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Drawing (on) our dreams

When I describe
the characters in Super Why
diving into books
to change the story
and save the day

your face lights up:
you've done just that
with your younger daughter
when nightmares tore her
from her sleep

she'd tell you tearfully
about the bad green man
and you'd draw him
on your biggest sketchpad
and then scrawl him out

or adorn him
with silly hats
a feather boa, a banana
her laughter the talisman
that banished him for good

this week the Torah's
bedecked with dreams:
Joseph's dreams
the cupbearer's dream
the Pharaoh's dream

how different
would our story be
if, when Joseph brought
his dreams of the sheaves
bowing down before him

his parents had said
let's draw that dream together
here on this parchment
then write a new story
for you and your brothers

without their wounds
what would have set
the spheres in motion
to bring us down
so we could be raised up?



This Torah poem arises out of the confluence of this week's portion (which is replete with dreams and the interpretation of dreams) and a conversation I had with a dear friend over lunch about ways of soothing a child's nightmares.

I can't help feeling that the Joseph story needed to happen exactly the way it did in order for all of its outcomes to unfold. But I'm grateful that we have ways of working with dreams to lessen some of the anxious power they may hold.

I don't usually post poems in html tables like this, but I like the visual prosody of the two columns of stanzas playing off of each other. I can format the poem that way in my word processor, but couldn't find a better way to do it in-blog.

All comments welcome, as always.

On beginning a Torah podcast...with my students

Last week was the most fun, and possibly the most successful, week in my Hebrew school teaching career. And in some ways, I didn't even teach: I just set the stage, and let the kids roll.

I can't remember how the idea came up. Maybe it was when I asked my students -- I teach the fifth through seventh graders in our b'nei mitzvah prep program -- whether any of them might be interested in recording our services from time to time for those who are homebound. I think that's when the kids asked if they could make a podcast as part of their learning with me, and I said sure. This year we're studying Torah, writ large, so the podcast would have a Torah focus.

After that, they asked pretty much every week: can we make a podcast now? So I spent some time looking at the syllabus I'd put together for the year, and pondering when might be the right time to scrap the roadmap and go somewhere new. I decided the podcast should center around the story of Joseph. Working on it now is seasonally-appropriate (we'll start reading it in shul on December 8), it's a rich and multilayered story, and it's substantial enough to give them a lot to dig into.

Over the Thanksgiving break I asked the kids to read the Joseph story. (And some of them actually did.) When we returned to Hebrew school, I outlined the process I had in mind. The podcast would take place in four acts -- a structure I admit I borrowed from This American Life. Act One: the kids would retell the Joseph story in their own words. Act Two: midrashic explorations of the Joseph story, staying in the Biblical milieu. (They might write scripts where they explored one character's motivations, or another character's emotional reactions.)

Act Three: they could take the story as far-out as they wanted to go. Set it in a science-fiction future, make Joseph into Josie or Josephina, set it on a planet where everyone is a cow (yes, they actually suggested that last one): up to them. I knew that this was the part they were really excited about. When I asked them to write something creative about lulav and etrog, a while back, one of my kids wrote about a Quidditch game where Harry was riding on a lulav to chase the golden etrog. I knew they would find some goofy way to relate to Joseph.

The podcast would close with Act Four, in which I would interview them about what the process had been like and what they had learned from the experience of immersing in their own creative takes on the Joseph story.

We started last week with Act One, the retelling of the Joseph story. I asked them to tell me the story of Joseph, prompting them occasionally if they seemed likely to skip over an important plot point. I transcribed their words, printed copies of that script, and handed it around the room. We recorded the script together in class. For Act Two, I had anticipated that they would want to work in pairs or small groups to write short scripts which explored aspects the Joseph story in their own ways, but to my surprise, they wanted to work all as a single group, and to find their own responses in realtime, as a kind of improv theatre. So I pressed "record" and let them roll.

I spent a few evenings last week doing some technical work: going through each recording and boosting the sections of the audio which had been too quiet, finding a theme song through the Free Music Archive's list of Creative Commons-licensed material available for remix and reuse. (I chose a track by the Boston-based Debo Band - "Aderech Arada (Kiddid Remix)" -- you can learn more about the band and about the track here at the FMA.) This afternoon in class I'm planning to work on Acts Three and Four. Then I'll have some more editing work to do, and we should be able to release the podcast right around the time that congregations around the world are reading the Joseph story!

