Previous month:
August 2013
Next month:
October 2013

Guest blogging at Best American Poetry


I'm delighted to be able to say that I'm guest blogging at The Best American Poetry blog again this week. I won't be posting poetry there -- their guest-blogger guidelines haven't allowed that in some years, though the ones I posted long before that guideline was in place (from Sestina featuring six words commonly used on this blog to Preparing to Leave Jerusalem to Progression) are still in their archives -- but I'll be offering short reflections on life, poetry, spirituality, parenthood, music, and remix culture over the course of the week.

If you're so inclined, please do click over and read my posts there -- and consider following the BAP blog and/or @BestAmPo twitter stream, both of which are terrific.

Here's how this week's first post there begins:

Every year I'm surprised by how variable the change is. The other night, when it was still Sukkot, we had a pair of friends over, a couple we've known since college and their son. Our son, who is almost four, proudly explained that this -- gesturing to the little skeleton of a house, garlanded with tinsel -- was a sukkah and that his dad had built it and we had decorated it. Then he explained that the leaves on the trees around us are turning orange and yellow because it's fall. The two statements seemed of equal import, coming out of his mouth...

Read the whole thing: The Change [by Rachel Barenblat] at The Best American Poetry blog. My thanks go to the BAP blog editors for inviting me to blog there this week!


PodA kind of emptiness comes at the end of this long cycle of holidays. After challah and honey, feasting and fasting, services upon services upon services. Just listing the names of all of the observances of the last few weeks tires me out again.

Sometimes memory telescopes in a way that makes far things seem near. At this moment in the year, though, I tend to find that it works the other way around. Things which happened not so long ago feel like ancient history. That first dinner, on the cusp of Rosh Hashanah...? It was another eon.

In a way, in Jewish time, it was another eon. That dinner was before we ushered in the new year. That was 5773, relegated to memory now. I like the fact that I spent my last hours of the old Jewish year sitting around a table with my family, eating and talking and being together.

I went for a walk  few days ago. I didn't have the energy to contemplate driving someplace particularly beautiful or noteworthy, so I walked up and down our driveway a few times. It's a long driveway, and parts of it are steep. I paused from time to time to take photographs, working at reminding myself that even mundane places are worthy of attention.

I don't know what these seed pods are, but I find them strangely beautiful. I feel a little bit like these pods right now: burst open, after the pressures of all of these rituals and services and prayers. The silky stuff of my heart exposed under the early autumn sky.

Continue reading "Seasonal" »

A glimpse of Jay Michaelson's Evolving Dharma

Evolvingdharmacover3"The Western world is on the cusp of a major transformation around how we understand the mind, the brain, and what to do about them. Meditation and other forms of contemplative practice, once the provenance of religion, then later of 'spirituality,' are now in the American mainstream, in corporate retreats and public schools, as a rational, proven technology to upgrade the mind and organize the brain, buttressed by hard scientific data and the reports of millions of practitioners."

That's the opening of Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment, by Jay Michaelson, due out in October 2013 from North Atlantic Books. Jay writes:

"The original source of these cognitive technologies is the dharma, an ancient word meaning the way, the path, or the teaching. In the most general sense, it can simply refer to the truth of how things are: the laws of the universe, and of the mind...

What was once a monastic tradition of meditation, virtuous action, and wisdom teachings (samadhi, sila, and panna) is now, depending on where you encounter it, a technology of brainhacking; a way to build insular thickness in the brain; a way to lower stress; a mystical path filled with unusual peak experiences; a way to grow more loving, compassionate, and generous; a method to get ahead and gain an edge on your competition; or any number of other things. Love it or hate it, the dharma has evolved."

This new book aims to explore the evolution of the dharma through a variety of lenses. There's history here; there's neuroscience; there's personal experience. There's also a straightforward narrative voice which is unsentimental and occasionally quite wry.

This is a story of monks and soldiers; a history as well as a tale told from my own cultural position, conditioned by my age, gender, class, race, sexual orientation, and all the rest; a narrative of maverick teachers, online communities, Occupy, self-loathing, stress reduction, religion, sex, power, and Google.

Who wouldn't want to read that?

Full disclosure: I've been blessed to work with Jay off and on for a number of years. He is the founding editor of Zeek, "a Jewish journal of thought and culture," where I used to serve as a contributing editor. I come to this book as a colleague of the author's, as a rabbi, and as someone whose own spiritual life has been strongly shaped both by Judaism and by the import of Buddhism to these shores. Those are some of the lenses I bring to bear on reading this book.

