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Duality within: on Toldot

The children grappled with each other inside her, and she thought to herself, if this is so, why do I exist? So she went to ask that of Adonai.

And God said to her: two nations are inside you; / two will branch off from each other, as they emerge from your womb. / One shall prevail over the other; the elder, serve the younger." (Genesis 25:22-24)

DualityOn the surface this appears to be a text about Rebecca and the twins battling in her womb. But the Torah is also a map for our own spiritual development, which means that this is also a text about each of us.

Our sages teach that each person has two inclinations or urges: the yetzer hatov (good inclination) and the yetzer hara (evil inclination.) This is inherent in our nature as human beings.

[Remember that, for our sages, the yetzer hara is an integral part of creation. In midrash we read that when the sages imprisoned the yetzer hara in a cage for three days, no eggs were laid throughout the land. Which is to say: without the yetzer hara, there's no generative impulse.]

But the yetzer hara can also lead us in bad directions. Sometimes when we pause to do the work of discernment, we discover that we're not acting out of a place that's elevated or useful; instead we're acting out of selfishness or fear or anger. One who makes such a discovery about themselves might offer the same existential cry that Rebecca did: "if this is so, then why am I here?" Why am I even alive in this world, if I'm not living out the best self I can be? What's the point?

But we can engage in practices which strengthen our yetzer hatov, our good inclination. We can be mindful and attentive to that within us which is driven by our bad impulse, and with our attention and energy can transform the bad into good. As it says in Psalms, "Turn bad into good." Increase your ability to take the yetzer hara which is within you, and invert or transform it into yetzer hatov.

When you do this, your yetzer hara will surrender and your yetzer hatov will emerge triumphant. And then it will be possible for you to really serve the Holy Blessed One, even with those aspects of yourself which feel linked to your yetzer hara.

(Gently adapted from the Degel Machaneh Efraim, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov.)

This will be the Torah study text at my shul this Shabbat after our contemplative service, and I'll bring along some questions to hopefully spark our conversation. But I think this is one which merits thinking about for more than just one morning, so I'm sharing it here too. I welcome any responses y'all have to offer.

The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary American Jewish Poetry (including mine!)

BloomsburyanthI could not be more delighted to be able to share the news that I have two poems in The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, edited by Deborah Ager and M.E. Silverman. Here's a glimpse of how the book describes itself: "With works by over 100 poets, The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry celebrates contemporary writers, born after World War II, who write about Jewish themes. // This anthology brings together poets whose writings offer fascinating insight into Jewish cultural and religious identity[.]" I am tremendously honored to be one of them!

Within these pages, we invite you to consider, explore, and reflect upon what shapes the heart of Jewish American poems that both celebrate Jewish traditions and honor the human spirit. In this book, we wanted to share distinctly Jewish American voices, which include second-generation Jews, converts, those on the path to conversion, secular Jews, a rabbi, those who've made Aliyah, and others. We included poems that both do and do not focus on Jewish themes, and we did that to convey the breadth and depth of Jewish personhood. With this book, we do not attempt to answer what it means to be Jewish in a time when so many follow a secular life. We seek to answer how the long history of Judaism expresses itself in the daily lives of the artists represented within these pages, and the poems do that on their own.

So write the editors in their "Invitation to the reader."

My work is included in these pages alongside work by many writers whom I have long admired -- Ellen Bass; Richard Chess, the former poetry editor at Zeek magazine; Lucille Lang Day; Julie R. Enszer; Amy Gerstler; Jane Hirschfield; Joy Ladin, whose (prose) work I've reviewed here before; my friend and teacher David Lehman (under whose tutelage I spent that grad school semester studying Jewish American literature of a variety of stripes, culminating in an attempt to define for myself what makes Jewish literature Jewish); Yehoshua November, whose work I've reviewed for Zeek; my teacher Jason Shinder, may his memory be a blessing; Matthew Zapruder; Rachel Zucker; and many more.

It's a gorgeous, broad, deep collection and I'm really happy that two of my poems -- "Eating the Apple" (which appears in Waiting to Unfold, Phoenicia 2013) and "Command (Tzav)" (which appears in 70 faces: Torah poems, Phoenicia 2011) -- are included. I'm further honored to be one of the voices in the "Further Reflections: Commentary on Jewish American Poetry" section at the end of the volume.

Deep thanks to the editors for including me and to the press for putting out such a beautiful volume. I know I'll be reading and rereading it for a long time to come.

Buy the anthology from the press ($29.95) | or from Amazon ($28.45) | or from Powell's ($36.75)

Judith Sarah Schmidt's deep Torah poetry for this week's portion, Toldot

Longing_for_the__521e13a4f08a2In 2003, as I approached my seventieth birthday, I decided to be bat torah. The Torah portion I received to live with for that year was Toldot: Generations. I spent the year deep in study, reading many sources that informed me and inspired me. This study was absorbed into my midrashic meditations on the portion...

The "voices" of Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Esau contained in these pages are the voices I have heard as I lived, this past year, with the Torah portion of Toldot. I have not only turned it and turned it; more often than not, it has turned and turned me. Our Torah opens ancestral doors through which I find them and also find myself in them and through them.