I'm not sure this podcast will be a major contribution to the world of Jewish commentary on Joseph. But the process of making it has gotten my students excited about Torah and excited about Hebrew school, and as far as I'm concerned, that's priceless. And their insights, and phrasings, are fresh and often surprising. (Did you know that Joseph's brothers failed to recognize him, when they met him as Pharaoh's vizier, because he was all decked out in bling?) I'm proud of my kids for embracing this Torah story, even if they're embracing it with silliness.

And I can't wait to see what they come up with next.


Edited to add: if you're curious, you can listen to the first Ne'arim podcast here at my congregational blog.

70 faces at Yale on December 5


Remember the 70 faces event which was supposed to happen at Yale last month, but was postponed for congregational reasons? It's been rescheduled for this week, hooray! I'll be giving a reading from the book at 4pm on Wednesday, December 5, at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale. I'm delighted to be bringing some Torah poetry to Yale.

If you're in or near Connecticut and would enjoy hearing me read Torah poems and answer questions about Torah and poetry and how they intersect, please join us. The reading is free and open to the public, and I'll have a few books to sign and sell if you need one or if you've been looking for the perfect Chanukah gift for a Torah poetry fan in your life.


On names and naming

I offered this d'var Torah this morning at the Episcopal church in town. My thanks are due to the rector, an old friend, who invited me to preach about names and naming in Jewish tradition.



There are names that we choose, and names we are given. In the Jewish lectionary cycle, we read yesterday from a Torah portion which contains two important namings.

First, the renaming of Jacob. Jacob is on his way to meet his brother Esau for the first time in years, and he's afraid. The night before their meeting, he sends his family on ahead, and he encounters a mysterious stranger who wrestles with him all night.

Anytime an unnamed messenger appears in Torah, he's understood to be an angel, a messenger of the divine. As dawn approaches, the angel demands to be released, but Jacob refuses to let him go without a blessing. So the stranger offers him the blessing of a new name: henceforth he will be called Israel, one who wrestles with God.

A few chapters later God appears to him directly, and God reiterates the new name. "You who were named Jacob will now be called Israel," God says. In Torah, God too has many names; this time, God says "I am El Shaddai," a name which can be read as having something to do with fertility and compassion and motherliness (shadayim are breasts.)

That's one naming. The other naming comes as the matriarch Rachel is dying in childbirth. Her last act in life is to name her second son Ben-oni, "son of my sorrow." But, the text tells us, Israel names the boy instead Benjamin, "son of my right hand." A name which connotes strength and connection, rather than sorrow.

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This week's portion: the Face of God

Here's the d'var Torah I offered this morning at my shul.

In this week's parsha, Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles with an angel all night until dawn. In return he receives the blessing of a new name: Israel, one who wrestles with God, for, as the angel tells him, "you have struggled with God and with human beings, and you have prevailed."

Having received a new name, Jacob bestows a new name: he names that place, that bend in the river, Peni'el, literally "the face of God," saying, "For I have seen God face-to-face, yet my life has been spared." In this place, he has an I-Thou encounter. He names this place the Face of God.

Immediately following these verses, Esau appears with his 400 men. Jacob and Esau, remember, have not seen one another since Jacob tricked Esau out of their father's blessing and then fled. The two twins meet and embrace, and they burst into tears.

Then Esau marvels at Jacob's wealth and good fortune. Jacob tries to give him some of what Jacob has, and Esau demurs, saying that he has plenty. But Jacob says --

No, please, if I have truly found favor in your sight, take the offering from my hand; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God.

As dawn was breaking, Jacob realized that the mysterious stranger with whom he had been struggling all night was, in fact, a face of God. That in his wrestle with the angel, he was wrestling with the divine. That's why he named that place Peni'el, the Face of God.

And now he is reunited with his brother, with whom he has struggled his entire life -- ever since they grappled with one another in the womb. And he looks at his brother, and he sees the face of God.

Before long, their old distance creeps between them again. Esau goes one way, and Jacob goes the other. But I like to imagine this as a truly transformative moment. Even if only temporarily, Jacob was able to look at his twin brother -- his lifelong wrestling partner -- and see him as a manifestation of the divine.

Continue reading "This week's portion: the Face of God" »