« March 2013 | Main | May 2013 »

More reflections on Boston

I posted a response to the Boston Marathon bombing to my congregational blog today. That post contains excerpts from two prayers which I've found particularly meaningful this week. It also contains links to a variety of resources on grief. Whether or not you're a member of my congregation, please feel free to click through to that post if you think it might be helpful to you: A message from Reb Rachel after the Boston Marathon bombing.

Meanwhile, I'll share a few other things with which I've resonated this week. The first essay to which I want to link makes a kind of meta-point: not about the Boston Marathon, but about the ways in which television news (about this event, and in general) feeds our anxiety. Beth at The Cassandra Pages writes about encountering television news in a doctor's waiting room, and then returning home to the news of Monday's bombing. And she continues:

[The omnipresence of tv news] seems to me an ominous symbol of something that has gone very wrong in most western societies: our inability to be with ourselves, to cope with the essential human condition of solitude, especially in situations that cause our anxiety to rise. It concerns me that, in our secular, post-liberal-arts, technological, perpetually-connected society, so little effort goes into teaching children how to be alone, showing them the richness and solace of time spent with nature, with the arts and handcrafts, with books and music, with oneself walking in a city or sitting on a bench: eyes open, ears open, mind and heart awake to the dance of life flowing around us.

I'm with Beth, here. I find that the incessant clamor of the constant news cycle isn't conducive to my mental, emotional, or spiritual health. I'm happier getting my news in more contained doses: from NPR, the BBC, the Times, and -- these days -- my Twitter stream (even though I recognize the dangers of homophily inherent in that last one.) But regardless of where and how you get your news, I think Beth has a point that constant newsmedia-watching can leave us unable to cope with solitude and with uncertainty. Both as a poet and as a rabbi, I experience that as a real loss. Her post is here: A Plea Against Anxiety.

Next, I want to share two posts about the experience of being at the marathon as a spectator and what two women took away from that. The first comes from author Carrie Jones, and is called Boston Marathon. Here's a quote from near the end of that post:

And so many people helped others, making tourniquets out of yarn, carrying the injured, soothing the shocked, giving away their clothes to keep runners warm. And so many people have hearts of goodness. We can't forget that. Not ever. Not today. Not in Boston. Not ever. Because that is exactly what the Boston Marathon is about: It's about not giving up, not giving in to pain. It's about that celebration of surviving and enduring against all odds, against everything. It's about humanity. No bomber can take that away. Not ever.

And finally I'll leave you with Sarah Courchesne's My Lucky Day: the view from mile 22. She writes:

I know how you all feel, watching it all. I understand the shock, the disbelief, the anger and the demands to know why. But from where I stood, my whole day was suffused with the pure good of humanity. And that’s not unique to Boston, or to America... What I saw was the good. And I see it still. It’s all I see.

I've read both of those posts a few times through, and the message of hope I find at the end of each one is sustaining to me.


Daily April poem: unprompted

RED MAPLE


When we planted this red maple
it was barely a foot high,
shorter than a frill of kale.
We'd been married five years.
We dug a little hole and hoped.

This week the snow is finally gone
and we walk the perimeter, unearthing
sandbox toys, faded cars,
plastic tee and bat.
I almost don't recognize the tree:

sprawling gangly, reaching
over my head toward the clouds.
Ten years make a solid foundation
for curled-tight leafbuds, balanced
across branches, ready to burst free.

 


 

This poem wasn't written to any prompt; it arose on its own. I wrote it on the 20th day of the Omer, the day of yesod (roots, generativity, foundation) within the week of tiferet (harmony, balance). I had that combination of qualities in mind as I worked on the poem. Hopefully their presence is manifest.

Napo2013button1


Daily April poem: about a superhero

MODERN-DAY GOLEM


When Tony puts on
his Iron Man suit

bright spark of life
pulsing in his chest

does he feel like
the Golem of Prague

rising to the rescue
from the Vltava's banks?

He masters the air
as Loew mastered incantations.

