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A poem for Hoshanna Rabbah

My footsteps across
this patch of earth's scalp
release the scent of thyme.

Even in the rain
the squirrels have been busy
denuding the corncobs.

The wind has dangled
my autumn garlands. I untangle
them one last time.

Every day the sukkah becomes
more a sketch of itself.
The canvas walls dip

and drape, the cornstalks
wither, revealing more
of the variegated sky.

Today we ask God to save
this ark and all that it holds.
Today the penultimate taste

of honey on our bread.
Today we beat willow branches
until the leaves fall.

The end of this long walk
through fasts and feasts:
we're footsore, hearts weary

from pumping emotion. We yearn
to burrow into the soil
and close our eyes. We won't know

what's been planted in us
until the sting of horseradish
pulls us forth into freedom.



This is the poem I worked on yesterday -- Hoshanna Rabbah -- while sitting in the sukkah during a cool clouded stretch of afternoon. (What's Hoshanna Rabbah? See yesterday's post, Three more holidays at the end of Sukkot.)

The stanza about asking God to save "this ark and all that it holds" is a reference to the hoshanot, the prayers asking God to save the earth, recited on Hoshanna Rabbah. Beating willow branches until the leaves fall like rain is another of the day's practices.

One tradition holds that we eat challah drizzled with honey not only on Rosh Hashanah at the new year, but all the way through the holiday season to Shemini Atzeret, which is today.

I'm wondering whether I should cut the first three stanzas. What do you think?


ETA: based on responses here, I revised the poem into a new form, which you can see in the next post: Pictures and words (Hoshanna Rabbah.)


Three more holidays at the very end of Sukkot

There are three distinct and special celebrations at the end of Sukkot. The first of them, Hoshana Rabbah, is today.

HoshanaRabba09_9Hoshana Rabbah -- "The Great 'Save-Us!'" -- is the seventh day of Sukkot and a minor holiday in its own right. On this day, traditionally, we make seven circuits of our sanctuaries with our lulavim and our Torah scrolls while reciting prayers called Hoshanot which ask God to bring healing and salvation. Seven is a number with spiritual significance in Judaism: seven days of the week, the seven "lower" (accessible) sefirot (aspects of God), the seven ancestral figures (some invite seven men and seven women) welcomed into the Sukkah as ushpizin (holy guests) -- and now on the seventh day of this festival we circumnambulate our sanctuaries seven times, singing and praying. There's also a very old custom of taking the willow branches from our lulavim and beating them against the ground; the falling willow leaves are an embodied prayer for rain. (For more on that: The Ritual of Beating the Willow.)

Even if you're not dancing or processing around a sanctuary with branches and Torah scrolls, reading some hoshanot and reflecting on their meaning is a lovely observance of Hoshana Rabbah. I like the ones written by my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, which online here at the Reb Zalman Legacy Project blog, and also here at the Shalom Center (with commentary from Rabbi Arthur Waskow below the hoshanot themselves.) And here's a brief excerpt from a translated hoshana, provided by Rabbi David Seidenberg of

Shemini Atzeret -- "The Pausing of the Eighth Day" -- is the eighth day of Sukkot. Yes, Sukkot is a seven-day holiday, but tradition tells us that on the eighth day, God (Who has been so enjoying spending time with us in our sukkot) says "awww, do you really have to go? Can't you linger a little longer?" So we stay in our sukkot for one more day, one more chance to engage in intimate connection with Shekhinah, the immanent and indwelling Presence of God. This is a day for spaciousness, a day of pausing, a day to celebrate the white space which cradles and contains all of the texts and teachings and observances of the holiday season now ending. The Days of Awe and Sukkot are a dense and busy time, full of obligations and sermons and teachings; Shemini Atzeret is a chance to pause, to take a breath, to receive the blessings of stillness.

