!

Sometimes, a person refuses to wake up. What happens? His friend shakes him awake so he won't be late for an important engagement. We have a choice. We can wake up on our own, early, and prepare ourselves carefully; or we can pull the blanket over our heads, refuse to wake up, and be shaken awake by our greatest friend in the world...

I wish I thought that Elul and its teshuvah work were the only reason I'm feeling a bit busy and buzzy and aswirl. I know this is the month for serious internal work. I know I have only four weeks during which to kick my teshuvah process into gear. But I suspect that another big piece of the reason why I'm feeling so agitated is that there's just so much to do before the Days of Awe begin.

Time to reach out to people who never responded when I offered them honors in our high holiday services. Time to check my high holiday songsheet drafts against the prayerbook to make sure I have the right things on each songsheet. Time to intensify the search for someone willing and able to take ownership of the project of getting our congregational sukkah built. Time to troubleshoot and figure out why the high holiday cds we burned for our entire congregation won't play on a cd player, and only half of the tracks will play in my car. Time to, time to, time to --

And at the same time, there's a part of my brain which whispers: time to wake up. Time to take a good hard look at my life. Time to discern, where do I habitually miss the mark? How can I become a better version of myself? What are the places where I'm spiritually lazy? Only four weeks now to prepare myself to attempt to lead my community in prayer, to stand before the King of Kings in God's own throne room, to make something meaningful for those who join us in prayer, and how can I do any of those things if I haven't also done my own teshuvah?

This is my second year as a congregational rabbi, and I'm still figuring out how to balance all of this. I feel as though my own internal work has to take a backseat until the congregational logistics are under control -- and yet if I don't do my own internal work, I won't be able to lead the congregation in the way that they deserve.

Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work. I learned that from the poet Jason Shinder, of blessed memory. Can I find a way to tackle the congregational pre-high-holiday to-do list which will allow me to live out the teshuvah, the repentance and return, that I know I need? Can I make phone calls, send emails, generate revised to-do lists with prayerful consciousness? I've said for years that my challenge is figuring out how to live out my spiritual aspirations not when I'm on retreat, not when I'm on a break from ordinary life, but precisely in and through my ordinary life. Not separation, but integration. Here's another opportunity to (try to) do just that.

Here it is, Elul again at last, the scant four weeks between now and Rosh Hashanah dwindling by the minute. Can I trust that what I'm doing is what I'm meant to be doing? That everything will get done, somehow, some way? That I can make teshuvah not when I'm done with the work at hand, but even as I do the work which needs to be done?

Resources for Elul

We've recently entered into the month of Elul, the lunar month leading up to the Days of Awe.

The name Elul can be read as an acronym for Ani L'dodi V'dodi Li -- "I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine." (Song of Songs.) This is the month when we're encouraged to relate to God as the divine Beloved; to walk in the fields with God as one might walk with a lover, speaking intimately one-to-one.

Here are a few resources for the lunar month we've just begun:

  • My Prayer for Elul by Rabbi Brant Rosen, posted at his spirituality-focused blog Yedid Nefesh. This is his own interpretation of psalm 27, traditionally read every day during this month.

  • Or, for an alternative, here's poet Alicia Ostriker's poetic rendering of psalm 27. Another practice is to sing Achat Sha'alti (One Thing I Ask) every day, which is a setting of part of that psalm.
  • Your First Step Begins the Journey by Jueli Garfinkle at Moon Over Maui. Jueli provides a lovely printable calendar which one can use to concretize a commitment to making this month a spiritually-meaningful time of year.

  • Speaking of lovely and printable, I just bought a copy of this Elul Book, a downloadable pdf of Rae Shagalov's calligraphic Torah teachings about teshuvah and the month of Elul. It's beautiful calligraphy and each page is packed with teachings and insights. You can preview each page of the book on the Holy Sparks website, and you can buy individual prints if you don't want the whole thing.
  • Relating to God in Elul, On Rosh Hashanah, and On Yom Kippur, a seven-part essay by R' Yitzchak Ginsburgh. Occasionally a bit esoteric, but there's some beautiful material here. The section on Returning to God in Elul is particularly interesting to me.

  • Riding With the King, my own post about Elul from 2008, which explores a couple of different Hasidic folktales and interpretations of what this holy month is all about.

May your Elul be meaningful and sweet!

This week's portion: blessing and curse

Here's the d'var Torah I gave yesterday at my shul, crossposted to my From the Rabbi blog.

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced.

That's how the JPS translates the beginning of this week's Torah portion: Deut. 11:26-28. I like to read it slightly differently.