No words are written
above his brown eyes

but if his electromagnet
relaxed its constant humming

all his mechanical strength
would drain away, truth

reverting to death again
as though a thumb

had erased that letter
without which we melt

into the primeval mud
from which we came.

 


 

A recent prompt at NaPoWriMo invited the writing of superhero (or supervillain) persona poems. I didn't manage to write in the voice of a superhero, but I did write a poem about one -- actually kind of about two at once, since the poem compares Tony Stark / Iron Man to the Golem of Prague.

In the version of the golem story I know best, Rabbi Loew created the golem out of the mud of the Vltava river and brought him to life using kabbalistic incantations. The golem's task was to protect the Jews of Prague from pogroms. On his forehead was written the word אמת / emet, "truth." When the א was erased, leaving behind מת / met, "death," the golem was turned back into mud.

Tony Stark doesn't have mystical Hebrew letters written on his face; instead he's kept alive by the presence of an arc reactor -- a powerful magnet -- embedded in his chest.

Napo2013button1


We find God in the helpers

In the face of tragedy, like today's bombings at the Boston Marathon -- a marathon in which the final mile was dedicated to Newtown victims, which somehow makes this all seem even more painful -- how can we respond?

When something awful happens, I think of the passage from Reverend Kate Braestrup which I shared last fall in a sermon for Shabbat Nachamu. God, she says, is not in the disaster; God is not in the car accident; God is not in the bombing. We find God in the love expressed by those who rush to respond: the helping hands, the caring hearts, the first responders who risk their lives to assist those in need.

RogersReverend Braestrup shares that theology with the venerable Fred Rogers, may his memory be a blessing. (He was a Presbyterian minister, though I didn't know that when I watched his television show as a kid.) I've seen a lot of people sharing a quote from Mr. Rogers today, about how his mama taught him to respond to scary things by looking for the helpers.

Look for the helpers. We find God in those who respond.

God is in the 1200 people who have opened up their homes to stranded runners and travelers in and around Boston today.

In the first responders -- police, EMTs, firefighters, and others -- who rushed not away from the explosions but into them, to help those who were wounded, putting their own lives on the line to aid others.

In those who, according to NBCN, completed the marathon and immediately went to give blood so that the injured could be healed.

In the restaurants (among them Oleana and El Pelon Taqueria) opening their doors, offering a warm meal and a safe place-to-wait to those in need tonight.

In everyone who is caring for those who are wounded and those who are grieving, and those for whom this has been triggering, and those who are afraid.

My prayers are with those who are wounded, those who are grieving, and those who are afraid: in Boston tonight, and in Baghdad, Nasiriyah, and Kirkuk tonight, and everywhere else in the world where people know sorrow and pain. I can't make sense of the loss of life. All I know how to do is hope for healing, and thank the first responders, and find God's presence in the acts of the helpers -- and in every broken heart.


Daily April poem: address book

LEDGER


An iphone can't be a palimpsest.
And the old one I used to use,
the one with a crack in the crystal

has lost its second life as a toddler toy --
won't hold a charge anymore
to power zebra or water sounds.

The pale blue onionskin paper
of my mother's red-bound datebook
still crinkles between my fingertips

but who will feel nostalgia
for smudged old screens
once the data has been transferred

to its afterlife
in a shape
we can't yet imagine?

 


 

This poem was written to the "address book" prompt at 30/30 poetry.

I haven't had a paper address book in years, nor a paper datebook, though I remember the way they used to get written-on and overwritten, outdated data scrawled-over, marginalia sprouting like mushrooms after a rain.

Napo2013button1


Daily April poem: cobbled out of a day's errands

MAKE A POEM OUT OF THAT


If you can't make a poem out of that,
she said, I'll be disappointed --

but I've forgotten what
the raw materials were: our visit

to the Ghanaian cobbler
with racks of dusty shoe polish tins?

The international market
with the forlorn plastic Santa

in the window, boxes of fufu
and Goya tinned mackerel on the shelves?

