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New poem for Yom Kippur: We Are Jonah

I'm immersed this week in preparing -- logistically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually -- for Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown on Friday night. I'm also working on what has been the project of my heart for the last many months, a new machzor for the Days of Awe, which will be available (God willing) next summer for use next year. (More about that later, when the process of revision and multilingual proofreading is complete!)

As I shift back and forth between preparing for these holidays, and working toward next year's holidays, I've found myself working on a new poem which comes out of the book of Jonah. (It also comes out of a beautiful midrash from the first-century Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer, which I cited in last year's sermon In the Belly of the Whale.) If this speaks to you, feel free to use it -- with attribution, of course.


In Rabbi Eliezer's vision
Jonah entered the whale's mouth
as we enter a synagogue.
Light streamed in through its eyes.
Jonah approached the bimah, the whale's head.
Show me wonders, he said, as though
his own life weren't a miracle.

The whale obliged, swimming down
to the foundation stone,
the navel of creation
fixed deep beneath the land.
Tsk tsk, chided the fish:
you're beneath God's temple --
you should pray.

Prayer requires stillness.
Running away had always been
so easy. Sitting silent
in self-judgement -- forget it!
But waves only churn the surface.
In the deep beneath the deep
Jonah was wholly present.

We all flee
from uncomfortable conversations
the drip of a hospital IV
the truths we don't want to own
the work we don't want to do.
Now we're in the belly of the whale,
someplace deep and strange.

God calls us to awareness:
to stand our ground
in the place where we are,
to do the work which needs doing.
To bring kindness and mercy
even to those who are unlike us.
Are we listening?


Sitting with what we can't know: on "who will live and who will die"

UnetanehThis morning I was asked a question about the Unetaneh Tokef prayer which we pray on Rosh Hashanah. How do we make sense of "on Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed" when something truly awful happens? For instance: a teenager is killed, God forbid, in a horrific accident. How can we reconcile our horror at this kind of trauma with a sense of a loving God? What does it mean to assert that God "seals" such a fate for us? Let me say upfront that I don't have "the" answer. But here is an answer.

Earlier in that same prayer, we read "You open the Book of Memory. It reads from itself and the signature of every human being is in it." That line says to me that we're not talking about God as some kind of cosmic accountant, taking note of each action and selecting a corresponding fate. (This isn't Santa Claus, who "knows when we've been bad or good so be good for goodness' sake!") The Book of Memory is something we each write for ourselves.

Every action I take inscribes itself in the Book of Memory. I inscribe and seal my signature in that book with every thing I do, and every thing I don't do; every kind word I speak, and every unkind thought I harbor. God doesn't write the Book of Memory for us: we write it ourselves, and at this season of the year, it "reads from itself" -- or, to use a more modern metaphor, at this season of the year, we sit down and watch the television show of our own lives.

Later in that same prayer, we read "But teshuvah (repentance or re/turn, turning toward God), tefilah (prayer / self-examination), and tzedakah (righteous giving) avert the harshness of the decree." The prayer doesn't make the claim that these three things can change what's going to happen; but they can ameliorate it. They can sweeten it. They can soften it. If, God forbid, someone I love is going to get sick and die this year -- no amount of teshuvah, tefilah, or tzedakah on my part or on theirs will change that reality. Our cells do what they do; our bodies do what they do; and sometimes we cannot be medically made well again. Or if, God forbid, a teenager on her bicycle is struck by a car -- no amount of repentance, prayer, or righteous giving can change that shattered reality for her or for her family who remain to mourn. But teshuvah, tefilah, tzedakah can change how we experience the reality which is. They can change our experience of the world. 

Continue reading "Sitting with what we can't know: on "who will live and who will die"" »

Waiting for us to come home

In lieu of a sermon last night, I shared a handful of Rosh Hashanah poems. One of them is brand-new, and here it is. It is inspired by (or perhaps is a remix / adaptation of) Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig's sermon God is a Woman and She Is Growing Older.


Waiting for us to come home


God sits in her kitchen
with her gnarled hands folded.
She doesn't needlepoint much anymore.
She's waiting for us to knock.
We always forget the door is already open.

God remembers when each of us was born.
God remembers when creation was born.
Closing Her eyes and touching that place
deep inside, the swirling void
within which all life was grown.

God remembers every child She has lost.
God remembers every time
one of us has been unkind. Each night
she lights memorial candles across the heavens,
our souls remembered across the sky.