This day is a hinge-point in our liturgical year between the summer season and the winter season. On Shemini Atzeret, we recite special prayers for rain, and we enter into the liturgical winter-season when our Amidah contains a one-line prayer for rain every day instead of the summertime one-line prayer for dew. I've written a contemporary prayer for rain which can be read / davened on this day, which you can find in the VR archives here; you might also enjoy my Sestina for Shemini Atzeret, which I wrote last year and which I still really like. Shemini Atzeret is the 22nd of Tishrei, which begins tonight at sundown and lasts through tomorrow (Monday).

Children-kiss-torahSimchat Torah -- "Rejoicing in the Torah" -- is the culmination of all of our celebrations during this holy season. We read the very end of the Torah scroll, then read the beginning again, celebrating the neverending nature of our collective story. We dance around the room with Torah scrolls singing songs. Here's the poem I wrote some years ago for this festival, Mobius, which is also available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems (Phoenicia, 2011.)

So when is Simchat Torah? Well, it depends on who you ask. In Israel, Sukkot lasts for seven days; the seventh day is Hoshana Rabbah; and the 8th day is both Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Reform communities outside of the land of Israel also operate on this calendar. (I'm not sure about Reconstructionist communities; Jewish Renewal communities' practices vary.) In Diaspora, Orthodox and Conservative Jews move from 7 days of Sukkot (the final one being Hoshana Rabbah) to two days of Shemini Atzeret, the second of which is Simchat Torah, making the whole shebang a 9-day observance insted of an 8-day one. (In my local community we'll celebrate Simchat Torah on Monday night, in conjunction with the local college Jewish student group.)

It's possible to experience a kind of holiday fatigue at this moment in the year. Tisha b'Av, then the month of Elul, then Rosh Hashanah, the Ten Days of Teshuvah, Yom Kippur, a week of Sukkot...! But there's beauty and meaning in each of these three final days of this holiday season. I offer this blessing: may each of us find a point of access into the beauty and wisdom of Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. May we connect with the gift of being able to ask for help in healing our world, the gift of holy pausing and sacred rest, and the gift of Torah, the story which never ends.


MigrantHealth:IL - a ray of hope for migrants in Israel

On one of the rabbinic e-mail lists to which I belong, I read about a project in Israel which brings me hope. It's called MigrantHealth:IL. Here's how they describe the work they're doing:

The Need, explained:

In May, a young Eritrean refugee living in Tel Aviv contracted chicken pox. In most of Israel, or the Western world, this would not be a big deal; if the case gets complicated you go to the doctor, she gives you medicine and the infection clears in a few days.

This mother did not know where to go for help. She was not aware of the free medical care available for refugees who are not covered in the Israeli socialized healthcare system. Because of this, she remained at home and the simple case of chicken pox transformed into a deadly pneumonia.

MigrantHealth:IL addresses the disparity between available health care resources and the Israeli migrant community—our health outreach program prevents scenarios as the one above, that typify the disconnect between resources and needs. 

Our Campaign:

In collaboration with the Tel Aviv Refugee Clinic, we will employ nurses from within the migrant community to improve the health of this population. These nurses are uniquely qualified for working in the migrant community as they are multilingual, highly trained in their home countries, eager to work, and already have their fingers on the ‘pulse’ of their community.

If they can raise $15,000, they'll be able to hire three part-time nurses for one year. (The more money they raise, the more nurses they can hire.) If they can make it through this first year, they expect support from the Israeli Ministry of Health and local hospitals in year two.

Their website is here: MigrantHealth:IL. On that website you can see a short video about the project -- or, if you're reading this in a format which supports embedded video, you can watch the video here:

Short MigrantHealth:IL video, from YouTube.

There are some 80,000 migrants in Israel. (The African Refugee Development Center says there are roughly 60,000 African refugees there, most from Eritrea and Sudan.) This project seeks to tend to the health needs of the migrant community, and to employ members of that community in the process. There are currently some Israeli nurses working with African migrants in Israel, but there are difficulties arising from language barriers; most of the migrants are Eritrean. MigrantHealth will provide jobs for Eritrean nurses, and will provide for the community a pool of nurses who not only speak their language but understand their community context.

