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Choose the milk and honey

Honey_dripperIn this week's Torah portion, Moshe sends the scouts into the land to investigate it.

They come back with two reports. It flows with milk and honey. But, the inhabitants made the scouts feel as puny as grasshoppers.

There's a teaching here for us.

We are always entering into new experiences and new adventures.

Every day has the capacity to flow with sustenance and sweetness. And every day has the capacity to leave us feeling dwarfed.

Which one will you choose to focus on, as this day unfolds? Can you lift up the milk and honey, and shed the fear?



This short teaching -- distilled into 100 words -- arose during this morning's meditation minyan at my shul. Shabbat shalom!

Waiting to Unfold conversation at Ask Moxie

Waiting to Unfold is the first book in the Ask Moxie Summer Readalong this year. Magda has posted some opening reflections on the book, as well as questions to spark conversation:

I chose this book because I loved how intimate and raw her poems are. I feel like Rachel is able to capture the very specific and make it universal...

She makes the intimate epic, and the epic intimate. I started crying again reading these lines from "Night Feeding" in the second cycle:

as a hind longs for water
my soul longs for sleep

but I pace the round carpet
until I can crawl into bed

praying that I get a whole hour
before you summon me with your cries

which call in equal measure
my milk and my tears

Her use of the scriptural language connects us as mothers with the Divine, with nature, with all animals, and with all other mothers at the same time. It makes us both little and big, everything and nothing as we do what we have to do to nourish our young even when we think it's breaking us. How many of us have cried through feedings? I wonder if anyone hasn't...

I feel like this is the book I would give to someone who said to me, "No, TRY to tell me what motherhood is like," because even though Rachel has had some experiences not all of us have had, the way she captures the emotion of those experiences is the translation of what it's like in that first year of being someone new that you didn't know you would be.

Her post is here: Discussion: Waiting to Unfold by Rachel Barenblat. If you've read the collection and want to chime in with answers to any of her questions, or with thoughts and reflections about how the book resonated (or didn't!) for you, please do.

I'm honored and delighted that Magda chose my book to kick off the Summer Readalong (and I'm looking forward to reading the other books she's chosen and to participating in those conversations -- though I will largely recuse myself from this one unless anyone has a specific question they want to ask me; I tend to think that book discussions are for the readers, not for the author.)

Thank you, Magda! Thank you for reading, Ask Moxie readers!


Waiting to Unfold costs $13.95 (US, CAN) / £9.10 / €10.66 and is available at Phoenicia Publishing and on Amazon (and Amazon UK and Amazon Europe) -- though publisher and author earn more if you buy it directly from Phoenicia. Still: buy it wherever works for you, I'm just happy that people want to read it!

On Women of the Wall

36896_448277780672_5949327_nOne of my greatest regrets about my summer in Jerusalem, some five years ago now, is that I did not manage to join Women of the Wall to pray together at the Kotel (the Western Wall) on Rosh Chodesh. I'd had every intention of doing so, but when new moon rolled around I was sick with a truly miserable summer cold, and feeling wretched in the particular way one feels when one is ill and far away from home. I've thought of that often in recent months as news about Women of the Wall has been percolating through my various networks to reach me here in the States.

I support Women of the Wall in a deep and heartfelt way. Women of the Wall's mission "is to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall." Of course, here in the States, across the liberal movements of Judaism, the freedoms to wear tallit, to be counted in a minyan, and to read from the Torah out loud are taken for granted. There's a strange and often painful irony in the fact that these freedoms are so difficult to pursue in Israel, which is supposed to be a spiritual home for all of us.

One of the best essays I've read on this is On the Ritual Fringes by Rabbi Kari Hofmaister Tuling in the Marginalia Review of Books. Rabbi Tuling touches on a lot of important things: the history of women wearing tallit, the disconnects between Israeli perspectives and American ones, the history of the Orthodox religious monopoly in Israel, and -- of course -- Women of the Wall. Here's an excerpt:

Though traditionalists might discount women’s prayer—or they might view the tallit-wearing as a political stunt—the deeper reality is that prayerful feminism may be found across the spectrum: in the all-female Torah study groups among orthodox women and in the alternate God-language in the Reconstructionist prayer book. It is in fact a heart-felt prayer service that the women are conducting each month at the Wall.

Second, it ignores the broader context: this conflict is not simply about the status of the Western Wall. Rather, at stake here is a series of larger questions regarding the role of women in Judaism and the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.

Israel and the Diaspora often talk past each other, not recognizing the gulf in their thinking. It is not uncommon, for example, for Israelis to assume that the liberal forms of Judaism are on their way to oblivion, about to disappear in a generation due to intermarriage and assimilation. And, according to this line of thinking, this kind of activist feminism is merely a fad. So, the argument goes, why should Israel accommodate them?

Whereas many American Jews, living as they do in a country where the liberal streams are so clearly visible and established, are simply appalled: why is Israel arresting Jews for engaging in what amounts to normative Jewish practice?

You can read her whole essay here at the Marginalia Review of Books, and I recommend it -- it's both well-written and cogently-argued. 

One of the interesting things for me about Women of the Wall is that what they're asking for -- the right of women to daven in tallit, and to pray aloud (not hushing their voices for fear of inadvertantly arousing the men in the men's section), and to read from Torah, at what is commonly considered to be Judaism's holiest site -- is actually substantially less than what I myself would most prefer. I grew up praying exclusively in mixed-gender environments, where men and women sit together, sing together, and pray together. (And my first substantive experience of praying behind a mechitza, a curtain or barrier separating the genders, was actually quite emotionally painful for me -- see Prayer at Panim, 2007.)