God wants to say: it's okay that you didn't write.
It's okay that you didn't call.
You stayed away because you didn't want
to disappoint Me. You could never disappoint Me.
Do you know that I still love you?

God sings lullabies to us, rocking us
even though we don't think we fit in her lap any more.
We blink and old mama God is transformed.
Her creaky kitchen chair is a throne,
her house dress an ermine robe.

How often do we sit here in shul
reciting prayers we didn't write, signing postcards
and dropping them in the mailbox
instead of coming home? God is waiting
for us to come home.

Creating Community (A sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning)

For the building will be constructed from various parts, and the truth of the light of the world will be built from various dimensions, from various approaches, for these and those are the words of the living God... It is the precisely the multiplicity of opinions which derive from variegated souls and backgrounds which enriches wisdom and brings about its enlargement.

That's Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, known colloquially as Rav Kook. Let me say part of that again:

For the building will be constructed from various parts, and the truth of the light of the world will be built from various dimensions, from various approaches, for these and those are the words of the living God...

We might reasonably ask: what is Rav Kook talking about here? What is "the building"?

Often in Jewish tradition when we hear reference to a building, especially when it sounds like it might be a Building-With-A-Capital-B, the text is speaking of the Temple. The first Temple was built in Jerusalem in 957 BCE, and was sacked by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The second Temple was begun some fifty years later; it was sacked by the Romans in the year 70 (C.E).

But Rav Kook is speaking in the future tense, about something which will be built. He might mean the Third Temple -- for which, I should note, the Reform movement officially does not yearn! But the idea of a rebuilt Temple implies a time when the work of perfecting creation will be complete; the messianic era. Perhaps that's what he's speaking of. Perhaps he means Olam ha-ba, the World to Come.

But I don't think he has to be speaking about a literal construction project at all. I think he's talking about Jewish community.

Continue reading "Creating Community (A sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning)" »

#BlogElul 29: Return | an #Elul poem about #teshuvah, and thoughts on returning



How to make it new:
each year the same missing
of the same marks,
the same petitions
and apologies.

We were impatient, unkind.
We let ego rule the day
and forgot to be thankful.
We allowed our fears
to distance us.

But every year
the ascent through Elul
does its magic,
shakes old bitterness
from our hands and hearts.

We sit awake, itemizing
ways we want to change.
We try not to mind
that this year’s list
looks just like last.

The conversation gets
easier as we limber up.
Soon we can stretch farther
than we ever imagined.
We breathe deeper.

By the time we reach the top
we’ve forgotten
how nervous we were
that repeating the climb
wasn’t worth the work.

Creation gleams before us.
The view from here matters
not because it’s different
from last year
but because we are

and the way to reach God
is one breath at a time,
one step, one word,
every second a chance
to reorient, repeat, return.

Blogelul2013This poem was written in 2005, and served as my Elul card that year. (You can find all of the Elul / New Year's poems I've written over the years at the page VR New Year's Poems.) It seemed an apt way to close out my experience of blogging #blogElul this year.

Every year during this season we focus on our work of teshuvah, of turning and re-turning to orient ourselves toward God. As one of my favorite prayers of the season goes, "Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul." (The melody I know is by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, z"l; I'm not sure whether or not he also wrote the words.) "Return to who you are, return to what you are, return to where you are born and reborn again..."

Every year we reorient, repeat, return. Every year the work is the same because it is human nature to need to make teshuvah: daily, weekly, monthly, annually. We are always human, we are always missing the mark, we are always needing to return. Every year the work is different because we are different. We bring this year's version of our selves to the work at hand.

I wish you every blessing in the continuing work of teshuvah, of returning to our Source, returning to God, turning yourself around again so that you can feel in your heart and know in your mind that you are on the right path again. May we all be blessed to return to where we need to be.

Happy Rosh Hashanah, everyone. May your new year be joyous and sweet.

(Revised) Prayer for Syria

Pretty much every rabbi I know is either working on a sermon about Syria, or wondering whether we ought to be frantically scrapping an existing Rosh Hashanah sermon in order to preach about Syria, or reading voraciously to try to cultivate an informed opinion about Syria and whether the United States should intervene (or whether, perhaps, the US should have intervened eighteen months ago but has now missed its window.)