Continue reading "A glimpse of Jay Michaelson's Evolving Dharma" »

Remembering our beloveds as we linger a little longer

YahrzeitShemini Atzeret: "the pause of the 8th day." The day after Sukkot, when the Holy Blessed One murmurs in our ear, "Don't go just yet. Don't leave this bower where we've spent this past week. Linger a little longer with Me."

Shemini Atzeret: the day when we shift, in our daily amidah, from blessing God Who brings the dew to blessing God Who brings the wind and the rain. (And in this climate zone, eventually, the ice and the snow.) On this day we recite a special prayer for rain.

Shemini Atzeret: another opportunity to say the prayers of Yizkor, the liturgy of remembrance which recite as we remember our beloved dead. Of course, many of us just said Yizkor. There was a Yizkor service on Yom Kippur, a scant twelve days ago. Why are we reciting Yizkor again so soon?

Well. Like anything else in Judaism, there is a multiplicity of answers. But here's an answer which speaks to me.

Continue reading "Remembering our beloveds as we linger a little longer" »


The rainbow foil garlands broke
on the night of heavy rain.
Slivers of color adorn the lawn.

Your tears fell like willow leaves.
You insisted we find
the decoration store.

This slow disintegration
is part of the point, each sukkah
as fragile as a life, but

who understands that at four?
A compromise: the art supply box,
our spool of kitchen string.

Now paper plates spin and clatter.
Their crayoned markings face me
then whirl away

like your laughing face
hiding under our blanket
then bursting back into view.


Re: "Your tears fell like leaves" -- today is Hoshanna Rabbah, when it is customary to beat our willow branches on the earth; their falling leaves represent our prayers for rain.

(Photo source: flickr.)


Operating Instructions (a poem sparked by Pirkei Avot)

Judah the son of Tema would say: Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, fleeting as a deer and mighty as a lion to do the will of your Father in heaven. -- Pirkei Avot 5:20

Be bold as brass,
polished until you gleam.
Be fearless and daring; courageous.
Be distinct to the eye.
Be imprudent. Be bold as love.

Be light as a pinfeather.
Swift as a cheetah running
at full tilt, fleeting
as an eager football player's
triumphant return to the field.

Be as mighty
as an unexpected synonym,
as the thirteen-petaled rose,
as the Niagara Falls of justice
thundering endlessly from Eden.

Everyone serves something. Choose
hope's pulse and flicker,
creation's compassionate heart.


The quote which sparked this poem is emblazoned on one of the sukkah decorations which came in the sukkah-decorating kit I ordered online. I love the Biblical similes.

Every life is a sukkah


Our sages have asked: what is a sukkah?

Some have said: it’s a remembrance of the tents we lived in during the exodus from Egypt. As we read in Torah, "You shall dwell in sukkot seven days, that your generations may know that the children of Israel dwelled in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt." When we sit in the sukkah, we remember the Exodus.

Others have said: it’s a reminder of the cloud of glory which traveled with us during the exodus from Egypt, the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. When we sit in the sukkah, we experience God's presence and God's glory.

Still others said: it’s a harvest house, a reminder of the temporary dwellings our ancestors used to build in their fields during harvest time. When we sit in the sukkah, we remember our agricultural roots, and feel gratitude for the harvest.

And still others have said: a sukkah is temporary, beautiful, vulnerable, a place for welcoming guests and connecting with people (both those who are in our lives, and those ancestors whom we remember with love) — it is an embodied metaphor for a human life.

Like a sukkah, each life is temporary. Each life is beautiful. Each life is vulnerable. Each life is enriched by the presence of our loved ones, both living and imagined. Into every life a little rain must fall, but when we sit in the sukkah, we have the opportunity to greet even that rain with joy.

Adapted from a teaching originally posted to my From the Rabbi blog.

Cloud of glory: a d'var Torah for chol ha-moed Sukkot

Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday morning at my shul. (Crossposted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


This Shabbat falls during chol ha-moed, the intermediate days in the midst of the festival of Sukkot. The appointed reading for today (Exodus 33:12–34:26) does make brief mention of Sukkot. Almost at the very end of the parsha we read "And you shall observe the feast of weeks, of the first-fruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the turn of the year." The feast of weeks is Shavuot; the feast of ingathering is Sukkot.

But mostly this parsha is about something different: a request from Moshe, and God's intriguing answer.

"If I have found grace in Your sight, show me Your ways," asks Moshe. And then Moshe adds, "Show me, please, Your glory."

In response, God says: "I will make My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim My name before you, and I will manifest graciousness and mercy -- but no one can look upon Me and live."

As some of our b'nei mitzvah students would be quick to remind me, God doesn't "look like" anything -- God doesn't have a body -- so what would it even mean to look upon God?