In more recent years I've learned to live with separate seating when necessary, and I've even experienced some separate-seating davenen which really uplifted me (see A morning at the Leader Minyan, 2008.) Still, egalitarianism runs deep in me, and I don't generally think that "separate but equal" counts as equality. What I most yearn for at the Kotel would be a space where people of all genders can pray together, aloud, wearing the ritual garments we love, connecting with God in joyful prayer and song. This is more or less what Natan Sharansky has proposed in his plan to make the Kotel a tripartite space: one space for men's prayer, one space for women's prayer, and one space for egalitarian / mixed-gender prayer.

But I'm conscious that it's in part thanks to WoW's efforts to daven at the Wall all these years that we're now able to even begin to conceptualize compromises like the one that Sharansky suggests. Beyond that: I respect the fact that Women of the Wall is truly transdenominational, including not only women who come from egalitarian contexts (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal) but also women who come from Orthodox contexts and would not be comfortable davening alongside men. I value the incusivity of their decision to seek the ability to daven wholly at the Kotel as women among women, and I recognize that if they were to pursue the aim of davening in an egalitarian / mixed-gender way, they would no longer be a welcome home for their Orthodox members.

In my ideal world, the Kotel would include both a place for single-gender women's prayer (singing aloud, wearing tallit and tefillin, reading from Torah) and a place for egalitarian mixed-gender prayer. (Oh, and a place for single-gender men's prayer, too. Though my memories of the Kotel, particularly on Shabbat, are that it's already mostly a space for single-gender men's prayer -- I distinctly remember showing up on Shabbat and finding that the mechitza had been moved and the women's section was 1/3 of the space and the men's section took up 2/3 of the available wall. I'm not sure Orthodox men in Israel need me to protect their rights to continue praying as they already do! I just don't want them to impose their modes of prayer on me.) And -- this should go without saying -- no one would ever harass or assault anyone for praying at the Kotel in their own way.

Of course, in my ideal world, kindness and compromise would win out over exclusion and strong-arm tactics; Jews of all flavors would be free to practice our traditions no matter where in the world we live; and Jerusalem would be a city of the purest justice and compassion and peace. May that day come speedily and soon. Meanwhile: kol hakavod ("all the honor") to Women of the Wall for being role models not only in creating a transdenominational prayer community, but also in simply praying the way their hearts guide them to pray.




A beautiful prayer for Women of the Wall.

Rabbis for Women of the Wall. "We invite cantors, professionals, lay leaders and every Jew to join us in signing" a statement in support of WoW.

My own post Morning prayer at the Western Wall...almost, 2008.

Reflections on shopping for kids' pyjamas

41wPLumQ+fL._SX190_CR0,0,190,246_One of my earliest memories of shopping with my mother is a memory of looking for what we called "footie" pyjamas -- PJs with the feet attached. I must have had the same habit my son now has, of toeing off socks during the night and waking up with ice-cold feet! I don't remember where we were shopping; it was probably one of the department stores at the local mall in my hometown.

I remember the saleswoman searching the racks with us for my size, and then telling my mother regretfully that the only footie PJs she had were "B-O-Y-S' pyjamas." I'm reliably informed that I learned to read early, and I was small for my age, so I'm sure it never occurred to her that I could spell. Without missing a beat, I chirped, "That's fine, I don't mind wearing boys' pyjamas!" As I remember the story going, the saleslady almost fainted in surprise.

Over this past weekend, as our family was strolling the aisles of our local Target in search of a few necessaries, our son fell in love with a pair of truly adorable pyjamas. They feature hearts on the leggings, and Dora the Explorer and her companion monkey Boots on the shirt, along with some fetching pink and purple ruffles. (They're not exactly the ones depicted here, but they're similar.) "Look, Dora PJs," he enthused, with visible excitement. "Can I have these Dora ones? Pleeeeease?"

I remembered the oft-retold family tale of how I startled the saleswoman with my ability to intpret "B-O-Y-S," the subtext of which has always been that I was not only precocious but also flexible, because it was assumed even then that a girl would naturally prefer something marketed to girls. (And I remembered the story which was circulating online not long ago, about a German dad who wears skirts because his son likes to do so.) I thought about how lucky we are to live in a community where no one would bat an eyelash at a little boy wearing pink and purple or proudly displaying his love of Dora and Kai-Lan.

We've wanted, from the start, to rear a kid who doesn't feel constricted by society's expectations of what "boys do" or "girls do." We both grew up on Free to Be You and Me. At the end of our seder each year, we fervently sing the musical setting of Judy Chicago's Merger Poem. We're pretty classic twenty-first-century feminist parents. And yet we've been amused (and sometimes surprised) by the way our guy gravitates to many of the things which our culture says are "boy things." He seems to have an innate love of things which go, especially contstruction equipment. Kids receive all kinds of subtle social cues about this stuff, no matter how hard we try to eschew any sense that certain things -- activities, colors, clothes -- are relegated to one gender or the other.

I can't tell how conscious he is of any of this. But it's interesting, for me, to watch him navigate his path -- a path which, so far, features both a love of excavators and a love of sparkly pink. (You should see his delight at the Hello Kitty temporary tattoos we picked up in the dollar bin.) Of course, it wasn't so long ago that pink was considered a boys' color (See When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink? | Smithsonian Magazine.) Still, I like to hope that as our guy grows up, he'll learn that he can love whatever he loves, regardless of whether or not society says it's "appropriate." Sports or ballet, pink or blue -- or both! For now, those Dora pyjamas are pretty darn cute. And I'm happy to encourage his joy in all of the things he likes best.