Maybe it was the blackboards, chalked
with the names of spring beers.

Cartoon stars soaring and twirling.
The little boy, jumping with glee.

 


 

This poem wasn't written to any particular prompt. Instead it arose out of an afternoon's errands in Pittsfield.

Napo2013button1


Daily April poem: a trio of tankas

TANKA TRIO AT FORTY-ONE MONTHS


1.

He watches Dora,
Talks back to the screen with glee
Calls her his new friend
Someday he'll know she's not real --
My heart will break a little.


2.

The blanket sleeper
Adorned with smiling snowmen
Lies limp, discarded.
This house feels too quiet without
His three-year-old energy.


3.

Careen down the slide
Clutching Bear beneath one arm.
Galoshes touch earth.
Someday you'll sail into air
And land in your own grown life.

 


 

This was written for the Day Eleven challenge at NaPoWriMo, which invited each of us to write a tanka. This is another syllabic form; the classic American tanka contains lines of 5 / 7 / 5/ 7 / 7 syllables, and often the last couplet takes the poem in a new direction or casts new light on the first part of the poem. I worked again with the recurring theme of parenting our three-year-old, and this is what emerged.

Napo2013button1

 


Shabbat in the modern world

The challah is hidden beneath the animal-print cloth, a challah cover made from a potential nursery fabric reject. The wine, juice, and candles are obvious. What's perhaps less obvious is why there's a laptop open on the table: so we can Skype with my parents in Texas while we say the blessings over candles, wine, challah, and the kiddo.

I close the priestly blessing with the line asking God to bring our son peace, and he still tears off a corner of challah and says solemnly "and the last thing we bless is, I ask God to give you a piece," and hands me some more bread. I know he won't do it forever (he's already outgrown some of his early malapropisms) but I so love that he does it now.

And I love that the miracle of Skype allows me to share that with my parents week after week.

Shabbat shalom to all!


Daily April poem: what gets in the way

WHAT GETS IN THE WAY


Whatever gets in the way of the work
might be the roasting pan from last night's chicken
aswirl now with suds and schmaltz.

Might be the yellow pansies nodding bravely
in the window box outside the coffee shop.
The bitter dregs of coffee in a big white cup.

It might be the half-remembered dream
of ice floes, furlined coat, the little bird
vibrating like a beating heart in my hand.

It might be the little boy on Thomas sheets
who's thrown every single stuffed animal out of bed
and is waiting for me to intuit that he's alone.

What gets in the way of the work is this cold wind
whipping past my leather jacket to kiss my neck.
The daffodil-bright sign at the VFW.

And I'm blessed to gather this armful of images
and stitch them together with blue thread, because
whatever gets in the way of the work is the work

and whatever gets in the way of this day
is this day that the Lord has made:
let us rejoice and write poems in it.

 

 


 

This daily April poem wasn't written to any particular prompt. I stared for a while at my empty text window, waiting for an idea, and what came to me was the mantra I learned from my teacher Jason Shinder, of blessed memory: "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work." (I've written about that many times before.) That's what gave rise to this poem.

Napo2013button1


Daily April poem: noir-inspired

NEW IN TOWN


A bright morning
on a hillside
that doesn't keep
a single secret.

The wind dances
the leafless trees
side to side.
They hum aloud.

The repeated thud:
a hapless robin
who doesn't know
to avoid windows.

Here and there
tiny green shoots
mark the spots
where crocuses begin.

An ant investigates
the venetian blinds.
Ladybugs stroll silently
along the sill.

Spring's the dame
who winks merrily
short skirt fluttering
over long legs.

And we, punchdrunk
on her proximity
fall over ourselves
to invite her in.

 


 

Tuesday's prompt at NaPoWriMo invited us to write poems inspired by noir. I narrowly resisted the urge to attempt something about Veronica Mars, and instead wound up with a short poem about the leggy lady who's got everyone's heart aflutter around these parts. The opening stanza is a riff off of Garrison Keilor's Guy Noir bit on Prairie Home Companion.