This is the brainchild of Doctor Jonah Mink, the son of Cantor Susan Wehle (may her memory be a blessing.) Susan was a part of the Jewish Renewal community, and while I didn't know her personally, I know that she was beloved to many of my friends and colleagues.

Dr. Mink received his MD from the Ben Gurion University School of International Medicine in Beersheva. He's already set up an electronic medical records system for the migrant community at the Tel Aviv Refugee Clinic clinic, which earlier this summer had served more than 7,000 patients and was overwhelmed with requests for care. (That's via the article ROI's 21st Century Vision; Dr. Mink is part of the ROI community, "connect[ing] dynamic Jewish leaders from around the globe, enabling them to turn their passion into action by creating transformative work for the Jewish world and beyond.")

MigrantHealth:IL is a crowdfunded project; they need to raise $15,000 over the next nine days in order to move forward. I just made a donation. There's special merit in giving tzedakah before Shabbat. My teachers teach, and I believe, that when we open our hands to bestow abundance on others, we open cosmic channels for God to bestow abundance on us. If you're able to give a little something, I hope that you will do so. This is so important and necessary -- not just because it acts as a corrective to the shameful violence against African migrants in Tel Aviv this summer (see my May 2012 post For you were strangers in the land of Egypt) but because this is a community of people in desperate need, and this is an easy way to help from afar.

Kol hakavod (props/honor) to the creators of this project. May it flourish and provide limitless assistance and blessing to those in need.

Save the date: 70 faces events in Northampton in 2013


Save the date! I'm doing two 70 faces events in March at another western Massachusetts CBI: not Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams (my shul), but Congregation B'nai Israel in Northampton, Massachusetts. I'll be doing two events there over the course of a weekend; first a poetry reading on Shabbat, and then a Torah poems workshop on Sunday morning, where I'll guide participants through the process of writing their own poetic responses to Torah.

Torah Poetry Reading and Workshop
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
March 9-10, 2013

Join Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (70 faces, Phoenicia 2011) for a reading of Torah poems after Shabbat morning services (services run 9:30-noon) and a Torah poetry workshop on Sunday morning (9:30-11:30). Meet the natural world through Torah's lens; meet Torah through the lens of poetry; bring a love of Torah and of nature to bear on your own poems.

All are welcome; if you're in or near Northampton, I hope you'll join us!


A sukkah and a song

Drew admires the roof of our sukkah.

"Want to sing the angel song, mommy?"

Drew and I are sitting in our sukkah under the wet cornstalks and the little lights. It is evening; the skies are threatening, but it's not actively raining -- at least not yet.

I sing him Shlomo Carlebach's setting of the song about the four angels who watch over us at night. It's part of our bedtime routine. As I mention each angel, I wave my fingers at him: from the right, from the left, from in front, from behind. He giggles.

When I'm done, I ask if he wants to sing something, and he agrees. He sings me the alphabet song, then asks me to sing it, too. We sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

By this time the light mist in the air has intensified into a drizzle. Even in our raincoats and rain boots, we're getting more than a little bit damp. So we head inside, I unplug the sukkah lights, we watch some cartoons.

A little while later, Drew in his pyjamas, he brings his raincoat and Thomas And Friends rainboots over to me. "Want to go in the sukkah, mommy?" I am completely charmed, but I have to inform him that it's really raining now, and besides, he's in PJs, it's almost time for bed.

In the gliding rocker, when I sing him the angel song before bed, I think of the cornstalks and lights of our sukkah, and it makes me smile.


Sukkah roof by evening.

VR Podcast 5: Sukkot


VR Podcast Episode 5: Sukkot

Happy Sukkot!

In this episode of the VR Podcast -- live from our sukkah in our backyard -- I talk about the festival of Sukkot, interpretations of the sukkah, impermanence, integrating blessings, the Four Species, and more.




To listen online or download:  VR Podcast 5 - Sukkot.mp3

23 minutes, 8 seconds / 22.2 MB MP3 file

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

All feedback is welcome and appreciated, always.