God is in the tragedy too

On the evening of the Boston marathon bombing, I wrote a post called God is in the helpers, in which I cited the Reverend Kate Braestrup's articulation that God is not in the disaster: rather, we find God in our response to disaster. God, I wrote, is not in the trauma, but in the helping hands.

One of my dear friends and teachers, Rabbi Daniel Siegel, replied to me privately to say that while he agrees with me that it is better to look for God in the helpers than in a tragedy, he's hesitant to follow me into the idea that God cannot be found in the tragedy itself. His gentle note spurred me to approach this again, now that some time has passed and I can begin to relate to the tragedy in a different way.

Where is God in that?

Human life is marked with sorrow. One natural response to sorrow and tragedy is to demand: where is God in this? As a rabbi, I have been blessed (and painfully challenged) with that question. I remember ministering many years ago to a woman who had suffered a grievous trauma, who turned to me and spat, "Where the F*&! is God in that, huh?" And all I could say, in that moment, was: I hear you. And I honor your pain.

When I am wearing my pastoral care kippah, I can say: we find God not in the trauma, but in the ways we care for each other. God is not in the shooting or the bombing, but in the hands which cradle and nurse the victims back to health -- and the hands and hearts which cradle and care for those who grieve.

I resist the notion that God is the mighty string-puller and that we are His marionettes -- that God is "up there" choosing when a child is killed, or when a tsunami drowns thousands, or when some damaged and broken person plants bombs at the finish line of a marathon. God does not "do that to us." I do not accept the image of God as traumatizer or batterer, the Big Man in the sky who abuses humanity at His own whim. For me, God is most fundamentally found in the love and compassion we show toward each other, not in the tragedies which we encounter.

And yet God is in the fire; in the hurricane or earthquake; even in the gunman or the shrapnel or the bomb. Depending, of course, on what we think we mean by saying "God is in..." anything.

Continue reading "God is in the tragedy too" »

Ode to your joy

This post -- a letter to our son -- was written earlier this spring, and for some reason languished in my drafts folder for a few months. I can no longer remember why I didn't post it when I first wrote it, so I'm sharing it now.

Sweet boy,

One of the things I admire most about you is your ability to feel and express joy.

Some of this is your age, I'm sure. You're more in-touch with your emotions than most adults are, and you haven't learned yet to be embarrassed about what you feel. It's a precious kind of Eden, which you won't appreciate until it's gone. That's the human condition.

Whatever you're feeling, you feel it intensely. That's true whether you're feeling frustration at the injustices of your existence (not being allowed to snack right before dinner, or to stay up past your bedtime) or delight at the many joys life puts before you: loved ones, favorite songs, favorite foods.

But I think -- I hope -- that some of this is your temperament, too. Maybe openness to joy will be native to you. I hope that your life's circumstances will always provide you with easy access to joy. And I hope that you will always be ready to throw yourself into experiences which are joyful for you.

Becoming a mother -- becoming your mother -- has given me greater access to joy. Not only to my own joy, though there is that, sometimes; but to your joy. I didn't understand, before we began this adventure, how my own heart would exult when I get to see you joyful.

I love watching you in your joy. I love the way your eyes light up when you see me at preschool at the end of a schoolday. I love the joy you take in a good toy (your magnet tiles or Thomas trains or marble run), in leaping at the bouncy houses at the mall, in our weekly pilgrimage to the bakery for a challah and a cookie, in seeing your grandparents in person or via Skype.

I love that one of the things I most often hear you say (to us and to family and to friends and even to people you've just met) is "I'm so happy to see you!" I don't think you know the word "joy," but I know you know the experience of it. Someday, when you're older, maybe you'll begin to understand how much joy you bring to me.

All my love,

Your mom

Self-care for clergy

The question was posed on Twitter: what does self-care really mean for clergy? For those of us who dedicate ourselves to taking care of others, it's not always an easy question to answer. But the work of caring for others is never done, and if we allow ourselves to become burnt-out, we're not much help to the people to whom we want to minister. What does it mean to take care of ourselves? This is my list. If you have other items, I welcome them in comments.

Don't forget your own spiritual practices. Prayer, meditation, yoga, walks in the woods -- whatever works. Listen to birdsong. Cuddle with your children. Say thank you a lot.

Make regular time for learning. If there's a particular kind of sacred text which really fills you up, learn that. You need to keep your own wellsprings flowing.

Get enough sleep. No, seriously, I mean it. This really makes a difference.

Cultivate friendships: with fellow clergy who can relate to where you're at, and also with people who have nothing to do with our line of work.

Seek mentors. Be in spiritual direction and in therapy.

Make time for yourself. Also for your spouse/partner and for your child(ren.) But be sure to keep yourself on the list, too.

Treat yourself to an occasional pedicure. (Okay, maybe this one's just me. But I stand by it!)

Love the people you serve. I got this advice years ago from a dear friend when I was just starting rabbinic school, and I return to it often.

And maintain good boundaries. (You may need to keep your cellphone on in case somebody dies during the night, but you don't need to be wholly "on" all the time. If you catch yourself thinking about work at 11pm, notice that, without judgement, and gently push those thoughts aside. They can wait until morning, and you'll return to the work fresher for it.)

Keep a praise file, and when people send kind notes or say nice things, put those things in the file. When you're having a tough day and feeling down about your work, or feeling as though nothing you do makes a difference, reread what's in the praise file.

Be kind to yourself. Even when you feel as though you're not living up to your own expectations. Maybe especially then.


In which I compare my monkey mind to Curious George.


Monkey mind looks like
Curious George: hopping
and screeching, animated
with exaggerated expression.