That's Judith Sarah Schmidt in the introduction to her book Longing for the Blessing: Midrashic Voices from Toldot, published by Time Being Books.

I spent a few years writing weekly Torah poems (the best of which -- and a full cycle of which -- are collected in my book 70 faces: Torah poems, Phoenicia 2011.) But my practice involved writing one poem each week during that week's parsha. I would live with the parsha and its commentaries and my responses to both for one week, and then I would move on, as our Torah reading cycle moves on. I am moved (and more than a little bit awed) by Schmidt's deep year-long journey into this one Torah portion.

The book is divided into sections: "Toldot, My Generations: Canaan," "Hearing the Voice of Jacob / Yaakov," " Hearing the Voice of Esau," "Hearing the Voice of Rebecca / Rifka," "My Generations: Boibrke, Poland," and "Midrashic Musings on Angels and Blessings." The Poland section features her midrashic explorations of her own toldot, generations; the final section is a long d'var Torah offered on her 70th birthday, in which she describes her journey and then shares perspectives on each of these Biblical characters and how she has come to find herself in them and to find them in herself.

Continue reading "Judith Sarah Schmidt's deep Torah poetry for this week's portion, Toldot" »

Looking at the prayer for evening in a new light

EveningI still remember the moment when I opened up my pocket Koren siddur (prayerbook) for the first time. It had been assigned to us by Rabbi Sami Barth, who was teaching my ALEPH rabbinic program class on the liturgy of weekday and Shabbat. He wanted all of us to own that siddur, it turned out, both because it's a good solid standard one to own and daven with -- and also because in that siddur, many of the prayers which are actually poetry are laid out on the page as poetry. Given that my background (before I came to the rabbinate) is in poetry, that was exactly the right thing to say to me to get me (even more) excited about studying liturgy!

That conversation was on my mind when I planned the monthly class I'm teaching in my community this fall and winter: a class on the poetry of Jewish liturgical prayer. Prayer as poetry; prayers as poetry; the poetry of our standard prayers as they've come down to us, both in Hebrew and in various English renderings and translations; and also poetry which doubles as prayer, especially if and when it works with the same ideas and themes as the classical material. It is probably no secret to anyone in my community that I floated this idea for a class because this is totally my idea of a good time. Last Friday that ad hoc group met for the first time, and it was such a joy for me, I can't even tell you.

The prayer I'd chosen for our focus was the ma'ariv aravim prayer, the prayer which speaks to / about God Who brings on (or, one might say, evens out) the evenings.  I'd brought a handful of texts with me: the traditional prayer in Hebrew (along with translation and transliteration), an excerpt from an article about the ways in which this prayer works with language, a contemporary singable variation on the prayer by Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael, a prose reinterpretation of the prayer from a Reconstructionist prayerbook, and then two poems: one by Jane Kenyon (not explicitly liturgical) and a recent one by me (intended as a variation on this prayer's language and themes.) I'll share those same materials, along with a few observations, below.

Continue reading "Looking at the prayer for evening in a new light" »

Susan Katz Miller's Being Both

BeingbothI've just finished Susan Katz Miller's Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. This is a book which pushed some of my buttons, nudged against some of my boundaries, and left me with a lot to ponder. Miller writes:

"[T]he majority of American children with Jewish heritage now have Christian heritage as well. In other words, children are now more likely to be born into interfaith families than into families with two Jewish parents. And Jewish institutions are just beginning to grapple with that fact. // Some Jewish leaders still call intermarriage the 'silent Holocaust.'... [But] many now call for greater acceptance of Jewish intermarriage in the face of this demographic reality."

Given the flurry of communal response to the recent Pew study A Portrait of Jewish Americans (my response, in brief, is Opportunity Knocks in Pew Results; I also recommend Rabbi Art Green's From Pew Will Come Forth Torah) this book could hardly be more timely.

It's no surprise that an increasing number of Jewish children have dual-heritage backgrounds. What is surprising in this book is right upfront in the title: this book articulates the perspective that all paths open to interfaith families are legitimate ones, including rearing children "as both." Here's Miller again:

"Some of us are audacious enough to believe that raising children with both religions is actually good for the Jews (and good for the Christians[.]) ...The children in these pages have grown up to be Christians who are uncommonly knowledgeable about and comfortable with Jews, or Jews who are adept at working with and understanding Christians. Or they continue to claim both religions and serve as bridges between the two. I see all of those possible outcomes as positive."

Conventional wisdom in the American Jewish community has long been that rearing children as "both" will inevitably lead to confused or rootless children, and to assimilation and to the disappearance of the Jewish people as a whole. My anecdotal sense is that American Christian responses to intermarriage have been different from Jewish ones, though there are asymmetries which shape those different responses.

Christianity has roots in Judaism, so it's fairly easy for Christians to consider Jews as spiritual "family." For Jews, relationships with Christianity are often fraught. I joke that the Christian scriptures are the "unauthorized sequel" to our holy text, which usually gets a laugh from Jewish audiences, though there's truth to the quip; there are times when Christian reinterpretation of Jewish text and practice can feel like cultural appropriation. It's also easier for a majority culture to welcome minority outsiders than for a minority culture to welcome members of the powerful majority. For those of us in minority religious traditions, there's historically been an instinct to stay insular -- for reasons I wholly understand, although I don't always like the results.