It seems to me that the Torah here is speaking, as it so often does, in metaphor. First, Moshe asks "show me Your ways," and God is happy to comply; in a sense, the entire Torah is God showing us God's ways. But then Moshe asks to see God's kavod, God's glory. And God says, that's not possible. Here is one reason why that might be.

Much later in our history, the kabbalists would speak of God as ein-sof, "Without End." God is infinite, limitless, vaster than our human minds can comprehend. Any human mind which actually expands far enough to encompass all that God is would...crack open, I think. Would be stretched beyond its limits. God is precisely that infinity which we can't comprehend.

Instead, God gives Moshe a different option: stand in a cleft of rock, and after I pass by, you can see My afterimage. I believe that we can see God's afterimage all over creation: in our relationships, in our ethical obligations to one another, in moments of transcendence and power in our lives. Each of these is a tiny cellular glimpse of a facet of all of what God is, as in a hologram where each part contains the whole.

Continue reading "Cloud of glory: a d'var Torah for chol ha-moed Sukkot" »

Turn of the season

Pumpkins Mums

Maybe today's the day it won't warm up.
Goldenrod burns fall's first fire.
Doorways and front stoops sing
pumpkins and mums, pumpkins and mums.

The woodchuck waddles low across driveway
from grass to grass.
Everything's green, though yellow lurks
beneath the visual spectrum, waiting.

Listen: there's the rise
and fall, rise and fall I wait for,
breath half-held. One of these days
I'll forget there should've been sound.

Three months and the wind will whisk snow
against windowpanes, but today:
breathe warming dirt, the lawn's wild thyme.
The woodchuck munches, focused, getting ready.


This is a revision of a poem which I wrote ten years ago. In 2005 it became part of a manuscript called Manna which I sent around to first-book contests for some years. I had thought that this poem had appeared in The Berkshire Review, but my records show other poems in that journal during that time, not this one. Anyway: I find myself thinking of the "pumpkins and mums" line every year at this season, so I dug up the poem and did a bit of polishing and am sharing it here in honor of the equinox. Hope y'all enjoy.

For those who are so inclined, here's the traditional blessing for the tekufah, the equinox (which comes from Talmud):

Blessing for the Tekufah / Equinox        
 ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם עושה בראשית
Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam, oseh vereishit.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of all being, who makes creation.

Two author events in Montréal next month

I'm delighted to be able to announce that I'll be returning to Montréal in about three weeks (over the weekend of Canadian Thanksgiving) for a pair of author events.

WaitingToUnfold-small 70FacesSmall

The first will be on a Saturday afternoon at the Anglican church in Montréal, Christ Church Cathedral:


FAMILY SATURDAY, October 12th, 1-4pm in Fulford Hall (Eng) Join Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, author of Waiting to Unfold (Phoenicia, 2013) a collection of poems which offer an honest look at the challenges and blessings of early parenthood. Discuss the relationship between parenthood and spiritual life. Childcare will be provided. Register with the Reverend Rhonda Waters as soon as possible.

And the second will be on Sunday morning, October 13th, at the Unitarian Church of Montréal. They'll be having their usual Sunday morning service, which will center that week around themes of gratitude (since it's Canadian Thanksgiving weekend) and on music (they're hosting a choral immersion weekend.) They've graciously asked me to offer the sermon, which will also touch on themes of gratitude -- and will almost certainly involve some poetry, as will the rest of the service.

Copies of both 70 faces (Phoenicia, 2011) and Waiting to Unfold (Phoenicia, 2013) will be available for sale at both events.

Both events are free and open to the public -- these are not for (Episcopalian or Unitarian Universalist) parishioners only, but for anyone of any faith who's interested in the intersections of poetry, scripture, parenthood / life in the world, spiritual life, and cultivating gratitude! If you're in the area, or able to get to the area, I hope you'll join us.


First morning

DecorationsI wake to the sound of feet on the stairs, but keep my eyes closed so that I can pretend to be startled when our son shouts "boo!" from the bedroom door. This is how mornings begin, these days. We cuddle for a while, and then he says -- as he does every day -- "I was thinkin'..." He pauses for dramatic effect, then goes on. "You could put on your robe-in, and come downstairs, and make me some waffles, and put on some cartoons, and then you could shower!" And that's what we do.

Once I am dressed for the day, I take up my lulav and etrog. "I'm going out to the sukkah," I tell him. "Do you want to come?" At first he says no, he wants to watch cartoons, so I come out here alone. It's a stunning late-September day: clear, sunny, bright blue sky. Our sukkah sparkles, tinsel garlands reflecting the early morning light. I make the blessing, shake my lulav in all six directions, sing some of the psalms of Hallel.