Napo2013button1


Daily April poem: ottava rima

WETLAND ASHREI


Pass old cornstalks, the sukkah's sad debris.
The wetland's dull, dead stalks washed out by snow
but some stems gleam with red. What vibrancy,
the gold-as-tinsel fronds of the willow.
Grey pussywillows' pearls, woodsy jewelry
against this backdrop where no leaves yet grow.
Happy are we who make Your house our home!
Birdsong fills this robin's-egg-blue dome.

 


 

Monday's prompt at NaPoWriMo invited us to experiment with ottava rima, an Italian verse form which usually appears, in English, as eight-line stanzas in iambic pentameter with an a/b/a/b/a/b/c/c rhyme scheme. I wrote mine on a short afternoon break from work before Hebrew school on Monday. I stepped outside the synagogue and sat with my laptop in the small gazebo, and the poem arose out of what I observed in the small wetland behind the shul.

The penultimate line is a reference to the ashrei prayer, which begins "Happy are they who dwell in Your house." (I first blogged about that prayer here in 2004, and did so again in 2007.) Traditionally Jews daven the ashrei three times a day, one of those times being mincha, the short afternoon prayer service. (Writing this poem became my mincha for Monday.)

Napo2013button1


Daily April poem: declarative sentences capped with a question

MORNING WITH THREE-YEAR-OLD


Our son stands in the doorway in bear pyjamas.
A soft blue teddy peeks from under his arm.
His cheeks are scaly with the night's dried snot.
He clambers into our bed and squirms onto my pillow.
This smile, sweet as strawberries, is just for me.

He cups my face with his grubby palm.
I brush his hair back from his forehead.
Small feet probe my ribs, testing boundaries.
Soon he is poking my mouth, covering my eyes.
Deep breath: I roll to sitting, I enfold in my robe.

We pad down the stairs holding hands.
Unzip the blanket sleeper, yank the nighttime diaper.
Our struggle for dominance evokes the Nature Channel.
I manage to aim his feet into sweatpants and socks.
I yield and relinquish my hopes of a clean shirt.

Finally I reach the Promised Land.
The refrigerator hums its quiet song.
Clean pots weigh down the dish drainer.
I stand in the middle of the floor, waiting.
Does a watched coffee pot refuse to boil?

 


 

Sunday's NaPoWriMo prompt invited us to write poems in which each line is a short declarative sentence, and the final line is a question. In response to that prompt, I wrote this poem on Sunday morning, sipping coffee while our son watched cartoons. I have two versions of it: one where the poem is all one long stanza, and another where the poem is broken into 5-line stanzas. I think I like this version better, but I'm still not sure.

There's a way in which this is a sequel to the Toddler House poems I was writing a while back -- and a way in which those were the next chapter of the weekly mother poems I wrote during my first year of motherhood.

I spent some of last week proofreading the digital galleys of Waiting to Unfold, due out from Phoenicia Publishing in a few weeks. I'm so grateful now to have those poems -- and to have a publisher who's excited about bringing them into the world. Anyway: stay tuned for more intel on that collection!

Napo2013button1


Daily April poem: valley

PROJECTS


Tiny trebuchet, sized
for dolls or possibly hobbits,
chucked eggs halfway down the hill.

We counterpoised our second try
with free weights, strong enough
to loft pumpkins.

For a finale we pondered
air cannons to send buckets of paint
soaring into the valley

strangers waking to find
their houses garbed in unfamiliar
technicolor dreamcoats, but

by then we were building
round Mongolian dwellings
out of sticks and string instead.

What the neighbors thought
as gers sprouted like slow mushrooms
atop our hill, we'll never know

as they'll never know
how lucky they are we got bored
and let their house stay blue.

 


 

This was written to the 30/30 prompt "valley."

We never really intended to build the air cannon, but it made for fun conversations. (And yes, this is the kind of thing our circle of friends does for fun when we get together -- we make things. For a few years, there were trebuchets.)