What this means in practice is often that the Christian side of the family, or the Christian community writ large, is welcoming of an intermarried couple; the Jewish side of the family, or the Jewish community writ large, can be less so. (Though that's changing, which I applaud. For instance, the congregation which I serve openly seeks to welcome interfaith families.) Regardless, when children are born to an interfaith couple there tends to be an insistence that they choose one tradition in which to rear those kids. This book offers a different perspective. Miller writes:

The vast majority of books on intermarriage have focused on the challenges of interfaith life. While I am well aware of these challenges, in this book I set out to tell a different side of the story: how celebrating two religions can enrich and strengthen families, and how dual-faith education can benefit children.... I think being both may contribute to what the mystical Jewish tradition of Kabbalah calls tikkun olam -- healing the world.

Being both might contribute to tikkun olam: now there's a chutzpahdik assertion.

Continue reading "Susan Katz Miller's Being Both" »

Emulating Rebecca

71In this week's parsha (Chayei Sarah), Avraham sends his servant Eliezer forth to find a wife for Isaac. He offers little instruction aside from " go back to where I came from, and get a wife from there."

Eliezer -- whose name means something like "My God is my helpmeet" -- turns to God for help. He prays that God will help him find the right woman for Isaac. He says to God that when he stops at a well, if there is a woman who offers water not only to him but also to his camels, he will know that she's "the one."

Sure enough, when he stops at the well, Rebecca offers water not only to him but to his beasts, too. And he takes her back to Isaac, and they marry -- the first time in the Hebrew Bible that we read that a man loved his wife.

Giving water to a wayfaring stranger in a desert land is the bare minimum of hospitality. But offering to water a train of camels too -- that's a major undertaking.

Rebecca goes above and beyond. In her physical acts at that well, she draws on her own internal well of compassion and kindness to meet this travel-bedraggled stranger with kindness and compassion.

How can we be like Rebecca as this Shabbat approaches -- cultivating the habit of drawing forth compassion from the wellspring of our hearts, so that our natural response to everyone we meet is one of kindness and welcoming?

This is more-or-less the teaching I offered this morning at my shul's meditation minyan. The image comes from the Vienna Genesis, a 6th-century illuminated manuscript. Shabbat shalom!

These are things which have no limit

Things which have no limit        in this world or the next:
a parent's tender worry            cartoons in syndication

the world glinting and shattered        hot tea to soothe our sorrows
sunrise following on the heels        of dawn, which follows night

the eggshell blue of autumn sky        this grief: another gun death
the rise and fall of breathing        clock hands ticking forward

two brothers meeting at a grave        their eyes rimmed red from weeping
the silence in between the words        of every mourner's kaddish

the need for simple kindness        on the subway platform
on the broken sidewalk        on the email list-serv

your hand in mine now, warming        my heart cracked clean and opened
the heavens glistening with stars        waves running and returning      

This poem was inspired obliquely by a lot of different things, among them the passage "these are things which have no limit" which is part of our morning liturgy; news of another school shooting; this week's Torah portion, Chayei Sarah; Hannah Szenes' poem "Eli Eli (halicha l'Caesarea)." (That link goes to a gorgeous Regina Spektor recording of the song in Hebrew; an English translation reads, "My God, my God, I pray that these things never end: the sand and the sea, the rush of the waters, the crash of the heavens, the prayer of the heart.")

Maintaining hope in the face of depression

Depression-loss_of_loved_oneSomeone asked me recently how to maintain hope when depression is dogging one's heels.

The first thing I want to say is: no matter how isolating depression feels, you are not alone. Others have been where you are. We recognize the terrain and we recognize the tricks that depression plays on you -- the ways it makes you feel existentially solitary, disconnected, broken. We recognize, too, the way that depression tries to preserve itself. How it murmurs into your ear that nothing will ever be different -- that this is what life is and you will never feel any other way. It is lying to you.

There is help, and I urge you to take it. If you are in therapy, call your therapist. (If you're not in therapy and want a referral, ask someone local to you -- your rabbi or someone you trust.) If you are in spiritual direction, call your spiritual director. (If you're not in spiritual direction but want to explore that possibility, here's one way of finding a spiritual director; you might also reach out to one of my teachers for a referral.) Consider antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication; know that there is no "weakness" in not being able to bootstrap yourself out of depression.

Extend kindness to yourself in whatever ways you can. Try to eat well. Try to get enough sleep. For me, a hot shower and a cup of good tea are always restorative. (So is good hand lotion. I know, it sounds silly, but it really does help.) Walking outside in the fresh air sometimes helps too. Take advantage of whatever small things you can do to make yourself feel better, even if the feeling-better is only temporary. Lather, rinse, repeat. Our sages famously listed things which "have no limit" -- and though self-care isn't on their classical list, it's definitely on mine.

Recognize that depression may at times be disabling, and give yourself ample credit for any goal you set which you are able to achieve. Sometimes just getting out of bed in the morning may feel like you're trying to climb Everest from inside an iron lung. And -- this seems extra-unfair -- bear in mind that sometimes depression brings with it a kind of emotional paralysis which makes asking for help almost impossible. The depression may whisper to you that no one wants to hear from you when you're "like this" or that there's no point in seeking help. Let me say again: it is lying to you.