I am interrupted by a shout from the deck. "Does this one go on this foot?" It's our son, wanting to confirm right and left before putting on his sneakers and padding out to join me in the sukkah. "Daddy built this sukkah an' I decorated it," he tells me proudly. He gets up on the stepstool to admire the little birds which he so proudly hung on one of the rafters before the festival began. "One is for me," he says, "and one is for Daddy, and one is for you!"

LulavThen his attention turns to the lulav. "What's that," he asks. I tell him it's a lulav, and that the fruit is called an etrog. I encourage him to smell the etrog; he makes a surprised face at its strong scent. Then he says "It goes on the roof." He thinks the lulav is more schach, roofing branches; not an unreasonable theory, actually. I tell him that if I can find last year's lulav, which might be in my study somewhere, we can add it to the roof -- but this one is special; it's for shaking in all different directions and bringing blessings. I pick it up and show him. Then he asks if he can try.

His hands aren't big enough to hold the lulav and etrog together, so he just holds the lulav. He wiggles it this way, that way, the other way. "Blessings over here," he crows. "Blessings over here!" And then he gets bored and puts it down and wants to run around the yard looking for more branches for the roof, which is okay too.

It is such a beautiful morning, this first day of Sukkot 5774. I don't know how to end this post except with this deep wash of gratitude. For the pileated woodpecker and the rooster calling in the distance. For the quiet hum of the crickets and the chipmunks chasing each other in the first rustling fallen leaves. For this airy little house which my sweetheart built and the sparkly adornments which suited our son's aesthetic just so. For this beautiful tall boy with his curiosity about everything. For everything.

The four in-between days

9763555713_db11821931_nThere are four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

In the old Pesach counting song I learned as a child, four are the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. These days I tend to count six matriarchs, including Bilhah and Zilpah, the other two handmaidens from whom the twelve tribes descended. (With today's consciousness, ignoring them seems to smack of a kind of classism; I'd rather be inclusive in my davenen.) So it's hard to connect these four days with those four foremothers.

But four suggests the four letters of the Tetragrammaton; and it suggests the four worlds of action, emotion, thought, and spirit.

If each of the four days between the holidays represents one of the four worlds, then perhaps we began with a day of assiyah, action and physicality, and today we move into the day of atzilut, spirit.

It's customary to begin building one's sukkah right after Yom Kippur. (Some make a practice of driving the first nail after the sun has set on what was Yom Kippur day.) That's definitely an assiyah act, an act in the physical world. On Sunday, Ethan built the frame for our sukkah out of wood and screws.

The next day was our day in the world of yetzirah, emotions. I find that my emotions are always heightened during and after Yom Kippur. Something about the long day of fasting, singing, praying, chanting, standing, yearning -- it opens the floodgates of my heart and they often stay open for a little while. On Monday, our son and I gathered some branches for the sukkah roof. Creating a safe container, maybe, for all of that open heart.

Shiviti-BreierThen comes the day in the world of briyah, thought and intellect. A day for intellectually processing everything that has transpired since this season of teshuvah began back at Rosh Hashanah. Or maybe back at the start of Elul. Or maybe back at Tisha b'Av, the fast which falls two months before Yom Kippur. On Tuesday I did a lot of thinking. And our son and I pondered where best to hang the various decorations which we had saved or procured.

And now it's the day of atzilut. The day of spirit. The last day before Sukkot. Tonight at sundown the festival begins.

These four days are meant to be days of integrating whatever we received at Yom Kippur. Once upon a time the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur and, some teachings say, received a new name for God. Today there is no High Priest; each of us must serve that function in her/his own way. Our old names, our old partzufim (literally "masks" -- think faces, archetypes, ways of seeing God) grow worn over the course of a year of use. On Yom Kippur, we davened with all our heart and all our might in hopes of receiving a new name for God -- a new way of understanding God -- a new insight --  new way of relating to holiness.

And whatever came down for us on that holy day, we have these four interstitial days to integrate it. To install that new name, as my teacher Reb Zalman likes to say, on the hard drive of our hearts.

It's been impossible, this year, not to see Sukkot through the lens of the flooding happening in Boulder. Sukkot is many things at once: a harvest festival, a remembrance of the harvest huts in which our ancestors once dwelled while harvesting their fields, a remembrance of the temporary shelters in which our ancestors dwelled during the Exodus from Egypt. It's also a festival of impermanence, when we leave our safe and stable homes and spend a week "living" (or at least dining, learning, and rejoicing) in flimsy temporary shelters with leaky roofs. It's one thing for that to be a voluntary practice, as it is for my family and me. It's another thing entirely for the many in Colorado who have had no choice but to leave the homes they thought were safe and stable.