It swings from idea
to idea: Doctor Who, the Arctic,
the Iraqi psalm melody
from last night's dream.

Listen to the birdsong!
How do they do that?
Is it time yet?
What am I forgetting?

Maybe it's not a monkey
but a pinball machine,
flashing with each bounce
and ricochet. And I say

thank you monkey mind.
Thank you pinball machine.
Thank you, synapses firing
to wake me to this day.

Something stills, slightly:
I'm a pond still peppered
with raindrops, but now
I remember and greet

flashes of silvered gratitude
like ponderous ancient koi
doing their slow pirouettes
in my mind's cold depths.



"Monkey mind" is a common metaphor for the mind's relentless chatter. It derives from the Buddhist idea of the mind monkey. And Curious George is a character in a popular series of kids' books, now also in a PBS cartoon. When I picture my own monkey mind, he's the image that comes immediately to the forefront of my consciousness.

This morning during meditation at my shul I did a variation on this four worlds gratitude practice, and I invited us to thank God for our monkey minds and to thank our monkey minds for doing what they do. (I heard one of my fellow meditators chuckling at that notion.) It is funny to thank God for monkey mind! But when I stopped resisting my mind's spinning and instead said thank you for it and to it, I felt different.

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.


What are we here for? To love, and to help others love.

The assignment was to "Select a text, any text, and any type of text, that makes you happy," and to bring it to our Rabbis Without Borders Fellows gathering, and to teach it to one person. Since this was a rabbinic gathering, and we can generally assume that everyone in the room shares a certain body of rabbinic knowledge and Torah wisdom, I decided to reach into a different quiver. I brought a beloved poem by Thomas Lux. (Find it in his book Split Horizon, Mariner Books, 1995.)


An Horatian Notion

The thing gets made, gets built, and you're the slave
who rolls the log beneath the block, then another,
then pushes the block, then pulls a log
from the rear back to the front
again and then again it goes beneath the block,
and so on.  It's how a thing gets made—not
because you're sensitive, or you get genetic-lucky,
or God says: Here's a nice family,
seven children, let's see: this one in charge
of the village dunghill, these two die of buboes, this one
Kierkegaard, this one a drooling

nincompoop, this one clerk, this one cooper.
You need to love the thing you do—birdhouse building,
painting tulips exclusively, whatever —and then
you do it
so consciously driven
by your unconscious
that the thing becomes a wedge
that splits a stone and between the halves
the wedge then grows, i.e., the thing
is solid but with a soul,
a life of its own.  Inspiration, the donnée,

the gift, the bolt of fire
down the arm that makes the art?
Grow up!  Give me, please, a break!
You make the thing because you love the thing
and you love the thing because someone else loved it
enough to make you love it.
And with that your heart like a tent peg pounded
toward the earth's core.
And with that your heart on a beam burns
through the ionosphere.
And with that you go to work.

—Thomas Lux

For me, the heart of this poem is these three lines: "You make the thing because you love the thing / and you love the thing because someone else loved it / enough to make you love it."

Continue reading "What are we here for? To love, and to help others love." »

Emilia Zhivotovskaya on cultivating happiness

"Happiness is something more than simply the absence of neurosis or sickness," said Emilia Zhivotovskaya. "To build a flourishing life, you want to minimize -- not eliminate! -- the negative and build the positive." Emiliya spoke with my cohort of Rabbis Without Borders fellows today about positive psychology and about happiness. (Those of you who follow my Twitter stream may have gotten some glimpses of her remarks -- I did a lot of tweeting during her presentation.)

"Practicing lovingkindness meditation actually changes us," Emiliya told us. "When we feel loved, the body calms down, and cardiovascular health improves." (She cited some studies about the vagus nerve, lovingkindness, and compassion.) I can't speak to the science of her claims, but I know that the spiritual practices I've taken on have changed my lived experience of my world; I'm not surprised to hear that practices such as lovingkindness meditation actually change the people who practice them.

She had some interesting things to say about what she called "negativity bias" -- the ways in which we're hardwired to experience negativity differently than positivity. Imagine that you write a blog post or offer a sermon and you get five pleasant comments and one nasty one: what sticks with you more deeply? If you're like me -- like most of us -- you'll remember the negative comment, the nasty email, the hateful review, far longer and in more detail than the positive ones. What's that about? Emilia suggested that evolutionarily we're wired to experience bad more strongly than good. Maybe this goes all the way back to tasting unfamiliar berries on the savannah.

The human brain seems to default to negativity (as she notes, when was the last time you were kept awake at night thinking about things that are awesome?), and overcoming that default state takes some work. Happiness requires effort. Most of what she said here was pretty intuitive to me: "To become happier: consciously practice positive thoughts, feelings, actions." Positive emotions, she argued, broaden and build; negative emotions narrow and focus. So a person who's inhabiting negative emotional space will experience both literal and metaphorical tunnel vision; and a person who's inhabiting a positive emotional space will experience a broadening of perspective, an opening of the heart. Both of these states can be self-reinforcing.

Emiliya noted that "[w]hen people express gratitude before going to bed, they sleep better." (Seriously! Studies have shown!) I love that. Gratitude is probably the practice I've worked the hardest at cultivating in my own life. (See Totally optional poem: Gratitude, 2007; Modah ani with floating rainbows, 2011; this four worlds gratitude practice, 2012; and lessons in gratitude from a three-year-old, 2013.)