I heard Rabbi Jeff Roth teach years ago that if one reaches the hour for reciting the modah ani prayer for gratitude in the morning, but finds oneself unable to access the gratitude with which one wishes to invest the prayer, one can say the prayer with the intention of someday being able to feel gratitude again. I know that there are days when gratitude feels impossible to reach. I know that there are days when it feels implausible to even hope for better. On those days, know that people who love you are willing and able to hold on to that hope for you even if you can't reach it yourself.

You who are struggling with this right now: I am holding you in my prayers. If you can't believe that you will ever feel better, don't beat yourself up for that. That's not a failing on your part: it's something the depression has stripped from you. But I believe that this isn't all there is, and I believe that you will reach a better place again. If you can't believe that right now, it's okay -- I'll hold on to that belief for you until you're able to hold it for yourself again. You are loved by an unending love: not only when you are healthy, but also when you are sick; not only when you are optimistic, but also when you feel the way you feel now.

May you find comfort, speedily and soon.


Image source: wikimedia commons.


On death and land: thoughts on Chayei Sarah

2699245754_23369359aa_nIn the first line of this week's Torah portion (Chayei Sarah) the matriarch Sarah dies, and Avraham negotiates to buy a burial place for her: the cave of Machpelah in what is now Hebron. Our first record of ownership of any of the land of Canaan is thus the purchase of a cemetery plot. Land ownership, death, and permanence seem to be linked: while alive, Sarah wandered the land, but now that she is dead, she is fixed in place. When we die, our lives become fixed as though in amber. Whatever stories were told about us while we lived -- those stories calcify like the fossils in the seabed of our ancient seas.

By the end of the portion, Avraham too dies, and his two sons -- Isaac born to Sarah, and Ishmael born to Hagar -- bury him in the same cave where he had buried Sarah. This parsha begins and ends with death. All roads in this portion lead to the cave, the tomb, the entrance into the earth. Maybe in their father's death the two half-brothers are able, however temporarily, to reconcile... or maybe Avraham's absence just heightens their alienation from each other, the ways in which they remember the same stories from childhood through different lenses, trauma in one brother's memory transmuted in the other brother's mind into rosy-hued comfort.

Reading this Torah portion now, I can't help thinking about the modern-day city of Hebron, which I visited several years ago and hope to visit again next year. I think about the continuing tensions between the spiritual descendents of Isaac and the spiritual descendants of Ishmael, and how those tensions have played out at the very site (more or less) which our two traditions hold to be Abraham's burial-place -- from the Cave of the Patriarchs Massacre to recent tensions in the South Hebron Hills. And then I think about initiatives like Project Hayei Sarah ("A group of rabbinical students, rabbis, Jewish educators & lay-leaders who have spent time in Hebron and are grappling with the difficult realities we encountered there") and this week's Christian Science Monitor story Why rabbis are helping Palestinians with olive harvests, and I wonder whether projects like those offer threads of hope to which we can cling.

The dead don't fight over who promised what to whom, but we, the living -- we contend bitterly over who has the right version of the truth. This is true on the microcosmic level of an individual family's narratives, and it's true on the macrocosmic level of the descendants of Abraham / Ibrahim -- the vast family narrative of which our traditions tell us we are a part. Every year as we return to parashat Chayei Sarah, I reread the story of my teacher Reb Zalman among the Sufis of Hebron, and I wish that more of us could meet others -- and Others, those whom our stories and our perspectives cast as being different from us -- the way that my teachers have taught me to try to do. What would it take to bring life to our relationships with our cousins from the line of Ishmael -- to say that our interactions don't have to be calcified like the ossified remains of our ancestors, but can instead be alive to growth and change, filled with connection and possibility?


Previous years' divrei Torah on this portion:

Photo source (Tomb of Abraham mosaic): my flickr stream.

Prayer/poem for autumn nightfall


Autumn Nightfall


You mix the watercolors of the evening
like my son, swishing his brush
until the waters are black with paint.
The sky is streaked and dimming.

The sun wheels over the horizon
like a glowing penny falling into its slot.
Day is spent, and in its place: the changing moon,
the spatterdash of stars across the sky's expanse.

Every evening we tell ourselves the old story:
You cover over our sins, forgiveness
like a fleece blanket tucked around our ears.
When we cry out, You will hear.

Soothe my fear of life without enough light.
Rock me to sleep in the deepening dark.

This coming Friday I'll be teaching the first of a series of monthly classes on the poetry of Jewish liturgical prayer at the coffee shop in my town. (The class is free and open to all.) We'll begin by looking at one of my favorite Hebrew prayers which is also a poem: the ma'ariv aravim blessing for God Who brings on (or "evens") the evenings. Once we've spent some time with the poetry of the prayer itself, we'll also look at some adaptations and some other poems on similar themes, ranging from Rabbi Rayzel Raphael's "Evening the Evenings" to Jane Kenyon's "Let Evening Come" to this new poem of my own.