Here's a slightly different tack. I've spent some time today revising a prayer which I posted here just over a year ago. This revision is intended to be prayed aloud. In my community we'll be reciting this prayer toward the end of Rosh Hashanah services, alongside our Prayer for Israel and Prayer for Our Country. If this speaks to you, you're most welcome to use it; I ask only that you keep my name attached so that people know where it came from.

A version of this prayer / poem will appear in my forthcoming collection of Jewish liturgical poetry.

Prayer for Syria

Shekhinah, in Whose womb creation is nurtured:
when your children are slaughtered you weep.

Bring peace beneath Your fierce embrace
to Syria. Let a new image of the world be born

in which American Jews pray for Syrians, who pray
for Israelis, who pray for Palestinians, who pray

even for American Jews. Fill the hearts
of the insurgents with Your compassion

so that when the regime comes to its end
no one seeks the harsh justice of retaliation.

Awaken conscience in the Syrian government
and spark their dormant mercy. And for us:

help us to wield our power in service of good
and strengthen our resolve not to turn away.

We bless You, Source of Mercy. Bring wholeness
to this broken creation. And let us say: Amen.

#BlogElul 28: Give


To make a present of:
I give my son a toy.
To place in the hands of:
please give me the challah.

Give in. Give away.
Give off. Give back.
To accord or yield
something to someone else.

From the Old Norse.
From proto-Germanic.
From Proto-Indo-European:
"to take, hold, have..."

I give you my word.
I give all I have to give.
Accord, allow, hand over,
provide, present, vouchsafe.

Antonyms: deny, refuse,
take, withhold, keep,
neglect, receive.
That last seems wrong.

God gives; we receive.
These aren't opposites:
they're a two-sided coin.
Giving and receiving

we open up our hands.
We give to each other
blessing and forgiveness
now and forever.

The lines "Giving and receiving, we open up our hands" come from Rabbi Hanna Tiferet's beautiful Grace After Meals, V'achalta v'savata u-verachta. The various definitions of "give" come from assorted thesauri.

#BlogElul 27: Intend


Does intent matter?

My inclination is to say yes, intent matters a lot. If someone steps on my foot by accident, that's different from doing so maliciously and on purpose. If someone tramples on my emotions by accident, that's different from doing so maliciously and on purpose. In this mode of thinking, I am pretty squarely aligned with Jewish tradition. In Judaism, intentions do matter.

An example: it's a mitzvah (a connective-commandment) to make a blessing over what one eats. If I make the blessing borei pri ha-etz ("blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being, creator of the fruit of the tree") over an apple and then eat the apple, then I'm done. If, fifteen minutes later, I decide I'm hungry for a pear too, then I make the blessing again.

However -- if when I made the blessing the first time, I had the intention of eating both fruits, then the blessing "counts" for both and I don't need to repeat it. (My gratitude for this nifty example is due to the author of the post Jewish Treats: Intentions Matter.) When it comes to saying blessings, intent matters.

The same goes for saying prayers. Saying a prayer with whole intention (usually known in Hebrew as kavanah) is a transformative act. Merely reciting words without intention isn't the same at all. The ideal is to carry out a mitzvah -- whether one of prayer, or ritual, or interpersonal interaction -- while holding on to the intent that the mitzvah should take place for the sake of good and for the sake of God.  If one walks past a synagogue on the first of Tishri and happens to hear the shofar, but didn't realize it was Rosh Hashanah and doesn't listen to the sound with intention, does it "count" as having fulfilled the mitzvah of hearing shofar? The tradition's dominant answer is: nope, that doesn't count. In order to fulfill a mitzvah, you have to do it with intent. (For more on this: Kavvanah & Intention | My Jewish Learning.)

It's the season of teshuvah, repentance and return. When I think of  teshuvah and intention, I think: how do intent and intention impact our need to make teshuvah? And here's where I get back to the idea with which I started this post -- that intentions matter. If I have every intention of lighting Shabbat candles, but I get sick and I can't drag myself out of bed to do the lighting: nu, that's a missing-of-the-mark, but not a big one. If I don't give a damn about lighting Shabbat candles or creating Shabbat consciousness, and that's why I don't bother to light -- that missing-of-the-mark has a different valance, a different feel. It's the difference between failing someone accidentally, and failing them because you can't be bothered to care about the relationship at all.