Ger is the Mongolian word for what most of us know as a yurt. Starting in 2004, we built one in our backyard every winter with friends for many years. Last year we got one from Mongolia, which has replaced the various iterations we built. (For more on that: Loving the ger, May 2012.)

Napo2013button1


Daily April poem: a cinquain

CINQUAIN FOR A CARDINAL

 

Redbird
atop the pine:
you sing that liquid tune
my mother's mother used to love.
Don't stop.

 


 

For the fifth day of National Poetry Month, the folks at NaPoWriMo challenged us to write a cinquain. So I wrote this poem on Friday, but am only posting it today, since on Friday I posted a poem derived from a 30/30 prompt instead.

A cinquain is a tightly-constrained form. It has five lines. The first line has two syllables (one of which is accented), the second line four syllables (and two accents), the third line six syllables (three accents), the fourth line eight syllables (four accents), and the fifth line two syllables (and one accent) again.

Mine was inspired by the cardinal I've been seeing when I arrive at the synagogue in the mornings. Cornell tells me that these are year-round birds both here and where I grew up. Lately he's been perched at the top of one of the trees near our building, singing lustily when I arrive at work. I love that these brilliant birds, which were a part of my south Texas childhood, live here in New England too.

Napo2013button1ETA: Now available in my chapbook April Daily.


Daily April poem: named after a spaceship

A Series of Unlikely Explanations


I expected invisible ink.
The walls are prettier this way.
It wasn't me, it was a ghost
who followed us from Houston.
Look, mom, turtles!
Haven't you been wanting to repaint?
We've been practicing calligraphy
at preschool and this was my homework.
This is a memorial wall
for the stuffed animals I've lost.
Those aren't scribbles, it's a fresco.
Someday you'll peel away this wallboard
and sell it to MASS MoCA
to hang alongside the LeWitts.


I'm playing with two different sets of poetry prompts this month -- 30/30 and NaPoWriMo -- and I also wrote a poem this week which wasn't to any prompt. As a result, I'm posting some poems here a few days after they're written.

The day four prompt at NaPoWriMo was to write a poem to fit an unusual title -- one of the fantastical spaceship names used by science fiction writer Iain M. Banks (who recently announced that he has terminal cancer, sorry to say.) I love his ship names; I chose this one.

The ensuing poem was partially inspired by my own son, and partially by the delightful Honest Toddler. (Thankfully our son has not yet gotten the notion of scrawling on the walls; here's hoping he isn't secretly reading this blog.)

Napo2013button1


Daily April poem: Word to the Wise

WORD TO THE WISE


here: click on the X
to close the browser window,
clap the clamshell laptop shut

resist the twitching impulse
to open up Facebook
in search of one more pellet

remember that in public spaces
the comments are a hive
of stinging wasps

take three deep breaths
all the way to your diaphragm
lower your clenched shoulders

steep your mind's tofu
in a gentle bath of poetry
seasoned with psalms

savor all five tastes
with no danger of sickness
in the hard drive or the heart

 


 

This was written for the "sometimes you have to walk away" prompt at 30x30. If you're interested in other people's responses to the prompt, you can check out each day's submissions by clicking on each prompt link, here.

The idea that the mind is like tofu, and takes on the flavor of whatever it steeps in, is one I first heard from Rabbi Jeff Roth, who attributed it to Reb Zalman.

And, of course, others are writing to the daily prompts at NaPoWriMo. (I did attempt their sea chanty prompt, but wasn't happy enough with the results to share them here, so -- you get another 30/30-inspired poem instead!)

Napo2013button1


Daily April poem: out of luck

SPRING


April does the cha-cha
with my expectations.

I'm ready to pop champagne
and declare the glacier

in front of the garage
melted for the season

when I wake
inside a snow globe again.

Pity the robins,
returned too soon

and forced to squabble
with the angry chickadees

for scarce barstools
at the birsdseed diner.

Fortunate worms, granted
a temporary reprieve.

 


 

The third 30x30 poem prompt was "out of luck."