The final lines are a reference to the prelude to evening prayer, v'hu rachum, a pair of lines from Psalm 78 and from psalm 20. As Elliott Dorff notes (in My People's Prayer Book Vol. 9: Welcoming the Night), "The evening liturgy begins by acknowledging human vulnerability occasioned by nighttime darkness. God, we are assured, will save us from potential dangers. God will protect us from what we fear." As the parent of a young child who is afraid of the dark, I find these lines particularly resonant now. And, of course, many adults who no longer fear the dark still fear the onset of winter's long darkness.

Photo source: my flickr stream.

Forgiving our ancestors: a practice for Vayera

  Forgive1In this week's parsha we encounter some of our tradition's most compelling -- and most complicated -- family stories. Here are the angelic beings announcing the upcoming conception of Isaac; Sarah's jealousy, and the casting-out of Hagar and Ishmael; Avraham arguing to try to save the people of Sodom; and the akedah, the Binding of Isaac.

This year as we return to this story I'm moved by the sense that this week's parsha offers us an opportunity to do the work of forgiveness.

What would it feel like to forgive Avraham for his role in our family story -- for his willingness to argue with God to save strangers but not to save his own sons; for his admirable hospitality to strangers matched with his willingness to allow Hagar and Ishmael to be cast into the desert? What would it feel like to forgive Sarah for her role in our family story -- for her desperation to have a child, for her jealousy of her handmaiden and of that handmaiden's son? What would it feel like to forgive Isaac for being, at least on the surface of the text, a silent victim who doesn't try to save himself?

Does it seem strange to imagine extending forgiveness to these ancient Biblical forebears? I believe that there are ways in which their choices -- the things they said, and the things they didn't say; their actions, and their inactions -- continue to reverberate in the family story we share.

Part of the reason why reading Genesis is so compelling is that its themes -- including spousal jealousy, sibling competition, and parental favoritism -- are still unfolding in our world. What would it feel like to forgive our more immediate ancestors (parents, grandparents, great-grandparents) for the places where they missed the mark? To recognize the dynamics of our own family systems and to meet those dynamics not with anger but with kindness and compassion?

Today's practice, for those who are so inclined, is a practice of forgiveness. Inhaling, we address our own hearts: Heart! And exhaling, we make a request: Forgive. Heart, forgive. Heart, forgive.

What arises in us as we try to cultivate forgiveness for the flawed people in our family story?


This post is a written adaptation of a practice I offered aloud at this morning's meditation minyan at my shul. The accompanying image is from here, artist unknown.  For a more nuanced look at questions of forgiveness, try my post #BlogElul 13: Forgive.

Previous years' commentary on this week's Torah portion:

Firmanent / Tearing


 "And God said, let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters." -- Genesis 1:6


Our sages teach: read not "firmanent"
but "rupture." Swap two sounds
in the original Hebrew
and the vastness of the sky's expanse
becomes the primal tearing
at creation's birth, God wounded.

Our stories teach: all the waters
wanted to be in the realms above
until God, angered, crooked His finger
and the fabric of the cosmos tore.
This dissent is why Torah doesn't say
God saw that it was good.

Only the second day of existence
and God wore that ripped scrap of gabardine
which speaks mourning: "as our lives
are torn, we perform this act of keria..."
God divided the waters of birth
from all our sea-salt tears to come.

Every birth is also a death: the end
of the life that used to be.
Every separation is also a rupture.
Read not "good" but "God:" God saw
that creation was constantly changing
just like its creator, dividing and torn.

This poem arises out of this week's material in Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's Heavenly Torah. Heschel writes:

Regarding the waters: On the second day of creation, the Holy and Blessed One said: "let there be an expanse (raki'a) in the midst of the water, that it may separate water from water. God made the expanse and it separated the water that was below the expanse from the water which was above the expanse" (Genesis 1:6-7). "God said to the waters: divide yourselves into two halves; one haf shall go up, and the other half shall go down; but the waters presumptuously all went upward. Said to them the Holy and Blessed One: I told you that only half should go upward, and all of you went upward?! Said the waters: We shall not descend! Thus did they brazenly confront their Creator... What did the Holy and Blessed One do? God extended His little finger, and they tore into two parts, and God took half of them down against their will. Thus it is written, 'God said, let there be an expanse (raki'a) -- do not read 'expanse, but 'tear' (keri'a)." (Midrash Konen, Otzar Midrashim, p. 254)

In a footnote, translator and editor Rabbi Gordon Tucker adds:

The Hebrew keri'a is an anagram of raki'a. This is quite an impressive midrash, coming from the early medieval collection known as Midrash Konen. This passage makes obvous analogies between God's creation and human birth. Both involve waters breaking, both involve pain and a tear. The tear in the waters was necessary to create space in which life could develop, and the tear of birth is necesary for the baby to begin an independent life. Keri'a is the rite for the dead, when Jewish law requires the tearing of clothing. The message then is twofold: the tear of death is just the continuation of the tear of birth. Both are necessary for life to continue, and we are powerless to change that. The other message is that God is as much bound by these truths as we are. God also could not create without a day of division and tearing, and thus we and God are both in need of comfort and strength in the wake of the cruelties of nature.

It's a tremendous chapter. My poem is offered in humble homage.

Photo taken at South Padre Island.