I find myself thinking about a lot of these ideas in terms of what kinds of grooves I want to be carving on my heart and in my mind. We're all creatures of habit. I try to cultivate the habit of seeing myself, and seeing everyone around me, through generous eyes. I try to be kind to myself to and to everyone around me. I try to say thank-you to God, at least every morning and every night, for the many blessings in my life. This sounds a little bit corny, I know! But I've found that when I make a practice of saying thank you, when I make a practice of trying to give people the benefit of the doubt, when I stop to notice what's beautiful in my life and in the world, I am calmer and kinder as a result. I am a better person, a better mom, a better rabbi, a better spouse. And the more I do those things, the more well-worn that path becomes in my mind and heart, the easier it is to keep doing those things.

After our day of discussing happiness, meaning, and the searches for both (in our own lives and in the lives of the people we serve), we walked to a Persian restaurant and savored some excellent food and fine conversation. Remembering Emiliya's exhortation to end one's day with gratitude, I'll close with this: I'm grateful for the opportunity to connect with these colleagues; to do this learning; to have off-the-cuff conversations about congregational life, Hasidut, Torah, science fiction; to walk the warm spring streets of this blinking, busy city after a long full day; to retreat to my hushed hotel room for a good night's sleep.

On arriving in the city one last time

One of the things I'll miss about this Rabbis Without Borders Fellowship, when it formally ends after this week, is the routine I developed this year of driving to the train station and taking Amtrak into the city, then walking to the hotel where RWB puts us up. I've loved the feeling of having a regular city routine: I know my way around Penn Station now, I know how to walk to the hotel, I know my way around this hotel, the rooms are familiar...

I lived in this city as a kid, for one year. My parents, bless them, had always wanted to live in Manhattan. And the year I turned ten, they were able to; so we did. One of my brothers stayed in my childhood home and house-sat. We moved into a Manhattan apartment for a year. I attended a posh city girls' school. Our building had a doorman, and an elevator that went very, very high. (Or at least it seemed that way to me; I was nine when we got here, and had lived my whole life in a standalone limestone house with a Spanish tile roof.) New York amazed me then. It still does.

I used to think I would move here when I grew up. And the city is an incredible place, full of life and vibrancy. There are more people on this one island, not to mention in the other boroughs of this vast interconnected cityspace, than I can honestly imagine. I love walking past all of the different restaurants and stores and food carts, the stoops and windows and doors. I love seeing all of the different kinds of people one encounters in any city in the world. I know now that living here isn't my path -- I love my small mountain town too much -- but I always love dipping in to the river of New York.

When I arrived this time, I walked through a corridor of greenery on my way to the hotel. Apparently that block is a floral district of some kind, and now that it is May, the block is fully decked out for spring: standing plants, walls of wooden vases and birchbark flowerpots. I think the greenery is particularly noticeable because it's against the backdrop of all of this noise and exhaust and commotion, these tall buildings stretching toward the clouds. It was funny to suddenly be surrounded by green, just as I am at home at this season.

On the morning of my departure, our son solemnly told me to have a good time in New York City. "Some day I could take you there," I offered. "We could take a train to the big city, and go see some other kids whose mommies are my friends, and then go to a big museum where you can see dinosaur bones." His eyes grew large as saucers. "We can?" he breathed, as though I had just told him we could fly to the Moon. "Really, mommy?" Really, I promised. We really can. Not today, but maybe one day soon.

So I know I'll be back, New York; I've promised my son that I'll show him some of your wonders. (He's actually been here before, twice, but doesn't remember either trip. This time, though, I suspect he'll engage with the city in a whole new way.) For now, I have a couple of days during which I get to relish being part of this fabulous cohort of rabbis from across the different streams of Judaism: two days of conversations, meals, learning, collegiality, and the rare gift -- for the mother of a three year old -- of being entirely on my own, free to peoplewatch, to walk at an adult's pace, and to enjoy the company of colleagues and friends.

A weekend's ordinary joys

A paper-flower crown for Shavuot, featuring three of our son's four names.

A Shabbat service where my community's students -- from first grade through seventh grade -- sang the prayers and songs we'd been practicing, to their parents' obvious delight. The gusto with which they banged on the drums.

A wedding where the couple's visible joy in each other and in the moment illuminated the gauzy white chuppah, the lawn where the chairs were set up, possibly this whole quadrant of the earth.

Opening a Torah scroll for a group of young children, and reading the priestly blessing to them, at which point our son exclaimed, "We say that on Friday nights!" Yes, my little love, indeed we do, and I am so happy that you know that.

Following that up with the making of paper flower crowns, and then with ice cream sundaes -- in celebration of Shavuot (when we eat dairy because the Torah is compared to milk and honey) and the end of the school year.

Hearing from a friend and congregant that she loves hearing me read Torah because I translate as I go, and because my translation is so informal and colloquial that it makes the text feel alive.

Our son pushing his plastic lawnmower around the deck in a light rain while his father mowed the actual lawn. The scent, which I hadn't realized I'd forgotten over the months since the last lawn-mowing, of grass clippings mixed with wild thyme.


Tal Ben-Shahar on cultivating happiness

We can always be happier; no person experiences perfect bliss at all times and has nothing more to which he can aspire. Therefore, rather than asking myself whether I am happy or not, a more helpful question is, "How can I become happier?" This question acknowledges the nature of happiness and the fact that its pursuit is an ongoing process best represented by an infinite continuum, not by a finite point.

That's author Tal Ben-Shahar in his book Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. Intriguingly, this book is the homework for this week's Rabbis Without Borders Fellows meeting. When our cohort of rabbis meets for the final time, we're going to be talking about happiness. I've written before about cultivating joy, but happiness and joy aren't quite the same. This book is the first real reading I've done in the field of hedonics.

What rituals would make you happier? What would you like to introduce to your life?