Yesterday morning we enjoyed a bit of spring snow, and I couldn't help wondering -- as I do every year -- what becomes of the robins who return to New England before the snow has entirely relinquished us. This poem arose out of that wondering.

If you're interested in other people's responses to these prompts, you can check out each day's submissions by clicking on each prompt link, here. Feedback is always welcome!

Napo2013button1
NaPoWriMo 2013


Daily April poem: on the couch

POST-OP


You're pale against the red velour
and where your moose pyjamas gape
your belly is jaundiced
the curry-powder yellow of betadine.

They promised you a popsicle,
pressed a berry-scented mask
to your struggling face
and then you woke

to uncooperative legs and tender tummy,
a tube biting your hand like a snake
and monitor cables streaming
from your skinny ribcage.

Now you lie limp as the blanket
draped over your knees.
When you try to move, confusion
blooms: why does it hurt?

And clustered like ghosts
in the back of my heart:
all of the children who won't
be fully recovered tomorrow

all the parents who've learned
to mask oxycodone with honey,
who shave their own heads bare
in powerless solidarity...

How does God bear it?
Maybe the same way we do.
The heart shatters, but keeps beating
just love, just love, just love.


The second 30x30 poem prompt was "on the couch." I immediately thought of our son on the couch when he was recuperating from (perfectly ordinary, unremarkable) hernia surgery. Then I thought of the recent tough news at Superman Sam (The post you didn't want to read), and of all of the kids who are recuperating -- or not recuperating -- from infinitely more terrifying medical adventures than ours. The reality that children suffer is almost more than the heart can bear. Of course, we ache, and then we keep on loving; and in that, I think we mirror God, the cosmic Parent Who does the same.

If you want to send a note to Sam, you can write to him at Sam Sommer, E584 / Children's Hospital of Wisconsin / P.O. Box 1997 / Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53201-1997. Receiving notes, cards, etc (many featuring superheroes in some way) cheered him last time they were in the hospital for an extended stay.

On the 30 poems / 30 days front: some of us who are writing poems in response to these prompts are submitting them to the 30x30 website. If you're interested in other people's responses to these prompts, you can check out each day's submissions by clicking on each prompt link, here. And if you're interested in other folks who are attempting this same daily poem feat during National Poetry Month, don't miss NaPoWriMo, now in its tenth year!

Napo2013button1


Another morning-blessings poem

DAILY MIRACLES


You bring my son's footfalls to my door
and shock me awake with his cold heels against my ribs.

You teach me to distinguish waking life from dreaming.
You press the wooden floor against the soles of my feet.

You slip my eyeglasses into my questing hand
and the world comes into focus again.

In the time before time You collected hydrogen and oxygen
into molecules which stream now from my showerhead.

You enfold me in this bathtowel.
You enliven me with coffee.

Every morning you remake me in your image
and free me to push back against my fears.

You are the balance that holds up my spine,
the light in my gritty, grateful eyes.


I drafted this prayer/poem while preparing for the National Poetry Month Shabbat service I'm leading at my shul this weekend. I'll be pairing each of our morning prayers with an English-language poem which will hopefully illuminate the prayer in some way. I was looking for a poem to go with the birchot ha-shachar (morning blessings, which Mishkan T'filah calls nisim she'b'chol yom, blessings for the miracles of each day.) So I wrote this one.

Then I decided that my outline featured too many of my own poems, and struck this one from the plan in favor of a terrific poem by Adam Sol. But I still like this variation on the round of morning blessings, so I'm sharing it here. If you actually daven it, I'd love to hear how / whether it works for you! I suspect the opening couplet may be too me-specific to be workable for anyone else, but if I'm wrong about that, let me know.

Also: if you like these, you might like my morning blessings poem cycle, which features variations on Elohai Neshama (the blessing for the soul), Asher Yatzar (the blessing for the body), Baruch she'amar (the blessing for God Who speaks the world into being), and Nishmat kol chai ("The breath of all life"), originally drafted around 2002-2004.