Dip into the Storehouse; let your creativity run free!

Earlier this month I put up a post at the Best American Poetry blog called Collaboration and remix, in which I aimed to explore some of the new and exciting things happening online where poetry is concerned: creative collaborations, the flowering of remix culture (in which one artist might respond to or riff off of another artist's work, perhaps in the same artistic genre and perhaps in a different one), videopoetry and so on. Behind the scenes, some conversations bubbled up. And today -- thanks to Nic Sebastian and other collaborators -- the Poetry Storehouse is launched -- a new edited / moderated archive of poems available (under an attribution / noncommercial Creative Commons license) for creative use, re-use, remix, transformation, etc.

Here's a glimpse of what it says on the "About" page:

StorehouseThe Poetry Storehouse is an effort to promote new forms and delivery methods for page-poetry by creating a repository of freely-available high-quality contemporary poetry for those multimedia collaborative artists who may sometimes be stymied in their work by copyright and other restrictions.

Technology has not just connected people and poetry and poets and artists who weren’t connected to each other before, it has also changed both the face and the delivery of poetry itself. Poems locked up in hard-copy print editions only available for sale are struggling in new and serious ways, while poems delivered in multiple creative ways online have new leases on life and are reaching an ever-widening audience.

We believe that creative energy, like physical energy, is never created from scratch, nor does it ever die, but continually morphs from form to form as each of us is inspired by what has gone before us and in turn inspire what comes after us.

A handful of poets (me included) have submitted our work to seed the new archive. (Here are my submitted poems -- and I'm chuffed to be able to announce that Nic Sebastian has already created a transformative work; she's recorded one of my poems, "Lunaria Annua," and it's delightful to hear it given life in someone else's voice and intonations!) If you're an artist looking for poetry to play with, the storehouse contains poems ready for use in visual art or music or video or whatever your genre may be -- and if you're a poet interested in being part of this great collaboration, you can submit your work for consideration by the Poetry Storehouse editorial team.

Also don't miss the Sample Remixes section of the site, which features links to some incredibly cool work already.

Some of Montreal's small pleasures

A latte the size of my head (okay, not really, but it comes in a bowl, which I can't help but admire):

Interesting graffiti (a form of art which I've photographed in this city before, though not this specific piece of it):

Windows filled with fascinating treasure:

An old car with beautiful wheels (look at the wooden spokes!)

An impromptu picnic in the park with dear friends:

I'm grateful to have had the chance to spend a couple of days in this city -- and to share poems from Waiting to Unfold alongside stories of parenthood and spirituality, poems from 70 faces alongside a sermon.

(I'm home now. Thanks, Montreal, for a lovely time!)

On gratitude and thanks: a sermon for the UU community of Montreal

This is the sermon I offered this morning at the Unitarian Church of Montreal. Thanks so much for welcoming me, UU community of Montreal!

Il_fullxfull.364236236_kx72On Gratitude and Thanks

מֹודה אֲנִי לְפָנֶיָך, מֶלְֶך חַי וְַקּיָם, ׁשֶהֶחֱזְַרּתָ ּבִי נִׁשְמָתִי ּבְחֶמְלָה. ַרּבָה אֱמּונָתֶָך!

"I give thanks before You, living and enduring God.
You have restored my soul to me.
Great is Your faithfulness!"

This prayer is part of Jewish morning liturgy. It's in our prayerbook, and is often recited at the beginning of communal morning worship -- though in its most original context, it's meant to be recited before we even make it to synagogue in the morning. Modah ani is something we're meant to say upon waking up, first thing.

Some of you may have grown up reciting the 18th-century classic "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep" before bed. That prayer has its roots in the Jewish custom of the bedtime Shema. Before bed, we say a prayer reminding ourselves that we place our souls in God's keeping while we are asleep. And when we wake again in the morning -- and, mirabile dictu, we're alive again! -- we offer this prayer of gratitude. Thank You, God, for giving my soul back to me! Great is Your faithfulness!

I'm often struck by that line. "Great is Your faithfulness." Often we think of faith -- in Hebrew, אמונה –– as something we're meant to have. We have faith in God. But in this prayer, it's the other way around. God is the one with emunah. God has faith in us.

There's something very powerful for me about asserting that, first thing in the morning. Today is a new day, rich with possibility. I am awaken and alive; I am a soul, embodied. And, my tradition teaches, God has faith in me and in what my day might contain.

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Illustrated travelogue

When I left home it was a beautiful afternoon:

I decided to take route 43 all the way to the Northway, and it was stunning:

I caught sight of Albany from a distance as I drove by:

The Adirondacks were pretty glorious, too:

But then the hills went away, and as soon as I crossed the border the fields were sere and flat:

And by the end of the day I was safely ensconced with friends, making Shabbat creatively with a tealight and a Montreal bagel!

Unify our hearts

92fd4b_dcab2ba869a873df4b2e9ea442f81d70.jpg_srz_1600_1200_85_22_0.50_1.20_0וְיַחֵד לְבָבֵנוּ לְאַהֲבָה וּלְיִרְאָה אֶת שְׁמֶךָ.
V’yached l’vavenu, l’ahavah u-l’yirah et sh’mecha.
Unify our hearts in love and awe of Your name!