The shviti image I've included in this post (drawn by Morton Breier) features the Jewish Renewal chant which says that in assiyah, in the world of action and physicality, "it is perfect." What does it mean for us to consider this physical world to be perfect when there is so much suffering in this world? Maybe the "perfect" is aspirational -- maybe we can only get there if we try to take care of one another when there is need. If you are able to participate fiscally in that work, please know that the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado has set up a 2013 Boulder Relief Fund; 100% of donations will go to support victims of the flood. You can also donate to support my teacher R' Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and his wife Eve Ilsen as they work to rebuild what they have lost; or to Bonai Shalom, my friend R' Marc Soloway's shul, which was badly damaged by the flooding.

May our journey into Sukkot be meaningful and sweet. May each of us integrate whatever we received on Yom Kippur into our whole being. May we be mindful that even as we celebrate willing embrace of impermanence, others are daily confronted with impermanence they did not choose. May our week of rejoicing in our little temporary houses strengthen our willingness to tend to those in need, here and everywhere.

To Die Next to You: poems and drawings by Kamenetz and Hafftka

Covertdnty3Poetry and drawing are brothers that emerge from the dark of sleep holding hands -- bringing fresh images out of the vividness of dreams, giving birth to strange monsters who may be saviors, and charging words and paint with electricity which streams from the place in the soul where love and pain are one word.

That's the descriptive paragraph on the back of To Die Next to You, a collection of poems by Rodger Kamenetz accompanied by drawings by Michael Hafftka. These are startling, exquisite works -- in both genres.

But now the foundation must be ripped out

And a new one dug. The earth has teeth.
It's no place to go barefoot, it's raw.
Blood clay. If you find an old bone,
Be sure it's not canine before you call 911.

That's from "After the storm: a brick as fragile as a dream." The accompanying illustration is all rusty earth (bloodied earth?) at the bottom of the frame, a light wash of pale rust giving way to a light wash of darkened sky, a set of small bricks seeming insignificant against the vastness of the frame, and at the top of the frame a malevolent eye: the eye of Sauron, the hurricane, void, destruction. (You can see a detail from that painting later in this post.)

The poems which arise out of that destruction -- which I read as Katrina, though they are intentionally unattributed to any particular disaster -- are unsettling. Fine reading before Sukkot, this. As we prepare for a week of pretend-impermanence, these poems remind me about real impermanence. "A crawlspace without a roof, dug out / like an old pocked cheek," we read in "The Forgotten." Or "Behind the city's ruptured facades / where no one gardens... Many houses were built on mud." (From "After the Flood.") I have the same visceral reaction reading about the floods this week in Boulder, Colorado.

Continue reading "To Die Next to You: poems and drawings by Kamenetz and Hafftka" »

Six jewels from this year's Days of Awe


Marveling at how the evening's storms gave way to an incredible glow of post-storm late-evening light.  Making havdalah and then singing the songs of Selichot with my community on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah. With my mother present, too -- an extra-special gift, to see her there in our small sanctuary, looking impeccably-put-together, and enthusiastic about experiencing Selichot at our sweet smalltown shul. (It's a bit more formal where she usually goes.) That night I got to play my new guitar, and to debut my beautiful new white High Holiday tallit. The feel of the fabric and the wood under my fingers. The way my heart settles back into the well-worn groove of these words and these melodies. As Elul draws toward its close, this is the first real step on the High Holiday journey.



Sitting on the floor of the sanctuary with our visiting cantorial soloist (rabbinic student David Curiel) and his wife Amberly and their almost-one-year-old daughter, on the day which would become erev Rosh Hashanah. It was midafternoon, a few hours before the holiday, and we had just rehearsed a few melodies, and we caught a moment together to play with the baby and just be together before the festival began. The synagogue was empty except for us. The chairs were all set up, beams of sunlight poured through the windows, and everything seemed to vibrate with silent anticipation.



Joining my family for a festive meal Rosh Hashanah services on the eve of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. We sang the usual round of blessings for candles, wine, challah, apples. And then as we were about to move on to dinner, our son piped up, "Mommy! You forgot to bless ME!"

Of course: every Shabbat he receives the priestly blessing after we bless candles, wine, and challah. How could he have known that this is a Shabbat custom and not a Rosh Hashanah one? Nu: a new family custom was born on the spot. I placed my hands on his head and gave him kisses as I offered the blessing he knows so well. Let him begin the new year, as he begins every Shabbat, knowing that he is blessed and that he is loved.



Interstitial time: hanging out with my family at the house my parents rented in Williamstown. Sitting on the deck with my parents and with my sister and her family, watching my son play with her kids, enjoying fabulous chopped liver on good wholegrain crackers (our son preferred the crackers plain) and sipping white wine in the beautiful cool northern Berkshire late summer evening. Having the spaciousness to just be together, talking about everything under the sun.