Taking a break from football to go on Hajj

282161_411918928861995_786269551_nOn Sunday evening Ethan and I watched an episode of Outside the Lines on ESPN, about two Muslim NFL players who are making Hajj, the journey to Mecca in Saudia Arabia which takes place during the last month of the Muslim calendar each year. The story is here at ESPN -- I can't embed it, but it's online. It's less than eight minutes long, and it's really worth watching.

Husain and Hamza Abdullah, both of whom are free agents in the National Football League, decided not to sign with anyone this year in order to be able to make the Hajj. The Hajj is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, and they decided to do it this year -- I'm guessing both because they could afford to do it, and because they knew it would offer them an opportunity (because of their position as NFL players) to educate Americans about Islam.

And since they were taking the season off from football, they decided to do a thirty-mosques-in-thirty-days road trip. Because why not, right?

I've linked before to 30 mosques in 30 days, a Ramadan travel-and-blogging project undertaken by a pair of Muslim bloggers. It's neat to get some glimpses of two NFL players (and their brother, who went on the road trip with them) who chose to go on that kind of journey. And I love the idea of visiting communities all over the country and seeing both how they differ (from north to south, east to west, urban to rural) and how they are the same (the same commitment to faith and scripture and community.)

I suspect this is a place where the American Muslim experience and the American Jewish experience are parallel. Both of our traditions are minority traditions in this country, and it's easy to imagine that we only exist in certain pockets of the country or that the way our traditions are practiced in one place (be it New York or Los Angeles, Dearborn or Boro Park) is the way they're practiced everywhere. But as a Jew who grew up in the southwest, and who now lives in rural Massachusetts, I have some sense of some of our diversities (different types of buildings, different types of communities, different prayerbook choices and modes of prayer) and of what unifies us across geography and demographics. I get the sense that the American Muslim community is both unified and diverse in many of the same ways. That's part of what I enjoyed seeing in this ESPN piece about these two athletes traveling the country during Ramadan.

Anyway, the Outside the Lines piece is lovely. I'm impressed with these two men, with their commitment to their faith, and with their willingness to be filmed while engaging in this spiritual quest.

(In case you're curious, there are a few Jewish players in the NFL too, though not very many. See, e.g., Schwartzes first Jewish brothers in NFL since 1923.)

חג שמח / Happy Sukkot!

sukkah under cloudy sky

Our sukkah, 5773.

There are four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. One for each letter of the Tetragrammaton, the Divine Name whose pronunciation is lost to us (or is perhaps, as Rabbi Arthur Waskow has suggested, our very breathing, in and out, each inhalation and exhalation together forming a prayer.) One for each of the Four Worlds.

Four days to process whatever emotional and spiritual learning Yom Kippur brought us. To install on our hearts the new name of God we downloaded during that long day of fasting and prayer. Four days to recover from the rollercoaster of the Days of Awe. To make ourselves into channels for the blessing with which we hope to irrigate the world during the festival to come.

And then, at sundown after the fourth day, we enter Sukkot. Chag ha-asif, the festival of ingathering. Zman simchateinu, the season of our rejoicing. A week of dwelling consciously in impermanence, beneath the sheltering divine presence and the shelter of the ever-changing sky. A week of dining al fresco, welcoming our spiritual ancestors and our friends to join us.

During Sukkot, the immanent divine Presence dwells with us in our temporary backyard houses. God moves in with us, this week, and we move in with God. We shake the Four Species in all directions, beckoning blessing.

Even though autumn in New England can be cold and rainy, there's something glorious about being outside in the fall. I love this chance to encounter God's presence in the great outdoors before winter's cold drives me mostly inside.

And I love all the various interpretations of the holiday: that our sukkot represent harvest huts, that they represent the tents in which we dwelled when we left Egypt (or the clouds of divine glory which enveloped us on that journey), even that they're an annual return to the divine womb. Sukkot are liminal spaces, at once "inside" and "outside."

There's nothing else quite like this week. Chag sameach / happy Sukkot to all! Whatever form your festival observance takes, I hope it brings you joy.