Behold: this day I set before you
blessing and curse.
The blessing is when you listen to My mitzvot
and the curse is when you don't connect with My mitzvot
but turn away
and follow other gods
with whom you don't have a personal connection.

In my reading, Torah isn't telling us that if we follow the mitzvot we'll receive blessing and if we fail to follow the mitzvot we'll be cursed. As in, do the right thing and you'll be rewarded, do the wrong thing and you'll be punished. Torah is telling us that following the mitzvot is, itself, the blessing. And that being alienated from our Source is, itself, the experience of being cursed.

The word mitzvah -- you probably know this -- means commandment. You may or may not know that it's related to the Aramaic word tzavta, which means to attach or join. Mitzvah can be understood to mean not only commandment, but also connection.

I love the idea of the mitzvot as connections. They connect us with God. They connect us with our tradition. They connect us with other human beings and with the earth. They connect us with ourselves.

Continue reading "This week's portion: blessing and curse" »

VR Podcast 4: Elul and Teshuvah


VR Podcast Episode 4: Elul and Teshuvah.

Tomorrow we enter the new lunar month of Elul -- a perfect time for a new VR Podcast!

In this episode of the VR Podcast I talk about the lunar month of Elul, explore some ideas about teshuvah (repentance / return), share Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's translation of Psalm 27, and close with a blessing for you for the month to come.




To listen online or download:

18 minutes, 20 seconds / 17.6 MB MP3 file

If you're so inclined, you can subscribe via iTunes.

All feedback is welcome and appreciated, always.


Poem in CALYX

I'm delighted and honored to be able to say that one of my mother poems appears in the latest issue of CALYX, a fantastic journal dedicated to publishing womens' work. Here's their stated mission; here's some of their remarkable history. And here's a description of the journal itself, borrowed from their website:

CalyxCover272web_000A forum for women's creative work -- including work by women of color, lesbian and queer women, young women, old women -- CALYX Journal breaks new ground. Each issue is packed with new poetry, short stories, full-color artwork, photography, essays, and reviews.

CALYX Journal is known for discovering important writers, such as Julia Alvarez, Paula Gunn Allen, Olga Broumas, Natalie Goldberg, Barbara Kingsolver, and Sharon Olds, among the more than 4,000 writers published during our first 35 years. CALYX was the first to publish the artwork of Frida Kahlo in color in the U.S. In 1980 CALYX also f eatured work by the Nobel Laureate poet Wislawa Szymborska -- the first English translations of her work published in the U.S.

That's some amazing company to be in, for sure! And so is the current issue. I'm working my way through the current issue now, and I'm loving it. I'm particularly struck by Lisa Bellamy's "To Matrilineal Haplogroup K" (After DNA testing), Susan Nisenbaum Becker's "Loons," Karen An-Hwei Lee's "Poem Washed in Tuvan Silver," Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo's "Frida's Monkey Nurse," Karen Leigh Moon's "Julekake," Susan R. Williamson's "Spring Offering With Morning Coffee."

My poem "Mother Psalm 6" appears in issue 272, summer 2012. If you're so inclined, you can subscribe to the journal, or purchase a single issue for $10.

Thanks, CALYX editors, for choosing to include my work!

Rabbi Brant Rosen's "Wrestling In the Daylight"

I've identified deeply with Israel all my life. I first visited at a very young age and have been back to visit more times than I can even count. In my early twenties, I spent two years there studying, working, and living on kibbutzim. I have family members and many dear friends who live in Israel. My Jewish identity has been profoundly informed by the classic Zionist narrative: the story of a small underdog nation forging a national and cultural rebirth out of the ashes of its near-destruction. The redemptive nature of this narrative has at times assumed a quasi-sacred status for me, as it has for many American Jews of my generation and older...

Rosen_ft_cover_early_June__47996_thumbSo writes Rabbi Brant Rosen of the blog Shalom Rav in the introduction to his new book, Wrestling in the Daylight: A Rabbi's Path to Palestinian Solidarity, recently released by Just World Books.

In that introduction Rabbi Brant writes about his longstanding liberal Zionism, about his slowly-creeping doubts about Israel's treatment of Palestinians (and his awareness that his concerns arose more out of concern that the occupation was "corrupting Israel's soul" than out of concern for Palestinians per se), about the horrors of the Second Intifada and then Israel's military campaign in Lebanon in 2006.

It was that campaign in Lebanon which began to shake the foundations of his Zionism. "Although I certainly felt compassion for -- along with a certain tribal solidarity with -- the citizens of Northern Israel suffering under Hezbollah rocket fire, I was unable to accept the utter destruction the IDF was inflicting upon Lebanon in the name of national security," he writes.