Standing with our hazzan before the open ark at the start of Ne'ilah, the closing service. We had just spent five minutes making wordless niggunim out of many of the melodies of the Days of Awe, as people came up before the open ark to quietly whisper whatever they most needed to say to God. Then I put down my guitar and we moved into the closing stretch of the final service, which began with the final repetition of the Thirteen Attributes.

The lights were off: the room was lit only by the ark lights, the flickering yahrzeit candles, and the setting sun. I had just reconciled myself to the fact that though it had been a beautiful holiday, and I could feel that we had done a good job of leading davenen and channeling what we wanted to channel, it seemed that I wasn't going to get my own intense experience of connection with God. In that moment, I was okay with that.

And then we started singing "Adonai, Adonai, merciful and compassionate," and I closed my eyes, and suddenly I was weeping as I sang. My whole heart broken right open. God, God, full of mercy and compassion! Even in our worst moments, the times when all we can feel is failure and sorrow, God's endless mercy and compassion are open to us. I can't quite verbalize it now. But it opened my heart right up. And I was so grateful. I feel so blessed.



Breaking my fast, as has become my custom, the way my grandfather Eppie used to do: with a nip of ice-cold vodka. One of my congregants (the one who leyns Jonah, blows shofar, and arranges our break-the-fast) brought the bottle of Absolut forth from the shul freezer and we raised our wee cups. "To the memory of your grandfather," he offered, "and the memory of mine, too." Nasdrovie! The liquid was cold fire going down; it spread to my fingertips, warming me. And then a few other congregants came up to me during the break-the-fast, asking, "where's the vodka in memory of your grandfather?" (So I brought it out of the kitchen and into the social hall, where others partook as they so chose.) That warmed me, too: the realization that this community which never knew Eppie thinks of him now every year as Yom Kippur ends, as do I.

Yom Kippur is over; Sukkot is almost here!

Prayer Before Building the Sukkah

for the sturdiness of my house
and for the willingness to leave it

for this chance to build
a temporary home, to remember

nomad desert wandering
and harvest houses: thank You.

Connect me, God, with all who labor
here and everywhere.

Increase my compassion
for anyone who has no home.

There is no Temple, and I do not farm:
all I can offer You

is the work of my hands
my heart, open as these walls.



The festival of Sukkot begins four days after Yom Kippur. Many of us will be building our sukkot, our little temporary houses, today in preparation for the coming festival. Here's a prayer intended for recitation before that work begins; if it's helpful to you, please feel free to use it and/or share it! This will appear in my forthcoming volume of Jewish liturgical poetry, hooray.

Isaiah, Trayvon Martin, and Yom Kippur (A sermon for Yom Kippur morning)

Several weeks ago, on the Shabbat morning immediately before Tisha b'Av, I sat down at the table in our social hall to study Torah with those who had joined us for services. We studied the haftarah reading assigned to that particular Shabbat, which comes from the prophet Isaiah, just like our assigned reading for today.

Here is a taste of the haftarah we read together that morning:

Why do you make sacrifices to Me? says your God.
I am overfull with burnt offerings; I take no delight in bloodshed.
Bring no more vain offerings. They are hateful to Me.
New moon and Shabbat when you gather --
I can't bear the iniquity of this community.
I hate your new moons and your appointed festivals.
They are a burden to Me. They weary Me.
When you spread out your hands in longing, I will hide My eyes.
When you call out in prayer, I will not hear.
Your hands are bloody with wrongdoing.
Wash yourself, make yourself clean: put away your evil acts before My eyes.
Turn from evil and do good.
Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, tend to the fatherless, plead for the widow.
Come now and let us reason together, says God.
Though your sins be scarlet, they will become white as snow.
Though they are red as blood, they will become white as clean wool.

"I hate your new moons and your appointed festivals." I tremble every time I read that passage. Because I love our new moons and our appointed festivals! I love how our tradition teaches us to mark time, to pursue spiritual transformation and teshuvah. Of course, today we offer prayers, not animals. But what I hear Isaiah saying is: because our hands are bloody with wrongdoing, God is sickened by our worship. As one of the people sitting around the Torah study table put it, on that Shabbat morning before Tisha b'Av: if we aren't also pursuing justice, our rituals are meaningless. Worse than meaningless, because they delude us into thinking that spiritual life is "enough" even if our world is unjust.

I love our rituals. I have made it my life's work to try to connect people, through those rituals and texts and practices, with God. But I hear Isaiah's words, and I know that he is right.