...In research done by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, those who kept a daily gratitude journal -- writing down at least five things for which they were grateful -- enjoyed higher levels of emotional and physical well-being.

Each night before going to sleep, write down at least five things that made or make you happy -- things for which you are grateful...

82When I reached this section, in one of the early chapters, I felt a zing of recognition. Gratitude in each day -- articulating gratitude for the day's blessings -- these are among the most central spiritual practices of my tradition. When I say the modah ani each morning in the shower; when I pray the morning blessings (in either the traditional or alternative form); when I lie in bed at night and silently thank God for my home, my spouse, my child, my family and friends, my meaningful work; when I ask our son at the dinner table what was his favorite thing that happened that day -- these are daily gratitude practices. As far as I'm concerned, Ben-Shahar's right on.

This book does a nice job of balancing citations and references with actual practices for cultivating practices. Among the practices, Ben-Shahar suggests meditation, along with exercises such as mapping one's life (how do I actually spend my time) and creating an integrity mirror (a list of the things which are most meaningful and pleasurable to me, annotated with how much time I actually spend on each of these things each month.) He draws both on Freud (who argued that we are fundamentally driven by the need for pleasure) and on Victor Frankl (who argued that we are motivated by a will to meaning, and that striving to find / make meaning in life is the primary motivating force of human life.) He writes:

While the happy person experiences highs and lows, his overall state of being is positive. Most of the time he is propelled by positive emotions such as joy and affection rather than negative ones such as anger and guilt. Pleasure is the rule; pain, the exception. To be happy, we have to feel that, on the whole, whatever sorrows, trials, and tribulations we may encounter, we still experience the joy of being alive.

Whatever sorrows we may encounter, we still experience the joy of being alive. Yes; I resemble that remark. This is more or less my base state; anything other than this is a deviation, for me. (For instance, those months of postpartum depression early in my journey into motherhood.) On the whole, I operate from a place of good will and good feeling, rather than the opposite. Is this why I feel pretty happy, most of the time? Or do I generally feel happy because I'm operating from a place of good will and good feeling? (Or am I able to operate from that place of good will and good feeling because I'm generally happy?) I'm not sure which way the arrow of causality points, and I'm aware that privilege plays into my ability to feel this way (I don't have to deal, e.g., with being short on spoons.) Regardless, I'm grateful to fit Ben-Shahar's description of someone who's happy.

Continue reading "Tal Ben-Shahar on cultivating happiness" »


This blog's first incarnation, in early October of 2003, was on blogspot. I moved to Typepad by late October of that year, and even the Internet Archive / Wayback Machine doesn't have a screencap of what this blog looked like in its very earliest days. Then I started blogging at Typepad, and that's where VR has been housed ever since.

The blog's been cloaked in a few different designs over the years. It's had three designs here at Typepad: one in parchment with brown accents and text, one in shades of grey and blue, one in blues with three columns...And now it has a new design once again.

The new design features a banner image at the top of the page, a crop from one of Ann Silver's fabulous photos from the 2011 ALEPH Kallah. There's also a new navbar at the top with a variety of useful links; the About Me page has been updated; it's easier to find information about my books; the blogroll has been pruned and tidied; and a lot of the chaff which had been cluttering up the sidebars is now gone.

Anyway: I'm still tinkering, so if you see anything broken or odd, please let me know. I've checked the new design in a few different web browsers and on a few mobile devices, but if the new design is difficult for you to read for any reason, please don't hesitate to say so, and I'll do my best to fix things. As always, thanks for reading!

A new poem which takes the form of a psalm

Psalm of parenthood

Mother of all, remake me
in Your image. Make me as noble
as the daffodils nodding graciously.
Root me in my generations.
Help me hold on to the splendor
my son sees when he runs toward me
at the end of a schoolday.
Give me the flannel-soft patience
for one more board book, one more cartoon.
Help me to balance the scales
of work and child
gentleness and strength.
Reinforce my boundaries
so I never confuse my child's issues
with my own. And my heart, God:
enlarge my ribcage
to encompass this overflowing love.



I've been working lately on some new poems which double as prayers and psalms. Here's one of them, a Psalm of Parenthood. It's structured loosely around the seven lower sefirot, emanations or facets of divinity: malkhut (nobility), yesod (foundation), hod (splendor), netzach (endurance), tiferet (balance), gevurah (boundaries), and chesed (lovingkindness.) These are among God's qualities; they are also among ours, and I think they're some of the qualities that parents need most.

If you like this, you might also like Waiting to Unfold, my new collection of motherhood poems, recently published by Phoenicia Publishing.

Looking even more forward to the 2013 ALEPH Kallah!

13cover_000 To my amazement, my class at this summer's ALEPH Kallah -- "Writing the Psalms of Your Heart" -- has filled up entirely. I set an enrollment cap at 20 people, never imagining for a moment that 20 would actually register for my class -- and they did. Holy wow! I'm humbled and delighted, and getting more excited about this teaching opportunity by the minute. This is going to be a ton of fun.

Anyway, if you were thinking about taking my class and haven't already registered, I'm afraid that window of opportunity has closed! But there are many other fabulous afternoon classes on the program, including one on the Jewish roots of Christianity (taught by R' David Zaslow), one on Eco-Judaism and sustainability (taught by R' Elisheva Brenner), and one called "A Tzaddik in Suburbia" taught by R' Ebn Leader which I would've signed up to take if I weren't teaching during the same slot.

And, of course, there's a full round of morning classes -- and there will be fabulous food, conversations, davening, singing, meditation, yoga, hikes: everything one might yearn for.

You can download a Kallah 2013 brochure, and can register for the gathering, at the Kallah webpage. Hope to see y'all there!