And then came Operation Cast Lead. Rabbi Brant writes:

On December 28, 2008, I read the first news report of Israel's military assault on Gaza -- a campaign that would soon be well-known as Operation Cast Lead. On the first day of operations, the Israeli Air Force destroyed Hamas security facilities in Gaza, killing more than 225 people, most of whom were new police cadets participating in a graduation ceremony. Numerous civilians, including children, were also among the dead. By the end of the day, it was clear we were only witnessing the beginning of a much longer and even more violent military campaign that would drive much farther into Gaza.

I remember reading this news with utter anguish. At the same time, oddly enough, I realized that I was finally observing this issue with something approaching true clarity: This is not about security at all -- this is about bringing the Palestinian people to their knees.

Once I admitted this to myself, I realized how utterly tired I had become. Tired of trying to excuse the inexcusable. Tired of using torturous, exhausting rationalizations to explain away what I knew in my heart was sheer and simple oppression.

Rabbi Brant notes that "rabbis and Jewish leaders are under tremendous pressure by the American organizational establishment to maintain unflagging support for the state of Israel." This is, I think, true -- and it makes his own willingness to publicly chronicle his wrestle with these issues, these stories, and these realities all the more remarkable.

Wrestling in the Daylight: A Rabbi's Path to Palestinian Solidarity is Rabbi Brant's self-curated compilation of his blog posts from Shalom Rav, so if you've been reading Shalom Rav, this material won't be new to you. But I'm finding, as I read, that reading the posts in this new setting and context -- curated by their author into a narrative which clearly shows the progression of his thinking over time -- is a different experience from reading the blog. And Rabbi Brant has chosen to reprint some of the comments from readers as well as responses he's offered to those comments, which gives the book a bit of the internet's Talmudic multivocality (and offers an example of how one can host difficult conversations in a thoughtful and generous way -- which can be hard to come by on the internet, especially on questions of Israel/Palestine.)

The choice to include commentary makes the book particularly interesting, I think. Some of Rabbi Brant's most frequent commentors disagree with him deeply. Over the course of the book, one can see conversations unfolding. Sometimes they are quite heated. And his responses are always thoughtful and respectful, even as he resists attempts at derailing the conversation. Having hosted some conversations about Israel at this blog over the years, I have a sense for how difficult that can be.

At the end of the book, he reprints an article from the Chicago Jewish News with the wonderful headline of Hell freezes over, Cubs win world series, Jews find way to disagree agreeably, about his congregation and its movement toward a new form of dialogue around Israel. The article notes that many of Rabbi Brant's congregants have children who have made aliyah and grandchildren who are settlers, and that his outspokenness about Israel and how he has come to see Israel is not always easy or comfortable for his community.

Here's an excerpt from that article, which closes out the book:

"I have very strong feelings about Israel and I express them pretty openly. My activism is very public," [Rabbi Brant] says. "That is my own truth as a Jew and a rabbi, and it is very important to me to be true to my private personal conscience."

But as the rabbi of JRC, "I also feel strongly that my job is to create the kind of environment where people, even those who don’t agree with me -- and there are many -- feel welcome to express those views and have those views heard. I respect the diversity of opinion at JRC," he says. "We may be (perceived as) left-leaning, but on the subject of Israel, we are more diverse than people think."

The largest group of congregants, he says, fall somewhere in the middle of a continuum, with some on both ends of the spectrum.

With these thoughts in mind, Rosen says, he and a number of congregants "decided together that rather than raise all this dust, it would be a great opportunity to use these emotions in some kind of constructive way."

Rabbi Brant and his congregants contacted the Jewish Dialogue Group, a nonprofit which works to foster constructive dialogue within Jewish communities about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other controversial issues, and together they developed a program called Sicha (conversation) which has helped his congregation enter a new paradigm in their communal conversations about Israel and Palestine. Reading this article as a congregational rabbi -- aware that within my congregation too there is a wide diversity of experience with and opinion about Israel; aware that I have congregants whose children have made aliyah and whose grandkids have served in the IDF; aware that I need to find a way to minister to my community without my own writing on these issues getting in the way of our relationship -- I'm moved and inspired.