Napo2013button1
NaPoWriMo 2013


Returning to leaven

Breads
Breads and doughs. Photos taken over the years.

We don't cleanse our house of hametz (leaven) as thoroughly as many of my friends do. (I wrote a poem about that last year -- Bedikat chametz in the toddler house.) Still, after a week of dining on matzah brei (matzah, soaked in hot water and wrung out, then scrambled with eggs and milk and salt and pepper) and matzah spread with cream cheese, that first leavened meal after Pesach is always a treat. As much as I love the first tastes of matzah at the seder, the familiar scents and textures of haroset and horseradish and matzah's crunch, I also love that first sandwich once I'm back in the land of the leaven-eating again.

Hametz and matzah are made of the same ingredients: flour and water. (I've written about this before -- hametz and matzah, 2006.) What makes matzah matzah is that it is baked speedily, so that the natural yeasts which abound don't have time to begin to ferment and inflate the dough. The two words have almost the same letters in Hebrew. Hametz is spelled חמץ, matzah is spelled מצה -- the only difference is between the ח and the ה, in that little open space in the letter ה. Hametz is spacious because the bread is risen; matzah is flat, so its spaciousness is spiritual rather than physical. Or, maybe the space in that ה is what lets God in...

The challenge, for me, is holding on to the spiritual spaciousness of Pesach once I'm no longer experiencing the reminder of matzah at every meal. That's one of the reasons I so love counting the Omer: it gives me a way to hold on to the sweetness, and the spiritual spaciousness, of Pesach long after the festival is past. For seven weeks, I have a built-in practice to help keep me mindful: of the passing of time, of the journey from freedom to revelation, of the lessons of Pesach which I want to carry with me into the year to come. Freedom all by itself is -- not meaningless, to be sure, but only a first step. The next step is getting ready to enter into covenant, into relationship.

Imagine what it might have been like for our ancestors, wandering during this time. They'd left the harsh labor of Pharaoh's brick-making camps, left a world in which a ruler could decree that all Hebrew boy-children be slaughtered at birth. They'd crossed the Sea of Reeds, walking miraculously on dry sand, maybe with walls of gleaming water suspended impossibly on each side. Signs and wonders, miracles like no one had ever imagined! And now they were camping in the desert, free and probably frightened. So they were free of Pharaoh: now what? To whom would they declare their allegiance? Whom would they serve?

The Jewish answer, of course, is God. Everybody serves someone or something. We choose to be avdei Adonai, servants of the Most High.

Did we ever truly wander in the wilderness? Who knows. I can't say that I care much, one way or the other. What I love is that this is the story we tell about ourselves. We left the dehumanizing servitude of a tyrant, and instead of finding another earthly power to yoke ourselves to, entered into relationship with the source of compassion and blessing in the world. That's what we serve: not Pharaoh, not a boss, but the One Who asks us to partner in the work of healing the brokenness in creation.

In the hamotzi blessing, we bless God Who brings forth bread from the earth. Of course, God doesn't bring forth bread, per se; what God brings forth from the earth is grain. We have to do our part: milling the grain into flour, mixing and kneading the flour into dough, letting the dough rise, shaping and baking it. In Genesis 3 this is framed as a response to the first humans' choice to pursue knowledge -- now we'll earn bread with the sweat of our brows, working to till the earth and tend it and to turn the grain into something we can consume. But that shift is also a kind of growing-up. In the Eden story, we were like children, and everything was provided for us. Post-Eden, we're more mature beings, and we're able to do some of the work to feed ourselves -- and to experience the satisfaction of making bread with our own hands.

It's a new kind of partnership. Just as we partner with God in making the world a better place, we also partner with God in turning the raw materials of our world into something sophisticated and new. God is still the One Who brings forth the grain from the earth, Who causes blessings to flow into creation, Who caused the grains to evolve in all of their beautiful and diverse forms. And we're the ones who get to turn those grains into a wealth of beautiful and diverse breads...which, after Pesach (whenever that is for you, depending on whether you celebrate for seven days or for eight), we once again get to eat.