Waiting to Unfold events in the Berkshires this June

Readers of the North Adams Transcript know that I have a new book out and that readings are planned around the county next month -- thanks, Transcript, for Congregation Beth Israel Rabbi Rachel Barenblat Publishes Second Book of Poetry!

I'll be sharing poems from Waiting to Unfold across the Berkshires this June. I've got one reading in Pittsfield (central county); once in North Adams (north county); and once in Great Barrington (south county.)

Monday June 3, 12pm
Poetry reading and conversation / signing / Q-and-A / plus kosher lunch!
at the Older Adult Kosher Hot Meal Program sponsored by Jewish Federation of the Berkshires
Knesset Israel, 16 Colt Road, Pittsfield

Join Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, author of the newly-published Waiting to Unfold (Phoenicia, spring 2013), for a poetry reading and conversation. Rabbi Barenblat will read from Waiting to Unfold, which collects poems written during her son's first year of life, and will then participate in a conversation / Q-and-A about the poems and what they contain.

Please RSVP to Knesset Israel so there are enough kosher hot meals for everyone. (All are welcome for the reading / conversation, whether or not you want to enjoy the kosher hot lunch, but if you do want a meal, let them know.)


Sunday June 9, 4pm
Poetry reading and conversation / signing / Q-and-A / plus refreshments!
Congregation Beth Israel, 53 Lois Street, North Adams
cosponsored by MotherWoman and the Berkshire County Perinatal Support Coalition

Join Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (70 faces, Phoenicia, 2011) for a reading from Waiting to Unfold (Phoenicia, 2013), her new collection of poems, written as weekly poems during her first year of motherhood. Rodger Kamenetz says, "The intense observation of the poet and the intense observation of the mother unite in a celebration of what is new and newborn, what is intensely felt and cherished and what is lost and mourned." Refreshments & book-signing to follow.

CBI is my shul, and I'm honored to be sharing my poems from the bimah there. If you haven't yet visited our beautiful sanctuary set like a gem beside wetland and mountains, and coming to services doesn't tempt you, come listen to some poems instead!


Sunday June 23, 6pm
Poetry reading and conversation / signing / Q-and-A
 The Book Loft, 332 Stockbridge Road, Great Barrington
sponsored by MotherWoman and the Berkshire County Perinatal Support Coalition

Poet Rachel Barenblat (70 faces, Phoenicia 2011 and Waiting to Unfold, Phoenicia 2013) will read from  her new collection written during the first year of parenthood, with booksigning and conversation / Q-and-A (on subjects ranging from poetry and spirituality to postpartum depression and parenting) to follow.


Local/regional readers, I hope you'll join me for one or more of these events. Questions / comments welcome...

After the summit, the climb: a Shavuot teaching

This is the teaching I offered late last night at our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot. It's loosely adapted from the Netivot Shalom, a.k.a. the Slonimer Rebbe, a.k.a. R' Shalom Noach Berezovsky. I originally translated it for a Hasidut class taught by R' Elliot Ginsburg; this version is streamlined a bit for easier teaching.

Someone once asked my teacher why on a first visit we can come directly to him and all the gates are opened to us, but on the second visit everything is closed. He answered with a parable:

You're taken up to the top of a high mountain, and you see the view that is all around you, and notice how glorious it is there. After that, you're brought back down to the bottom. And now, you must begin to climb up to the summit under your own power.

Once you see how wonderful it is up there, that encourages you to use your own strength to get back there. Initially, we receive enlightenment from above, that we might see with our own eyes how good it is to serve God. As Psalm 34 says, "Taste and see that God is good!"

After that, we're returned to our original (spiritual) place. But now we can go up on our own, now that we know where the heights are and how wonderful they are. That's what gives us the strength to push ourselves to climb.

On the first day of Pesach, we receive enlightenment from above. (It's as though we received a cosmic download of divinity, all compressed into a tight bundle, and we spend the 49 days of the Omer unpacking that download, lighting up each individual quality within ourselves which corresponds to the divine quality of that day.)

The energy, the potential, for climbing up to Shavuot comes from the illumination of that first day of Pesach. The first seder lights us up and inspires us to climb.

The seven weeks of the Omer are a time of spiritual preparation, during which we ready ourselves to receive the Torah. At the moment of the giving of the Torah, all seven heavens are open. All of our middot, the spiritual qualities which we share with God, are open and illuminated.

The experience of constriction, Mitzrayim, tarnished us. But on the first night of Pesach, God awakens us from on high. That awakening gives us the strength to spend the next seven weeks cleansing ourselves from the residue which accrues when we enslave ourselves to worldly things.

Pesach is a moment of erusin, betrothal, when Israel as a people becomes given-over to God. The 49 days of sefirat ha-Omer are a period of preparation and courting, preparing for the moment of being lifted-up. And at Shavuot, we and God are wed.

During the 49 days of the counting of the Omer, we "turn from evil and do good," again in the words of Psalm 34. We turn from the evil of enslavement, and pursue the goodness of receiving Torah. We turn from the evil of our own worst impulses and bad habits, and pursue the goodness of our best qualities (which we share with God.)

Throughout this journey, we draw on the energy we experienced on high, that first Passover night, to carry us the rest of the way to union at the mountaintop again.

And when we work for it; when we come seeking God; when we make the climb; we awaken the process of the revelation of the Torah. We needed to get here under our own power, and now that we've made it, the revelation is ready to pour in.


Have you experienced feeling 'lifted up,' then having to work to get back there?
How can you "turn from evil and do good" in your own life?
What is the Torah you most need to receive this year?
Quiet your mind, go inward, and ask the Holy Blessed One for revelation.