Rabbi Brant Rosen is one of my role models in the difficult but important work of coming to terms with the clash between the classic Zionist narrative (a story which many of us want to continue believing -- I know I still yearn for it to be true) and some of the realities on the ground in Israel and the Palestinian territories. He models for me not how one would do this internal work despite his ardent Jewishness, but precisely of it; not despite being a rabbi, but precisely because his rabbinate calls him to take seriously the Jewish call to stand with those who are oppressed. And he has also taught me a great deal about how to disagree without falling into the trap of looking down on (or dehumanizing) those with whom one disagrees.

If you're interested in progressive Jewish takes on Israel and Palestine, this book is worth reading, and worth having on your bookshelf to return to again.

A poem of praise by Anne Sexton

There's an Anne Sexton poem which a friend shared with me some time ago, and which has been sitting in a file on my desktop ever since. I open it from time to time, and reread it, and am reminded of how much I love it. Today I wanted to share it with y'all.


Welcome Morning

There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning,
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
each morning,
in the spoon and the chair
that cry "hello there, Anne"
each morning,
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning.
All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.
So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.
The Joy that isn't shared, I've heard,
dies young.


I particularly love the part of the poem which begins "All this is God." And "I mean / though often forget / to give thanks[.]" And "as the holy birds at the kitchen window / peck into their marriage of seeds." And the notion of painting a thank-you on my palm for God. Like mehndi, maybe. Or the mnemonic device of tying a string around one's finger (which is one of the ways I like to think about tefillin, too.) I hope this one speaks to y'all, too.

Music for the Days of Awe at CBI

Two years ago, when I first served as cantorial soloist at my shul alongside my friend and colleague Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser ("Reb Jeff"), we put together a cd of some of the melodies we'd be using during the chagim and shared the cd with our membership.

People seemed to like it. So I did it again last year. And I'm doing it a third time this year -- this time in consultation with my friend David Curiel, an ALEPH rabbinic student who will serve as our cantorial soloist for this year's Days of Awe.

We haven't burned the cds yet, but this year I'm also trying something new: putting all sixteen tracks online so that they can be either streamed (using the embedded audio player) or downloaded (if you want them on your own computer or iPod or what-have-you.)

This year's cds features a few old favorites (among them recordings of me singing "Achat Sha'alti" and Barbra Streisand singing Max Janowski's setting for "Avinu Malkeinu") and a few things which are new (the "Modeh Ani" chant written by our hazzan David Curiel, and Shir Yaakov's beautiful new setting for Rabbi Rami Shapiro's "We Are Loved," recorded at Romemu -- among others.)

If you're interested, you can find our Days of Awe playlist for 5773 / 2012 online at my From the Rabbi blog: Music for the Days of Awe. Feel free to listen, download, share at will! The High Holidays are just short of six weeks away...

Thanks, Progress Planet!

The kind folks at Progress Planet interviewed me recently about life, my blog, and my hopes.

Here's a taste:

PP: What are your personal goals for your blog? What do you hope to achieve with it?

RB: I hope to foster conversations about Judaism — to teach Torah — to teach kindness — to teach about Jewish Renewal — to explore the intersections of different religious traditions — to explore the varieties of contemporary Jewish experience. I hope to keep myself writing about all of the above. And I hope to be part of a conscious community of people who take these things seriously, as I do.

You can read the whole thing on their site: “Many Voices” Blogger Q&A: Rachel Barenblat (The Velveteen Rabbi).

Morning Cartoons, Morning Prayer


I settle you with animated friends
and swirl my summer tallit
up and over to wrap my face,
tinting my world silky blue.

My intention is the deck, but
when you catch sight of me you ask
"Want to stay here, mommy?"
How could I say no? You're

one of God's most exuberant faces.
I curl into the sofa
and manage a modah ani, kiss
my tzitzit, and join you.

Bless God Who creates the light
which streams forth from this screen
and from your heart, Who creates
the love in your storybooks

and in mine, the Oneness at
the heart of all things
Who gives us capacity to change.
Today these cartoons are my prayer.

This is the twelfth poem in my occasional Toddler House series. (Here's the previous one; you can work your way back through them, and then through the first year of weekly mother poems, by clicking on the mother poems category.) It's also the latest chronicle of my attempt to maintain a prayerful consciousness even when I'm not explicitly able to make time for formal prayer. (That's been a theme here since my son was born -- see Prayer life changes, 2010.)

Modah ani is the blessing for gratitude recited in the morning. The trio of blessings surrounding the shema are, in order, a blessing for God Who creates light; a blessing for God Who creates love and manifests that love for us through the giving of Torah; and a blessing for God Who redeems us.

On a different note: deep thanks to all who left kind comments on my most recent post, about occasional brokenheartedness at the state of the world. Your responses were balm for my heavy heart indeed.