If I aspire -- if I intend -- to lead a life filled with mitzvot, a life of connection and consciousness, then that intention will shape my days and my choices. I'll still miss the mark, because that's inevitable! But if my intentions are good, then my mis-steps won't be so terrible. This does not mean that one can intentionally sin and then aim to make teshuvah later -- e.g. "I'll ignore this person in need, because I don't feel like being compassionate, but later I'll make up for it." Or "I'm going to say something mean, because I'm feeling spiteful toward this person, but next week I'll make teshuvah and it will be as though it never happened." That's not how it works. We don't get to intentionally sin, promising to get around to teshuvah later. That's a kind of intentional manipulation of the system, and it doesn't actually work most of the time. (That teaching comes from Talmud, Yoma 85b.)

We're called to have the best of intentions, and then to live up to them as best we can... knowing that we'll fall short of our own expectations sometimes, but not letting ourselves off the hook in advance. And -- no matter how good our intentions, we also have to keep the needs of others in mind, and not trample on others in pursuit of our own ends. One could argue that it doesn't matter how good my intentions are; if I stomp on your foot, it hurts you, whether or not I meant to cause pain. Intent matters -- but consequences matter too. The needs of others matter too. For me the first step is always intending not to hurt anyone; intending to do the right thing; intending to be kind and compassionate, to lead a life of mitzvot and connection, always. But I also need to be mindful that I may hurt someone else without intending to do so, and when that's pointed out to me, I need to apologize to the person I have hurt, even if I didn't intend to cause any harm.

This year's new year's poem

This is the Elul card / approaching-new-years' card which my family sent to friends and loved ones this year. I'm sending it now to each of you. May your transition into the new year be sweet!

At three and a half, your glee
at stomping on a sand castle
is as vast as your desolation
when another kid won't share.

At thirty-eight, I seek
good novels and vinho verde
instead of chocolate-chip cookies
and Dora cartoons --

though when an email angers me            
I seethe just like you do.
But if I've carved grooves
of gratitude on the soft sand

of my heart, my tempests drain.
I can calm my own sea.
The sages of the Talmud say
if we teach you Torah

and how to make a living
and how to swim
then our work here is done.
I want to give you the Torah

of curiosity and kindness,
of noticing beauty everywhere.
The life's work of saying thanks
even for what shakes you.

The skill to navigate
your own turbulent waters,
to take deep breaths, to wake
into new reasons for gratitude.


לשנה טובה תכתבו ותחתמו!

May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

With love, Rachel, Ethan, and Drew


(All of my previous years' Elul poems / new year's poems are archived here: VR New Year's Poems, 2003-present)

#BlogElul 26: Hope


I live in hope. I always hope that a better world is possible; that we can change and grow; that we can make better decisions tomorrow than we made yesterday. I always hope that peace is possible, even in the most entrenched conflicts. I always hope for something better than what we know now.

In classical Jewish tradition there's a strong strain of messianic hope. Today different branches of Judaism speak in different terms -- the days of moshiach, the messianic age, that day to come when all of our broken places will be restored -- but although our framing language differs, our hope is the same. Hope for a world redeemed. Hope for healing. Hope for something better than what we know now.

I hope that humanity is on a trajectory toward wisdom and compassion and that we can each do our small part to help humanity along that path. In the words of the reverend Martin Luther King, z"l (quoting earlier minister Theodore Parker), "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." Or at least -- I believe that we can bend it toward justice. It's not an automatic trajectory; it's not as though, having started in this direction, we're inevitably going to reach the finish line.

(I'm also not always convinced that there is a finish line -- I think this may be more of an asymptotic curve, in which we we strive to move ever closer to redemption and wholeness, and what matters isn't whether we "get there" but how we choose to act along the way.)

But I hope that we can make choices in our individual lives -- and in the aggregate, through the leaders we choose and the policies we support -- to nudge humanity away from fear and a zero-sum mentality, and toward love and kindness and a consciousness of abundance in the world. There is plenty of everything we need in this world, if we can only learn how to share. It's human nature for those who have, to want to have more; and for those who don't have, to yearn to have. But there has to be a better way than what we've known in the world so far. And that's where hope comes in. Logic might argue that humanity will always behave as humanity has always behaved -- in ways which are generally self-centered. But I choose to hope for better.

I don't know that my hope actually makes a difference in the world at large. But it makes a difference to me. If I live in hope -- that those who are unkind will learn to be kind; that those who are unjust will learn to be just -- then I can face the world every morning with gratitude and welcoming. And that in turn enables me to do my own small part to make my hopes come true.