There's a visible tension here between priest and prophet. In antiquity it was the job of the priests to keep Temple sacrifices going, to make atonement for the people through appropriate slaughter and prayer, to maintain and lubricate the flow of blessing into the world through their service in the Temple. And it was the job of the prophets to speak truth to power. To say, what y'all are doing isn't enough; God demands more of us. God demands justice and right behavior. If you don't act justly, then it doesn't matter one bit whether you're doing the sacrifices the way you were taught. The sacrificial system isn't enough.

In our Jewish lives today there exist neither priests nor prophets. The priestly system came to its end when the second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 C.E. The end of prophecy is slightly harder to pin down, though the mainstream Jewish answer is that the era of prophecy came to an end even earlier.

We have neither priests nor prophets in today's world. But I don't think that means that the work they used to do is no longer necessary. On the contrary: I think it's our job, all of us, to be both priest and prophet for ourselves and for those around us. It's incumbent on all of us to sustain the rituals which keep our community life flowing smoothly -- and also to hear God's call for justice.

Three days before Tisha b'Av I sat with a group of y'all here and we talked about Isaiah's furious words. Two days before Tisha b'Av, we learned that George Zimmerman had been acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin.

Continue reading "Isaiah, Trayvon Martin, and Yom Kippur (A sermon for Yom Kippur morning)" »

Yom Kippur and Shabbat: Lightning and Light (A sermon for Kol Nidre)

This summer, for the first time, our son has been afraid of thunder and lightning. I can't blame him for that. Thunder and lightning can be scary. Especially when you are small, and you don't remember ever having experienced them before. At times like those, even the comforting presence of your stuffed animals isn't enough: you need a parent to cuddle you and tell you everything's going to be okay.

So that's what I do. I tell him it's all going to be okay. I tell him it's only thunder, it's only lightning, it's not going to hurt him. When the lightning flashes, I tell him it's the clouds playing with their flashlights, just like he does. When the thunder cracks and rolls, I tell him it's the clouds playing their drums.

This is probably proof, if proof were needed, that I am a poet and not a scientist. I think in metaphors. We have friends who teach their kids about electrical charge building up in the clouds. I make up stories about the clouds having parties with their flashlights and their drums.

I did learn something extraordinary about lightning this summer, though.

And because they say the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else, I'm going to share it with you now. Here is what I learned about lightning, in a class on kabbalah and quantum physics which I took with R' Fern Feldman and Dr. Karen Barad at the ALEPH Kallah:

In a stormcloud, air molecules become polarized. The negatively-charged ions cluster at the bottom of the cloud, and the positively-charged ones cluster at the top.

You know how if you hold two magnets near each other, the ends which have the same charge will push each other away? The same thing happens with the stormcloud and the earth. The negative ions at the bottom of the cloud push the negative ions in the ground further into the ground, because like repels like.

The negative ions in the earth sink down low, moving away from the cloud. So the surface of the earth becomes positively charged. Now the earth and the cloud are charged in opposite directions: positive earth, negative cloud.

Here's the wild part: as the cloud sends electricity down, the earth sends electricity up. Before the lightning ever comes down from the cloud, the cloud is reaching down with its negative ions and the earth is reaching up with its positive ions.

If you look at time-lapse photography of lightning, this is what you see: the cloud sends little rivulets of light downwards, and the earth sends rivulets of light upwards. They are reaching for each other. And when they connect, most of the light goes up.

The moment I learned this, I thought about spiritual life. I thought of the story from Torah about Jacob camping out for a night and dreaming about a ladder with feet planted in the earth and a top stretching into the very heavens, with angels going up and down the ladder in constant motion. One of my favorite teachings asks: it makes sense for angels to be coming down the ladder from heaven to creation, but what's with the angels going up? And the answer is: the angels going up are our prayers. When we pray, our prayers become angels which ascend this cosmic ladder, and in response, blessings come pouring back down.

Continue reading "Yom Kippur and Shabbat: Lightning and Light (A sermon for Kol Nidre)" »

About lighting yahrzeit candles tonight

US_Navy_070426-N-4965F-003_Six_memorial_candles_are_lit_during_a_Holocaust_Remembrance_Day_ceremony_at_Sharkey_Theater_on_board_Naval_Station_Pearl_HarborAs our congregational administrator and I were setting up a table for tonight with a bunch of memorial candles, little folded index cards where people can write the names of those they're remembering, and boxes of matches, it occurred to me that not everyone is familiar with the custom of lighting a yahrzeit candle before Kol Nidre. So I very quickly pulled a few explanatory paragraphs together, printed them and put them in a pretty frame, and stood that frame up on the table with the candles.