Unify our hearts. Perhaps that means the hearts of each of us in this room. Or the hearts of each of us in our community around the world. Unify our hearts, make our hearts beat as one.

In love and awe. Or, some would translate, love and fear. These are the two paths, the two doorways into serving God. Ahavah, love, is sometimes connected with chesed, lovingkindness which overflows. Yir'ah, awe, is sometimes connected with gevurah, boundaries which restrain.

There's a Hasidic teaching which says that awe and love are two wings, and that when they beat together, that's what lifts our prayers up to God. Another Hasidic teaching holds that most people come to serving God through the path of fear and awe, fear of judgement and of falling-short, but that the path of love is the higher one.

Another way to understand this verse is: unify the disparate parts of each human heart. Unify the love in our hearts and the awe in our hearts. Help us to bring together our awe -- our radical amazement, our awareness of our own insignificance in the vast span of the cosmos! -- with our love.

A practice. Breathing in, we inhale awe. We inhale amazement. We inhale that sense that compared with God, compared with the universe, compared with the vast sweep of human history we are but specks of dust. And breathing out, we exhale love. We exhale compassion. We cultivate love for those around us, for those we meet, for those whom we know and those whom we don't know. Breathing in: awe. Breathing out: love.

Unify our hearts in the love and awe of Your Name.


This is a written (slightly expanded) version of a teaching I shared during my shul's meditation minyan this morning. See also Rabbi Shefa Gold's teaching and chant Unifying the heart.

The image illustrating this post is calligraphy by soferet Julie Seltzer and features the words for love and awe, which, she notes, are intertwined and can be read either horizontally or vertically.

Book events across the border!

WaitingToUnfold-smallThis morning, after I lead meditation at my synagogue, I'll pack my things and get ready to head up the Northway and across the border.

If you are in or near Montreal, I hope you'll join me for one or the other (or both!) of these two author events -- first a conversation (leavened with poetry) about parenthood and spiritual life at the Anglican Cathedral on Saturday afternoon at 1pm, and then a service at the Unitarian Church of Montreal on Sunday morning where I'll be sharing some poems and also the morning's sermon.

My wonderful publisher, Phoenicia, is based in Montreal -- hence the decision to head up there. 70FacesSmallThis was initially conceived as more of a book launch weekend last spring, but timing and scheduling and parenthood and logistics were difficult to resolve... so we postponed until autumn, after the Days of Awe were complete. Which is now!

I'm looking really forward to the trip. I've been to Montreal several times before -- as a high school student on a French class trip (a big deal, coming all the way from south Texas!), for a mini-honeymoon right after our wedding, for a gathering with far-flung blogger friends, for a poetry reading and panel discussion when 70 faces first came out.

Every time I'm fortunate enough to visit, I experience a slightly different facet of the city -- which I was initially going to call beautiful and unique, though it occurs to me that those words are so banal as to be almost meaningless; surely every city is beautiful and unique, seen through the right eyes. But Montreal really is both of those things, and I'm looking forward to dipping into it again.

See y'all on the other side!

Rick Black's Star of David

Star-of-David-by-Rick-Black-200x300I had the good fortune to be asked to contribute a "blurb" for Rick Black's beautiful new poetry chapbook Star of David, winner of the 2012 Poetica Magazine Contemporary Jewish Writing Chapbook Contest, published by Poetica Magazine and distributed by Turtle Light Press, 2013. My paper copy of the book just arrived in my mailbox, and I am so glad to have it.

When asked for a blurb, I replied:

This slim volume wrestles with the angels of our history and brings forth a new name. It's located, in its own words, "at the intersection / of grief and solace[.]" Black understands that his grandfather's prayer book is a box of portkeys to farflung destinations of history and spirit; that when his daughter pushes the empty swings, she is rocking the dead to gentle sleep. Who among us could fail to identify with the poet who wants to sing of horseradish, of toy frogs, of dancing with his daughter until they fall down -- but not of slavery or of the Egyptians drowning in the sea? Black practices observance -- not walking to shul on Saturdays, but noticing the countless wonders of this real and complicated world. We are blessed to be able to see our world through his eyes.

(Only part of that quote appears on the book's webpage, but I wanted to share it here in full, because it's still a fine reflection of how I see the collection.)

I have several favorite poems in the collection, which tells you something about its quality. Two of my favorites are on facing pages: "Hands" and "Observance." In "Hands," we hear the voice of someone who watches people walking by with strollers and tallit bags, clearly on their way to shul, but who prefers to remain in the garden nurturing what he has sowed, "Hunched over / in torn jeans and invisible phylacteries[.]" And "Observance" is so lovely that I'll reproduce it here in full:


I am not observant
I do not walk to shul or refrain
from cooking on Shabbat.

But I do practice
as often as possible:

watching geese
descend on their wings
into the river,

listening to a red-bellied
woodpecker lunatic
in my backyard

and inhaling the fragrance
of wild lilac
along a forest path.