The anniversary of the revelation of Torah


Photo, sunbeams at Sinai, by flickr user jacobwod.


Tonight and tomorrow are the anniversary of the revelation of Torah.

The anniversary. One of my favorite teachings holds that tonight, Shavuot, is the Jewish people's wedding anniversary with God. On this date we stood together with God. We and God pledged ourselves in everlasting covenant. The written Torah, that beautiful hand-calligraphed parchment scroll, contains our ketubah, our written agreement of the promises we and God make to each other. One teaching holds that on this date, God held the mountain of Sinai up in the sky -- that we stood not at the foot of the mountain, but quite literally beneath the mountain; that the mountain was our chuppah, our wedding-canopy, for our marriage with God. (Another midrash holds that God held the mountain over us as a kind of threat. But I like the wedding midrash better.)

The anniversary of the revelation. On this day, long long ago, we camped at the base of Sinai. The Torah uses a singular verb to say that we camped there, and Rashi reads that to mean that the Israelite people camped there as a single entity, with one heart and one purpose. On this day, long long ago, despite all of our frustrations and our differences, we were together at the mountain as one. We were one people, one heart, one community. And in that state of oneness, we entered into relationship with God. In that state of oneness, we received revelation. We experienced divinity. We experienced the theophany, God's revelation-of-God's-self, a transmission of something from beyond our ken.

The anniversary of the revelation of Torah. What was revealed? Some say that God spoke the Aseret ha-Dibrot, the Ten Commandments as we read them in Torah. Some say that God spoke only the first line, "I am Adonai your God," or perhaps only the first word, a great anochi reverberating. Some say that God spoke only the first letter, a silent aleph, and the whole rest of the Torah was communicated via ultra-compressed instantaneous download. The midrash teaches that each of us heard according to her or his own capabilities. Just as manna had a different taste for each person who consumed it, so the revelation reached different people in different ways. God spoke with one voice, but each of us heard the Torah which we most uniquely needed to hear.

My teacher Reb Zalman (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) teaches that the revelation wasn't just a onetime thing: it's happening even now. God broadcasts on all channels, and we hear on the frequencies to which we're attuned. Ours is not the only revelation; other peoples, other traditions, have received other revelations on the channels where they're tuned-in. They've perceived different facets of the Infinite. We're all like those blind men in the parable, each of whom thought the elephant was something different because of what he perceived when he reached out to touch. But the existence of other revelations doesn't obviate ours; you don't have to be wrong for me to be right. The revelation at Sinai was a burst of divine presence, a transmission from beyond -- and that transmission is still going. As the Browncoats say, you can't stop the signal.

Each of us is a kind of radio receiver, able to tune in to God's broadcast. On Shavuot, we open our hearts and attune ourselves to God. What's the revelation that you most need to receive tonight as the heavens open? What Torah does the world most need, right here, right now? What will you draw down and channel into the world this Shavuot?

Reb Zalman on morning prayer

Many of us think of prayer as a religious duty. Some take this seriously, loping smoothly through the well-worn formulas as a daily obligation. Others draw the line at an hour or two of synagogue on High Holidays. Both approaches have lost contact with the original prayer urge, the irrepressible surge of gratitude or the crushing hopelessness that brings forth true prayer. The idea that we ourselves might stand before God and pray from the heart is almost unthinkable.

But our souls accept only one outcome when it comes to prayer: transformation. We do not wish just to spin our mental wheels: We want to be changed. We want to be moved. We want to end in a better place than where we started. Our souls yearn for this. If we really mean the words we say, how can we help but be moved?

That's why davening takes us on a journey. This is especially true in the morning prayers. The Rabbis imagined us starting the minute we swing our feet over the side of the bed. We may wake up stiff and rumpled and bleary-eyed; we might feel cranky and old, already dreading half the tasks we have to do today. No matter: the invitation to prayer says "come as you are." We will start slowly, rise and go deeper, and return in a better frame of mind and spirit. Prayer properly and truly done -- even if we only spend twenty good minutes -- will leave us feeling cleansed and at peace, ready to greet the day with gratitude, energy, and purpose.

-- Reb Zalman (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi), in Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer

When I'm leading prayer at my shul and we reach the round of daily morning blessings -- usually called birchot ha-shachar, "blessings of the morning;" the current Reform siddur calls them Nisim She'b'chol Yom, the Miracles of Each Day -- I usually pause and note that these blessings were originally designed to be said at home, organically, as we're waking up.

We hear the rooster crow (or, more likely, the alarm clock or the footfalls of the small child padding up the stairs) and instead of thinking "oy, time to get up already?" -- or, perhaps, after thinking that! -- we think, "Oh! Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of all being, Who gives the bird of dawn the discernment to tell day from night!"

And then, getting up out of bed and stretching, we think: Oh! Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of all being, Who straightens the bent!

And then, as we take our first steps away from bed, we think: Oh! Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of all being, Who makes firm our steps! And so on, and so on.

"On the off-chance that perhaps you woke up this morning and didn't automatically pray these blessings," (I say, and usually people chuckle, which is exactly what I'm hoping for), "the creators of our siddur wisely added these blessings to the siddur, so that we can say them together this morning, with heart and with intention."

Prayer can be a lot of different things. But one of the modalities of prayer which I love best is this one: the chance to imbue ordinary moments with a consciousness of what's holy. The chance to offer gratitude. To rub the crust out of our eyes and thank God Who removes sleep from the eyes and slumber from the eyelids. To say: no matter who I am, or where I am, or what's going on with me today, I'm grateful to have woken up this morning, and to be alive.