I mentioned this on Twitter, and Emily Hauser suggested that I share this here, since some of y'all who read this blog might find merit in it. So here it is. It's necessarily brief; I could say a lot more! But for the moment, this will have to do. If you're lighting a candle tonight but weren't sure why, maybe this will shed some metaphorical light. And if you weren't planning to light a candle, but you have some beloveds who have died, perhaps this will inspire you. (And if you don't have any special yahrzeit candles on hand, you can light whatever you do have. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.)

(For more on yizkor, the memorial service, stay tuned -- I'll have a post on that when we reach Shemini Atzeret. The image which illustrates this post comes from the Wikipedia entry on Yahrzeit candles.) G'mar chatimah tovah / may you be sealed for good in the year to come!

About Lighting Yahrzeit Candles Tonight

Our tradition calls us to light yahrzeit (year-anniversary) candles on the anniversary of a loved one's death and also just before sundown on the eve of Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Pesach, and Shavuot: the four times when the Yizkor (memorial) prayers are recited.

You can light a yahrzeit candle for anyone you are remembering. Traditionally we light them for parents, spouses, siblings, and children, but you can also light one for a friend, grandparent, or anyone else whom you want to remember at this season.

There are no special prayers or blessings which must be recited while lighting a yahrzeit candle. Lighting the candle presents a moment to remember the deceased or to spend some time in introspection.

In the book of Proverbs (chapter 20 verse 27) we read "the soul of a person is the candle of God." Our tradition has long regarded flames as evocative of our souls. Like a human soul, a flame must breathe, change, grow, strive against the darkness and, ultimately, fade away.

May the candles we kindle tonight in memory connect us with those we have loved and lost, and may their memories heighten and enrich our experience of Yom Kippur.

As we approach Yom Kippur

Please_forgive_me_by_geekindisguise-d4rv291This late afternoon / early evening we'll enter into Yom Kippur and into Shabbat.

These aseret y'mei teshuvah (Ten Days of Re/Turning) have been chock-full of preparations in every realm: from the physical (setting up chairs, preparing for tomorrow night's break-the-fast) to the emotional (weathering the emotional rollercoaster of actually making teshuvah), the intellectual (finishing touches on those sermons!) to the spiritual and ineffable.

I wish I had the spaciousness to reach out to each one of you individually to ask your forgiveness for any ways in which I have missed the mark in our relationship in the last year. As it is, this blog post will have to do.

I know that I have missed the mark over the last year. If my words or deeds have caused you pain, I hope that you can forgive me.

Please know that I likewise extend forgiveness to you. If your words or deeds have wounded me, I affirm that I am doing my level best to forgive. I will not carry relationship snarls or tangles from the old year into the new one.

May we all emerge on the far side of Yom Kippur feeling lightened and cleansed. Shabbat shalom and g'mar chatimah tovah -- may you be sealed for good in the year to come.


Image source: geekindisguise on deviantart.

A communally-written Al Chet for 5774

My first Jewish Renewal Yom Kippur was at the old Elat Chayyim in Accord, New York in 2004. The retreat was led by Rabbi Jeff Roth (of the Awakened Heart Project) and Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg (who was an utter joy to learn with in rabbinic school -- his classes are probably what I miss most now that I'm a rabbi!) One of the practices which moved me most was a practice of collaboratively writing our own Al Chet prayer.

The Al Chet prayer -- "For the Sins (Which We Have Sinned Against You By....)" -- is a laundry list of places where we have missed the mark in the last year. It's written in the plural (though several years ago I wrote a first-person-singular version, which I still daven sometimes.) We recite it in each of the five services of Yom Kippur. (In a traditional setting, it's recited once silently and once aloud in each service, making ten recitations in total!) By the end of the day, the words can feel somewhat repetitive.

At Elat Chayyim that year, we were each handed index cards before the holiday began. We each wrote down, on those cards, anonymously, ways in which we felt we had missed the mark in the previous year. And at each service, the cards were redistributed anonymously, and we chanted them aloud interspersed with the prayer's familiar refrain. I found it incredibly moving and powerful -- especially because almost everything others had written down was something I could have written, too.

For the last several years, we've adapted this practice at my shul. At Selichot services on the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah, midway through the service, I play quiet guitar music while people anonymously write down places where they've missed the mark, things they feel they need to release in order to reach forgiveness on Yom Kippur. And then, a few days before the holiday, I collect the basket of cards and type up what's in it, and that becomes the Al Chet which our cantorial soloist and I will chant on Yom Kippur morning.

For those who are interested, here's my community's Al Chet for this year. I share it in hopes that it might speak to you, too, and might help this prayer come alive for you in a new way

Continue reading "A communally-written Al Chet for 5774" »