I've shared Rick's work here before -- I reprinted his poem "Bougainvillea" in the 2002 post Two poems from Before There Is Nowhere to Stand. I admire his willingness to confront that which is unbelievably painful, as he does in "Bougainvillea" -- or, for that matter, as in the first poem of this chapbook, which describes in exquisite language an encounter with a yellow fabric star reading Jude. He wrestles with suffering and emerges with prayer, as in the chapbook's final poem, "Kaddish:" "Even when I am not reciting kaddish, / even when I protest against it, / I am still reciting kaddish."

Star of David costs $15 and can be purchased at the distributor's website. I recommend it.

Becoming Avraham: on names and transformation in Lech-Lecha

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, "I am El Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be blameless. I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous."

Abram threw himself on his face; and God spoke to him further, "As for Me, this is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations. And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations. (Genesis 17:1-5; parashat Lech Lecha.)

AvrahamMany years ago, a dear friend set out to read the Bible because she felt -- I think rightly -- that it had had a tremendous influence on English-language literature. She chose the King James version, both because she felt it had had the most impact on English lit and because she doesn't speak Hebrew. As she began to work her way through Genesis, and came to this passage, she asked me: what's this name change about? What does it mean?

Most simply, the change from Avram to Avraham involves the addition of one letter: ה, the "h" sound. (We pronounce the name of this letter as heh or hei.) Sarai's name is also changed this week, in a similar way: the י at the end of the name Sarai is changed to the ה at the end of Sarah.

The letter ה is one of our ways of denoting God. ה' means HaShem, "The Name," e.g. the Holy One of Blessing. Some sources in our tradition read the added ה as a symbol of God's presence. Avram becomes Avraham; Sarai becomes Sarah; in both cases, the added letter signifies God. Other sources relate the letter ה to breath (certainly that is how the letter sounds when vocalized), and -- remembering that God breathed the breath of life into the first human only a few weeks ago in our narrative -- see the added ה as a sign of divine spirit.

A change in name can signal a change in destiny. Avraham and Sarah aren't the only ones in Torah to receive new names from God; later in our story we'll encounter Jacob, "the Heel" (his name comes from the word for heel, as he grabbed his twin brother's heel in the womb to ensure that he himself would be born first -- and sure enough, Jacob is kind of a heel as the English colloquial usage would have it!) who wrestles with an angel and becomes Yisrael, "Wrestles-With-God."

An interesting note: the Torah tells us that God said to Avram "Your name shall be Avraham," but of Sarai God says "her name is Sarah." Not "shall be," but already is. We read in Talmud:

Rabbi Huna said, quoting Rabbi Acha: The letter yud which was removed from Sarai's name was divided into two letters; one hei was added to Abram and the other to Sarah." (Talmud Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 2:6)

Remember that in Hebrew, numbers and letters are the same thing. The letter י equals the number 10; the letter ה equals the number 5. According to this reading, the 10 in Sarai's name was removed and broken into two 5s, two הs; one ה was attached to each name. In this reading, it was Sarai's deep spirituality which was divided and shared between the two of them -- or perhaps her spirituality which made it possible for both of them to experience this added gift of spirit and awareness.

The Zohar offers a different interpretation. Zohar teaches that the ה -- meaning 5 -- represents the 5 books of Moses, e.g. the Torah. As a prooftext, the Zohar offers a creative re-reading of Genesis 2:4:

"These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created [in Hebrew, "beheibaram"] in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens." He made them with [the letter] hei /ה.

The Zohar deconstructs the word "beheibaram" ("when they were created") into b' (which means "with") hei ("the letter ה") baram ("they were created.") The simple surface meaning of "when they were created" is re-interpreted into "The heavens and the earth were created with ה." Remember that the letter ה, which can also mean 5, represents Torah -- so this teaches us that (in the Zohar's opinion) the whole of creation was created by means of the Torah. That's what Avram and Sarai inherited at this moment of blessing and name change: they inherited Torah, which in a deep mystical sense is the blueprint for all of creation.

Jewish tradition places deep importance on names. There's an old saying that when parents name our children, we experience a  frisson of prophecy, since in giving a child a name we create some of that child's destiny. And you've probably heard of (and perhaps even experienced) the old custom of changing someone's name if they are very ill. The folk tradition says it's to fool the Angel of Death, but I think it also has to do with a deep and inchoate sense that when someone's name changes, new possibilities are opened up. (I have many friends in Jewish Renewal who have changed their names, or taken on second Hebrew names, at moments of great personal transformation in their lives for this reason.)

It's worth noting that in the passage I quoted at the start of this d'var Torah, God introduces God's-self as El Shaddai. (Remember that God has many names in Jewish tradition -- even just in the Torah itself.) This name can be understood to be related to the Hebrew root which means breasts, so it can be read as a name of divine mothering and compassion. Can we imagine that in the ה which our ancestors received here was some of that motherly compassion and kindness?

At the start of this week's portion, God commands Avram "Lech-lecha" -- go you forth, or as many of us translate it, go forth into yourself. Maybe it's only once Avram has gone forth into himself -- once he has done the inner work of self-discovery and discernment -- that he becomes ready to receive the changed name which implies a deeper awareness of God's presence, a deeper connection to spirit and soul, a deeper connection to motherly kindness and compassion, a deeper connection to Torah... which he can then pass down to all of us. Kein yehi ratzon, may it be so!

Previous years' commentaries on Lech-Lecha: