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Ten favorite poems from 2013

A couple of days ago I posted links to my ten favorite prose posts of the (secular) year now ending. Today I'm sharing links to my ten favorite poems which I posted here this year. They're shared chronologically, starting with a sestina written early in the year, moving through poems about parenting, Shabbat, hope, funerals, the book of Jonah, Sukkot, theology and grief, the coming of evening, and ending with a poem I shared recently about the longest night of the year.

Thanks for reading! I wish you joy as we transition into 2014. See you on the other side.


Sestina for a three-year-old - "You can turn anything into a car. / Drive your bread across the bright / expanse of table, look to see/ whether I'm watching, if I'll say no. / Tell me you can do it, you are big/ enough, you know you are three."

Right here, right now - " Powered by an everlasting generator / until bedtime when you shove your fists / into your eyes. Curl beside the giant tiger. / Playgrounds are miraculous. So are trains..."

Saturday afternoon request - " Help me to silence  / my mind's aggravation alarm, / to quiet the voice which says / the to-do list matters, / to temporarily eschew / continuous partial attention..."

Affirmation - " Even when factories explode, / when gun deaths rise / like flood waters, // when long-held prejudices / prove impossible to dislodge, / when there's no way around // admitting that what hurts / isn't going away..."

Funeral after Tisha b'Av - "The windshield wipers sway from side to side / like whip-thin Hasidim shuckeling in prayer. // I traverse Silver and Old Orebed, roads named / after gashes in the flesh of the earth..."

We are Jonah - "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."

Decoration - " 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..."

Firmanent / Tearing - " 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.."

Autumn nightfall - "You mix the watercolors of the evening / like my son, swishing his brush / until the waters are black with paint..."

The longest night - "We wrest what gifts we can / from the dying days..."



Top ten prose posts of 2013

WordleFor the last several years, I've taken the time at the end of the (secular / Gregorian calendar) year to reread what I've written here, and chosen ten favorite posts as a retrospective of where the year took me. Here are my prose picks from 2013; in a couple of days I'll share links to my ten favorite poems of the year, too. Enjoy!


In which Drew blesses me with peace (after a fashion). "First we play peekaboo with the candles. I cover my eyes, Drew covers his, and we peek at each other and grin. I sing the blessing over the Shabbat candles, sometimes rushing a little bit when Drew imperiously tells me to stop singing now..."

Rabbis Without Borders: Who is your Torah for? "My Torah is for anyone who is thirsty. Anyone who's thirsty for connection, for community, for God. Anyone who wants to make their lives holy or to become more conscious of the holiness in the everyday. Anyone who wants access to the rich toolbox of Jewish wisdom and traditions and ideas which I am blessed to have as my yerusha, my inheritance..."

Dear you, who are feeling sad and afraid --. "A wise friend told me, earlier this week, that her grandmother used to say that the painful things will always pass. I like that way of seeing the world. Yes: the hurt will pass, and things will get better. Though sometimes it's hard to trust that that's true..."

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

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

A delicious mikveh before Shabbat...and a few surprises. "We break into groups of two and three so that each woman can be witnessed by one or two holy spirit sisters as she dunks. We begin sharing quietly with our sisters what we wish to release on our immersions, what we want to wash away (spiritually speaking) in order to greet the Shabbat Bride with a whole and joyful heart. // And then two police cars pull up, lights flashing."

#BlogElul 13: Forgive. "I have a memory from my chaplaincy training at Albany Medical Center. I was sitting with my colleagues, a mixed group of ten clergy and laypeople from a wide variety of traditions, and we were exploring together the question of how to extend pastoral care to someone who had done something terrible. Is it our job, as clergy, to extend forgiveness? What if the patient is near death; does that change anything for us? What if the person to whom we are ministering has done something we feel is unforgivable?"

Susan Katz Miller's Being Both. "An increasing number of Americans are tinkering with religious identity in ways which aren't one-size-fits-all. This might mean bridging or changing within the big tent of a single tradition (e.g. a Jewish family which changes affiliation from one stream of Judaism to another) or across different traditions (as in any interfaith marriage.) Countless Jews and Christians maintain meditation or mindfulness practices, even if they don't self-identify as Buddhists. Religious categories have become more permeable than they used to be. And, as Rabbi Kula notes, this shift brings with it both some loss, and the potential for a 'richer and better world.'..."

On the silencing of Dinah, and rape culture today. "Throughout this narrative, Dinah never speaks once. Her voice is entirely absent from the black fire of our text."

Carving new grooves on heart and mind. "It's always surprising to me -- though it probably shouldn't be -- how easily the mind becomes accustomed to a thought pattern, and gets stuck there. Our repeated thoughts carve grooves on the soft clay of our consciousness, and soon a thought process goes from occasional to regular to habitual..."


Image source: a wordle word cloud made from the text in this post, which highlights the most frequently-repeated words.

Open hearts, open minds, open Hillel

LogoThe Swarthmore chapter of Hillel made headlines recently for declaring itself an "open Hillel," open to diversity of opinion on Israel. They have linked themselves with Open Hillel, a student-run campagn to encourage inclusivity and open discourse at campus Hillels. Open Hillel seeks to change the standards for partnership in Hillel International's guidelines, which exclude certain groups from Hillel based on their views on Israel.

When I was an undergraduate, I attended a small liberal arts college which didn't formally have a Hillel, though we did have a Jewish religious center and student group on campus. I attended Shabbat services there regularly -- until differences of opinion, both ritual and political, drove me to seek my spiritual self-expression through unofficial channels instead. (After that, the Williams College Feminist Seder was my primary mode of communal engagement.) If my student organization had been the kind of "open Hillel" which Swarthmore's organization aspires to become, I might have stayed engaged all the way through.

Here's how the Open Hillel folks describe their position:

Hillel International's current guidelines are counterproductive to creating real conversations about Israel on campus. They prevent campus Hillels from inviting co-sponsorship or dialogue with Palestinians, as almost all Palestinian campus groups support the boycott of, divestment from, and sanctions against Israel. They also exclude certain Jewish groups, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, from the Hillel community. Although individual campus Hillels are not obligated to follow the guidelines, they have been used to pressure Hillels into shutting down open discourse on Israel...

We believe deeply in the ideal, expressed in Hillel International's mission statement, of a vibrant, pluralistic Jewish community on campus, in which all people, regardless of their religious observance, past Jewish experience, or personal beliefs, are welcome. In many ways, Hillel has been remarkably successful at fostering such a pluralistic and inclusive community, bringing together students from different backgrounds to learn from and support one another, as well as to openly debate and discuss their differing views. We believe that this pluralism should be extended to the subject of Israel, and that no Jewish group should be excluded from the community for its political views.

This is very much in line with my own hopes for the post-collegiate Jewish community. I've written before about how frustrating I find it when members of the Jewish community police the speech of other Jews on this issue. (See Wishing for a different communal discourse, 2012.) My Judaism is a pluralistic, inclusive, big-tent Judaism where we interact respectfully and kindly despite our differences -- whether they are denominational, liturgical, practical, or political. Spiritually speaking, I resonate with the haggadah's call "let all who are hungry, come and eat" -- it doesn't say "let all who are Democrats," or "let all who are Republicans," or "let all who support AIPAC" (or JStreet or Jewish Voice for Peace) come and eat.

No one should have to leave part of themselves behind in order to merit a seat at the table. No one should be excluded from the Jewish community because of what they believe -- including their stances on Israel/Palestine. Beyond that, what message do we send when we seek to control the conversation about Israel? What are we afraid of -- that someone might say something with which we don't agree? It seems to me that the correct answer to speech with which one disagrees is not silencing that speech, but rather adding more speech to broaden and enrich the conversation. That's precisely what the Open Hillel movement aims to do.

I know that there are Jewish college students who do not identify as Zionists, or whose relationship with Israel is complicated, or who want to have conversations about targeted BDS (boycotting settlement-made goods.) I want those students to be part of the fabric of Jewish community, not to feel that they have to leave the Jewish community behind in order to ask their questions or articulate their truths. And I know that there are college students whose viewpoints on Israel / Palestine are profoundly Zionist, and I want those students to be part of the fabric of the community, too! (I'm not convinced that those students have as difficult a time safely speaking their truths as do those on the Jewish far left, but that's another conversation.) My point is, I want the Jewish community to be diverse enough to welcome kids with many different opinions, and to include them intentionally and with care.

Tightly guarding the boundaries of who's "in" and who's "out," and policing which opinions are permissible and which are taboo, comes out of old-paradigm thinking. I think that old paradigm has outlived its usefulness. College students today are increasingly aware of intersectionality, of the ways in which different social justice issues and different forms of oppression intersect and interact. Our world is increasingly permeable and interconnected, and so too our Jewish community. A Jewish community which seeks to control the conversation about Israel / Palestine is not going to be vibrant or relevant in this century.

I believe that the Jewish community (like all communities) is strengthened by discussion and debate, as long as that debate is l'shem shamayim, "for the sake of Heaven" rather than for the sake of ego or self-aggrandizement. We should be able to create a container which can safely hold our differences, even our differences on Israel. But I know how difficult it can be to create that container -- and also to be the person who feels excluded from that container and therefore unwelcome within the community, or only welcome if one keeps part of oneself silent and hidden. How wonderful it would be if our campus Jewish communities could model this kind of inclusivity for the rest of the Jewish world. Kol hakavod to Swarthmore Hillel. May others follow!

Also worth reading: my colleague Rabbi Brant Rosen's post On Open Hillel, Open Debate, and Open Minds.

Moses, love, and light (a d'var Torah for Shemot)

Big-bang-theory-3172Here's the d'var Torah for parashat Shemot which I offered at my shul yesteray morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

Talmud teaches (Sotah 12a) that when Moses was born, the house was filled with light. In this week's Torah portion we read that Moses' mother saw that he was good, and in Genesis 1 we read that God saw that the light was good. The same phrase is used to describe both Moses and that primordial light.

Remember that at the beginning of the Torah, God says let there be light, and there is light, and God sees that it is good -- and only some days later does God create sun, moon, and stars.

The light of the first day of creation is not literal light. It is the light of wisdom and insight. The light of love. Today we sang "For with You is the source of light" -- not talking about the sun and moon, but about that primordial light.

In the kabbalistic understanding, that primordial light shines from ein-sof, "without-end," the most infinite, transcendent, ungraspable aspect of God. Using the scientific paradigm, we might call it the light of the Big Bang, still emanating into our expanding universe. Or using Hasidic language, we could call it the light of God's yearning for us.

I love the teaching that God birthed the universe in order to be in relationship. Before there was creation, there was only God; but that was lonely. So God pulled back to make space for something which was not-God, and in that space, creation came into being.

In today's parsha we read about Yocheved birthing Moses. When we bring children into our lives, we too have to pull back to make space for something which is not us. We make room for relationship. It takes intention and awareness to respond to our children as Yocheved did -- to recognize and nurture the light in them.

If you've ever practiced yoga, you may have heard the greeting "namaste," which means "the light in me greets the light in you." The light in me greets the light in you. Maybe that's a glimpse of the first light that God called good, shining within each of us.

Yocheved, mother of Moses, hides him for as long as she can. When she can no longer keep his light under a bushel, she places him in a wicker basket and sets it afloat on the Nile -- the very river in which Pharaoh had commanded that all Hebrew boy-children be drowned.

But instead of the waters of drowning, these are waters of redemption. As his sister Miriam the prophet watches from afar, the daughter of Pharaoh finds him there. Immediately Miriam rushes to her side and offers to hire a Hebrew wet-nurse...which means that Yocheved is able to continue nursing her own child.

For our sages, the love of a mother for her child was symbolized by the act of nursing. And our love is a reflection of God's love, which is also likened to nursing! More than the calf wants to suckle, says the Talmud, the cow yearns to give milk. More than we desire God's blessing, God yearns to bestow blessing upon us. God yearns to bestow love. God yearns to bestow light.

Much later in our story, when Moses comes down from Sinai, Torah teaches that he had to veil himself because he was shining with divine light. His encounter with God was so profound that he came away glowing. Have you ever had an experience of such profound wonder and joy that you came away glowing? That's primordial light, shining through you.

On this Shabbat, may our eyes be opened to see the light in each other. And may our hearts be opened to receive the flow of love and light which God yearns to bestow.


Image: an artist's rendering of the Big Bang, from here.

A poem for the winter solstice


for Phyllis and Michael Sommer

We all tell ourselves stories
about grief to come.
Anticipating the dark
we think, how can I live
without the sun I turn toward?
We wrest what gifts we can
from the dying days.
One morning we wake
and the doorway we most dreaded
is behind us.
The ice may not recede
for months to come
but day by day
may there be more light.


As I wrote this poem, I was thinking about the way I brace myself for the long dark nights of winter. Even in high midsummer (maybe especially then), some part of me thinks, "how can we possibly survive with so little light?"

I was thinking about lessons I keep re-learning, about how the anticipation of something scary or painful can sometimes tie me in worse knots than the thing itself when it arrives.

And because I wrote the poem this week, while they were sitting shiva, I was also thinking about R' Phyllis Sommer and R' Michael Sommer, and their children, especially their son Superman Sam (zichrono livracha), whose light shone so very bright. May the increasing (physical) light of the coming days be mirrored with spiritual light to bring comfort to their bruised hearts.



For those who are interested: this year's September equinox poem and this year's June solstice poem.


I'm reading in bed when I hear a cry from your room. I put down my book, tilt my head, and hold perfectly still -- as though any of those would help me hear. When the cry comes again, I head toward it. "Hey, hey, honey, I'm here, what's the matter?"

You are sitting up in your bed, face tear-streaked, worried that it's too late at night and we've missed our chance to do something you really want to do tomorrow. I reassure you that it's okay, we haven't missed anything, it's time to sleep now, we'll do that thing after we wake up. "After this day," you confirm. "Then it will be Wednesday?" I tell you you've got it exactly right, and with a sigh you burrow into my shoulder.

We rock a while in the gliding rocker. You are heavy and warm against my chest and across my lap. I can feel your breathing.

We don't do this very often anymore. My arms don't fit snugly around you the way they used to. You're folded over me like a blanket. To think that you were once the newborn with whom I rocked so many endless hours -- it seems almost impossible, except that I've seen your transformation from then to now.

I am grateful that rocking in my arms still brings you comfort.

I know that someday you will have worries I can't solve with a kiss and a cuddle.

Or -- I hope that you will have those worries. Does that sound strange? What I mean is, I hope and pray that I will have the gift and privilege of supporting you as you navigate growing up, even though growing up will mean that you'll have problems I can't fix. I know there's no guarantee that anyone gets as much time as they dream of. I can't hold you, kiss you, stroke your hair this week without remembering that I have friends who are right now grieving the loss of a child only a few years older than you.

I wish I could bottle up the comfort you find now in my arms, and save it to give to you later in life when a hug from Mom won't have this same magic. I wish I could bottle up the comfort you find in my arms and share it with everyone who needs comfort tonight, including -- especially -- my friends who mourn.

I ask if you're ready for bed, and you nod. "Will you carry me?" I promise you that nothing would make me happier. You're giggling as I deposit you on your bed and tuck your Thomas blanket around your shoulders.

I am so glad to be able to carry you. I will always be carrying you.

Two versions of a short winter poem

11421455995_92fa9d96ce_bEIGHT LINES OF WINTER, I

Snow drops a scrim over the lake,
softens every outline.
The roads become sepia-tone
caked with dirt and salt.
Behind glass, a small white cat
watches flutters of grey and black
juncos and chickadees
at their perennial cocktail party.



Snow drops a clouded scrim,
softens every outline.
The roads become sepia-tone.
Snow drops a clouded scrim
on flutters of grey and black
at their perennial cocktail party.
Snow drops. A clouded scrim
softens every outline.

I haven't posted a new poem here in a while. As part of an ongoing effort to be better at self-care (not always the easiest thing for mothers or for clergy), I'm trying to take Tuesdays as self-care days -- which for me often means poetry-writing days.

I have two versions of this one on my desk right now. I can't decide which I prefer. The first has more specifics ("caked with dirt and salt," "juncos and chickadees.") The second works with a known poetic form (the triolet, though mine has neither rhyme nor meter.) Do you like one better than the other?


Image source: my flickr stream.

Returning to the hospital which saved my life

History_07I don't remember when I first learned the story of my birth. As long as I can remember, I've known that I was born ten weeks early, weighing 3 lbs 1 oz, in a hospital which had no neonatal unit; that I was rushed across town in an ambulance and lost half of my birth weight before I made it to the neonatal unit at Santa Rosa; that I spent six weeks in an incubator because I had hyaline membrane disease, a terrifying diagnosis because it had recently taken the life of Patrick Bouvier Kennedy.

I knew in a distant intellectual way that many premature babies born as early as I was didn't survive. I remember taking penicillin every day until I was about six, when suddenly tests showed that I had developed surfactant, to everyone's surprise. (Developmental insufficiency of surfactant, and underdeveloped lungs, are among the problems of hyaline membrane disease, now called infant respiratory distress syndrome.) But as a kid I took my own survival for granted, as I think most children do.

It wasn't until my nine months of clinical pastoral education, in my first year of rabbinic school, that I started to understand just how scary my birth must have been for my parents. One of the places where I made the rounds, at the hospital where I served as a student chaplain, was the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). There I saw impossibly tiny babies, babies whom one could hold (as my father had always reminisced) in the palms of cupped hands. Babies struggling for vitality. And I saw their parents, by their sides, hoping and praying and yearning for their babies to thrive until they were healthy enough to bring home. When I could, I ministered to those parents. Sometimes I told them that I myself had been one of those NICU babies. I think -- I hope -- that they took some comfort from that.

While I was in San Antonio visiting family last week, my childhood pediatrician took me to visit the NICU at the hospital which saved my life. As a kid I knew Dr. Wayne as the tall man with the gentle voice who took care of me when I was sick (which was fairly frequent -- perhaps a legacy of my premature birth.) He used to give me tongue depressors on which I could draw puppets. Now I know that since then he's had a broad and illustrious career which includes teaching medical students, serving as an administrator for Christus Santa Rosa Children's Hospital, and being honored there with the creation of the Richard S. Wayne Distinguished Chair for Pediatric Cardiology. And he was gracious enough to take the time to give me a tour of the NICU which once saved my life.

RawImageDr. Wayne began by showing me photographs from the early days of the hospital, starting with the three Catholic Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word who began caring for the sick there in 1859. (My favorite photos were from the 1920s: the doctors with bushy mustaches and white coats, the nuns standing in the background of the operating room in their dark habits, and of course no one was gloved or masked because that wasn't yet the norm.)

Then we went to the place which had been the NICU in 1975 -- a small squarish room, now a storage room filled with disused hospital beds. (On some walls, remnants of yellow duckling wallpaper remain, a faded imprint of the room's former life.) He showed me where the neonatal cribs had been. I could see how little space had been available for anyone else in the room; parents couldn't stay with their kids, there was no place for them to be. He told me about what they had at their disposal back then, much of it retrofitted adult medical equipment.

And then he showed me today's NICU at Santa Rosa, with its brightly-colored floor cemicircles denoting each two-crib "pod," the headwalls filled with places to plug in monitors and medicine-dispensing pumps, gentle lighting for the babies' comfort, floors and ceilings designed to mute the busy hospital's sounds. To my amazement, we met someone on the neonatal transport team who's been working there for 41 years, and when told my birth year and situation, remembered me! We walked slowly around the unit, and as we passed different babies, Dr. Wayne stopped to chat with their caregivers or to remark quietly to me about some detail of their situation and their care.

Visiting the modern NICU moved me deeply. I saw tiny babies: some resting in their specialized cribs; some cradled in nurses' arms, in the wooden gliding rockers which sit alongside each crib, taking bottles; some attached to specialized preemie ventilators. Dr. Wayne showed me some of the equipment they use in truly dire cases, including cases where they have to mechanically bypass both heart and lungs. (That's extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, and the Santa Rosa NICU is one of the places where this procedure is done with neonates.) We visited the pediatric intensive care unit, too (where I thought, with quiet grief, of Superman Sam and his family as they move into hospice mode). Everywhere we visited, I was struck, as always, by the kind and gentle caring of the pediatric nursing staff.

When I was a student chaplain, I was married but had not yet taken the leap into parenthood. My chaplaincy colleagues told me that having a child would be a profound theological education. And they were right. Many of the poems in Waiting to Unfold reflect how becoming a mother has changed my sense of God. As I toured the NICU and PICU at Santa Rosa, I found myself thinking not only about God's limitless compassion, but also God's limitless grief when Her children suffer. I suspect that ministering to pediatric patients and their families would challenge me in a new way now that we have a child. It would be all too easy to project my own fears of loss and grief onto the parents and children in need of care.

The modern NICU at Santa Rosa is gorgeous -- and as the hospital is reconstructed in its new form, it's going to be replaced by a new NICU which will be light years ahead of this one, as this one was light years ahead of the one I once inhabited.  (For more: see Children’s Hospital of San Antonio to work with Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children's Hospital to elevate pediatric care in San Antonio, about Santa Rosa's plans to collaborate on a new facility.) But before that renovation takes place, I'm grateful for the opportunity to walk through these halls and to offer silent prayers for healing for the babies who are growing there now -- and to offer my spoken words of immeasurable gratitude to those who every day do the work of keeping kids like me alive.


Black and white image: NICU "isolette" from 1984, nine years after my NICU years, from a history of the March of Dimes. Second image: from an Express-News article about the Santa Rosa NICU.


This week's portion: deathbed blessings, deathbed curses

Jacob+Blesses+SonsIn this week's portion, Vayechi, we begin with the death of Jacob and end with the death of Joseph. Jacob blesses Joseph's sons with sweet words, and then he offers parting words to all of his own sons. Some of those parting words are more like curses than like blessings. What must it have been like to be one of the sons who received stinging rebuke from his dying father?

I'm reminded of my beloved grandfather who became sometimes anxious and paranoid as he neared death. He could easily become convinced of terrible things (for instance, that another family member was making a pass at his wife) and at this times he made accusations which we all knew weren't true.

When those episodes arose, all we could do was gently try to reassure him that he was mistaken, and shower him with love, and forgive him the things he had said. We knew that the man he had been when he was fully alert would never have said those things. No one held those moments against him. I've seen this with others, as well. A woman grows old and begins to lose track of things and, frantic, accuses her daughters of stealing her silver. Or her caregivers. Or a spouse who is long-gone...

When Jacob spoke harshly to some of his sons as he lay dying, was he fully aware that these would be his last words to them -- that this anger was what they would remember of their father when he was gone? Were his assessments of his sons accurate, in that moment of extremis? (For instance, his accusation that Reuven had "mounted his bed," which is to say, had made a pass at Jacob's wife?) Granted, some of the sons may have deserved his harshness -- I'm thinking of Simeon and Levi, who chose to slaughter the entire tribe of Shechem in the story of Dinah. But even if the angry words were deserved, was this really the time to speak them? I wonder what was the impact of these words on those men as their father prepared to die.

Reading Vayechi this year, I wonder what it would take for us to forgive Jacob / Israel for his flaws and his errors. He played favorites with his sons, as his father and grandfather had done before him. And given the opportunity to say goodbye to his sons and to give all of them a final blessing, words of hope for the lives they may yet lead, he doesn't speak with compassion to all of his sons. How might it change this story for us if we imagine Jacob, at that moment, as not-entirely-tethered to reality -- like those we have known who have been prone to flights of paranoia in their elder years? How might we change our own stories of how we relate to those we love who are dying -- and how we relate to those we love when it is our time to say goodbye?

I initially posted this alongside a request for help in figuring out who had painted this illustration. Thanks to Barbara and to Sam Steinmann, both of whom left comments / emailed me indicating that the artist is Harry Anderson.

Other years' commentary on Parashat Vayechi:

A prayer before departing this life

Water-drop-drop-ripples-art-poster-printOn my first day of hospital chaplaincy training, I was surprised to discover that one needn't be Christian in order to baptize a baby. One need only say the words with intention.

Those of us in my chaplaincy cohort who were Jewish, or Muslim, or came from traditions which don't do infant baptism, had a lot of conversations that year about how we might handle that situation if it came up. Our hospital's policy was that we only provided baptism in cases of extremis, for babies who were near death or too ill to leave the hospital and be baptized in their home community. (My plan was that I would ask the parents if they wanted to say the words, since as Christians they would find the words more meaningful than I, and I would seek to sanctify the moment with my presence.) Though I thought about it and planned for it, I was never called-upon to serve in that way.

But I did have many experiences with those who were dying. On my first day, when I learned that fascinating tidbit about baptism, I also learned that the Catholic sacrament of the sick -- formerly known as "last rites" -- does require a priest. If a Catholic patient were near dying, we were instructed to call the priest on call and get him in there. During the day, there was usually a priest in the hospital with us; overnight, the on-call priest would be elsewhere, though would come if we paged him. I remember one of the hospital's on-call priests teasing us that if we woke him at 2am for someone who turned out to survive until dawn, he was going to be very miffed at us for ruining his sleep. (He was kidding.) And I remember times when I had to call him in the middle of the night. That was the year I began learning about Jewish customs having to do with sickness and death. I'm pretty sure it's when I first encountered the deathbed vidui.

I've written about different forms of the vidui before. "Vidui" means "confessional prayer," and it comes in several forms. There's one version of it intended for daily use, which really speaks to me, and which I try to say every night before bed. There's another kind of vidui which we say on Yom Kippur. And then there's the one which the tradition instructs us to recite before death. Though there's nothing wrong with saying it at a different time. If needed, the prayer can be recited more than once. There's no superstition attached to it, it's not as though saying it "too soon" will somehow bring death sooner, there's nothing wrong with saying it and then surviving and getting to say it again another day. What the tradition teaches is, when death is imminent (whatever that means to you), it's appropriate for the ill person (or someone else on his/her behalf) to offer a vidui. Here's the version of that prayer which is found in the Reform Rabbi's Manual:

Deathbed Vidui

My God and God of all who have gone before me, Author of life and death, I turn to You in trust. Although I pray for life and health, I know that I am mortal. If my life must soon come to an end, let me die, I pray, at peace.

If only my hands were clean and my heart pure! I confess that I have committed sins and left much undone, yet I know also the good that I did or tried to do. May my acts of goodness give meaning to my life, and may my errors be forgiven.

Protector of the bereaved and the helpless, watch over my loved ones. Into Your hand I commit my spirit; redeem it, O God of mercy and truth.

  יְיָ מֶֽלֶךְ, יְיָ מַלַך, יְיָ יִמְלֹך לְעוֹלָם וַעֵד / Adonai melech Adonai malach Adonai yimloch l’olam va’ed.
(God reigns; God has reigned; God will reign forever and ever.)

בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד. / Baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va’ed.
(Blessed be God’s name whose glorious dominion is forever.) 

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יְיָ אֶחָֽד: Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad.
(Hear, O Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.)

Continue reading "A prayer before departing this life" »

A short teaching from Reb Zalman on how prayer can change our minds

Prayer"There is a mantra in our heads which says to us that we are no good and we need to change."

"Like erasing a tape by using a high pitched sound, beyond audibility, which then allows the new stuff to be recorded, we need a newer, more positive mantra so that we can change how we think about ourselves."

"This is what davvenen / prayer is for."

-- Reb Zalman, in A Guide for Starting Your New Incarnation
(available as a pdf download from the ALEPH Canada store.)


"There is a mantra in our heads which says to us that we are no good." Who among us hasn't heard that voice? Sometimes I associate that voice with the voice our sages called the yetzer ha-ra, the "bad inclination."

In the traditional understanding, each of us has a good inclination and a bad inclination. For our sages the bad inclination and the good inclination are always inevitably bound up together. We need both of them. (There's a great midrash about how the rabbis once managed to imprison the yetzer ha-ra and for three days, until it was freed, no eggs were laid throughout the land. Without the tension between our impulses, between good and bad, there's no fruitfulness, no generativity.) But one of the ways I've experienced my own yetzer ha-ra is as the voice of excessive internal critique.

Sometimes that critique is productive and nudges me to do better, in which case I should listen to it. Other times it just makes me feel lousy, in which case I should ignore it. The challenge is discerning which times are which! I remember talking in rabbinic school with my friend (now Rabbi) Simcha Daniel Burstyn about how the yetzer ha-ra is the voice which whispers to us that we don't have time to daven properly, with full intention, so we might as well not even try. It makes the perfect into the enemy of the good. The way to triumph over it is to plough ahead and engage in our practice, even if we know we're not going to do it with perfect full heart and perfect focus and perfect everything. Even if we know we aren't going to be perfect.

We were talking about davenen, but it could as easily apply to other practices: meditation, yoga, exercise, volunteer work, spending time with one's family. It's so easy to slip into feeling as though, if we can't do something 100% the way we wish we could, then we might as well not try. I still work at noticing that pattern; recognizing it for what it is, without judgement; and then letting it go. Maybe this is why I gravitate toward Reb Zalman's idea that the tape of negativity can be erased (or at least mitigated) through the use of a new mantra which will overwrite the old one -- and that davenen, prayer, is our tradition's primary tool for doing that work.

Davenen is a Yiddish word. In Hebrew, we have two words which mean prayer. One of them is avodah, service. The priests of old performed the service of the sacrifices; in our day we engage in avodah she-ba-lev, the service of the heart, when we offer up our words. And the other word is tefilah, which comes from l'hitpallel, which means to discern or to judge. When we pray, we serve something greater than ourselves; we reaffirm for ourselves that we did not create everything around us, that we are not the center of the universe, that there are reasons to offer thanks and praise. And through our practice of prayer, we can discern things about ourselves. What speaks to you in a particular prayer today may not speak to you next week. There will be days when the prayers feel alive and sparkling, and days when they feel rote. The words don't change, but we do.

And our practices change as our lives do. (See This is spiritual life, 2011, and especially Prayer life changes, 2010.) For me it was becoming a parent which led to that realization. My prayer life couldn't be what it was before I had a child. I was too taken-up with the details of childcare, physically and emotionally. But I learned that my prayer life could be something different, something equally beautiful and meaningful, when I embraced the kinds of praying I was uniquely able to do at that moment in my life. For others, this realization might arise because of a job change -- a move to a new place -- an unexpected illness -- any of life's curveballs. One of the hidden upsides of trying to daven with a newborn was that I figured out pretty quickly which prayers were essential to me, which prayers I absolutely had to find a way to say.

One of the things I've learned over the years is that I am healthier and happier when I articulate gratitude every morning (via modah ani and other gratitude practices), and when I pause to forgive everyone who's hurt me that day as I approach sleep (via the bedtime shema and the forgiveness prayer I so love.) The corollary which I've also learned, to my chagrin, is that when I'm in a tough emotional or spiritual place, I have trouble doing those very things. Or, perhaps it works the other way -- that when I can't access gratitude and forgiveness, that's a signal to me that something is awry and requires tending and care. Being attuned to my prayer life, and its ebbs and flows, helps me stay attuned to my own internal landscape. This is how I understand the the definitions of the verb l'hitpallel, to pray/to discern/to judge -- when I make time for prayer, I'm able to discern what's happening in my interior life.

In that same section of this booklet, Reb Zalman writes:

Reb Nachman of Bratzlav has this wonderful teaching. He says that if I want to undertake to do something good, like I want to learn, then the best way to help myself get started is to spend some time imagining what it feels like to learn.

I love this little teaching, too. If I want to experience gratitude, I can spend some time imagining what it would feel like to get there. If I want to pray with my whole heart, I can spend some time imagining what it would feel like to do that. The imagining becomes a kind of mental road map. If I've "been there before," even only in imagination, that can help me get there again.

One of the great gifts for me of being a working rabbi is that one component of my job is leading davenen. When I lead services, I have an opportunity to recite (and hopefully to feel and to mean) some of the prayers I need to be saying. But on days when I'm not leading others in prayer, my own prayer life varies wildly. Although our son is now four, it's still rare for me to give myself the spaciousness to spend a long time in solo prayer (much less to daven in community) unless I'm on retreat. But there are a few prayers I try to say every day. And sometimes when I'm driving I'll quietly sing as much of the evening service as I know by heart, harmonizing weekday nusach with the tone created by the wheels of the car.

Here's something else that strikes me about this short teaching from Reb Zalman. He says prayer is the practice designed to help us overwrite the voice in our heads -- the one which says "we're no good," and the one which says "we have to change." I think that he means both clauses. Not only the "we're no good" part, but also the "we have to change" part. Maybe practicing prayer can help us not only to discern who we most deeply are, but also to recognize that in our deepest selves, we don't need to change -- we're wonderful already, imperfections and all, just the way we are.


Photo source: my flickr photostream.

Making God present: protecting human rights

Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul for Human Rights Shabbat / parashat Vayigash, crossposted to my From the Rabbi blog.

Today we're observing Human Rights Shabbat. Human rights are woven into the fabric of our tradition. They've been there from the very beginning, the creation of humanity in the image and the likeness of God. Every human being bears God's DNA, as it were; each of us reflects a unique facet of divine infinity.

Because every human being is a reflection of God, containing a spark of divinity within, every human being has inalienable human rights regardless of race, gender, creed. The right to worship freely, without coercion. The right to pursue meaningful work. The right to earn a living wage. The right to choose the shape of one's family. The right to be treated as a whole and holy creation of God.

Over recent weeks our Torah portions have taken us into the Joseph novella. Joseph's story features several suspensions of his human rights: when his brothers throw him into the pit, when he's sold into slavery, and when he's cast into Pharaoh's jails.

In Joseph's story, of course, everything happens for a reason. Joseph himself is certain of this. When he reconnects with his brothers he assures them, "don't feel guilty for what you did -- even if you intended it for ill, God intended it for good." The Joseph story is a classic example of what our tradition calls "descent for the sake of ascent." In order to be lifted up, you have to recognize that you're someplace low.

Here's someplace low: our world is marred by human rights violations which ignore the innate wholeness and holiness of every human being.

Continue reading "Making God present: protecting human rights" »

This week's portion: when we reveal ourselves

This week we are reading parashat Vayigash.


When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, they are stunned into silence.

He draws them close, and urges them not to be troubled or upset by having sold him into slavery. Not they, he says, but God is the One who truly sent him down into Egypt. God did this in order that he might be there to help interpret Pharaoh's dream of lean cows devouring the fat ones, in order to convince Pharaoh to stockpile grain against the coming years of famine, in order that when his family came begging for food he could not only feed them but bring them all down to herd their flocks on Egypt's fertile soil.

Then he falls weeping on his brother's neck, and Benjamin weeps with him; and he kisses all of his brothers and weeps with them. Only after this can his brothers respond to him.

When we reveal our true selves, removing the masks with which we disguse our deepest identity and our souls' own light, both we and those to whom we reveal ourselves may weep. Emotions may run high. Revealing who we really are, in all of our vulnerabilities and differences, requires great bravery. But it is only through that revelation, and through the healing tears which ensue, that we can begin to truly respond to one another -- to speak to, and from, the heart of who we really are.

Three tiny teachings on Chanukah's light

Light_shining1The Bnei Yissaschar (Rabbi Zvi Elimelech of Dinov) teaches: On Chanukah, we are given part of the or ha-ganuz, the primordial light which has been hidden-away since the moment of Creation and which is preserved for the righteous in the world to come. (This is the light of the first day of creation, before the sun and moon and stars were created; not literal light, but a kind of spiritual or metaphysical light, the light of expanded consciousness.) With this light, you could see from one end of the earth to the other. And with this light, we kindle other holy lights -- the souls within each of us.

(From his teachings on the month of Kislev; the final insight comes from Michael Strassfeld's commentary in The Jewish Holidays.)

 The Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger) teaches: "The candle of God is the soul of man, searching all of one's deepest places." (Proverbs 20:27) In the spring we search our homes for leaven with a candle. (That's the ritual of bedikat chametz, hiding some leaven around the house and then "discovering" it with a candle, to ceremonially burn it before the holday begins.) At this season, we search our innermost selves for the spark of God which illuminates us (as the Chanukah candles illuminate what's around us.)

The mishkan, the dwelling-place-for-God (e.g. the holy Temple, the one whose rededication we celebrate at this season even though it's been destroyed now for almost two thousand years) -- that holy dwelling-place is within each of us, as we read in Torah, "they shall build for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them." (In other words: we built the sanctuary not so that God could live in it, but so that through the process of the building we might open our hearts for God to dwell in us.)

The Temple no longer exists; in our era the mishkan is  hidden -- but we can still find it by searching for it, which we do with the (metaphorical) candles of the mitzvot. We search for God's presence by "lighting the candles" of doing mitzvot. Doing mitzvot with all of our hearts, our souls, our life-force, is a way of searching for God's presence in the world.  Through doing mitzvot with intention and awareness, we are able to find the point within us which is the hidden mishkan, the dwelling place for God.

(Here's a longer exploration of this teaching: Sfat Emet on light and Chanukah, 2010.)

 The Sfat Emet also teaches: The miracle of Chanukah was one of light. This light allows us to find the hidden illumination / enlightenment which is in darkness and in our alienation.

* * *

As we kindle the Chanukah lights tonight for the last time this year, may we experience their light as a glimpse of that primordial light from the first moment of creation; may we find our souls kindled through the act of doing this mitzvah, and may we recognize ourselves as dwelling-places for God's presence; and may our lights connect us with the hidden illumination which can be found in even our darkest emotional and spiritual places.





New poem at Satya Robin's site

My friend Satya Robyn of Writing Our Way Home did a really neat thing to celebrate the launch of her newest book, Afterwards: she invited a variety of writers and artists to create new works on the theme "afterwards," and created an online gallery of that new work, which premiered on the day that the book launched.

I was honored when Satya asked me to participate in her virtual launch party, and even more delighted when I saw the wonderful other works in the gallery, including artwork by Rosemary Starace and new poetry from Luisa Igloria.

My contribution is a poem called "After," which begins "After the wrong-footed morning / after the temper tantrum..." I suspect that the emotional arc of the poem will be familiar to parents of young children, though I hope the poem will speak also to those who are not parents.

Here's the virtual gallery -- go and enjoy, and consider picking up Satya's latest!

Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon

Throne-mmpb1Longtime readers know that I'm a fan of speculative fiction. For those among y'all who share that interest, I'm here to recommend Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon, the first book in the Crescent Moon Kingdoms series.

I loved pretty much everything about this book. And I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't read it yet, because part of the joy of it is seeing how its world unfolds through its twists and turns. But I can say a few things without venturing into spoiler territory, and the first one is: this book has great characters. They are real, whole, complicated people and I come away from the book wanting more -- not because Ahmed didn't give us enough, but because I just want to keep hanging out with them and vicariously experiencing their adventures.

This book also does a gorgeous job of depicting a fantasy world which draws on the tastes and textures and smells and sounds and mythologies of a place which is not Western. Reading Crescent Moon catapults me directly into every time I've been blessed with the opportunity to walk the twisty crowded ancient streets of of Cairo, Jerusalem, Amman. This book isn't set in our world, but it evokes some places which are in our world; it feels true to those places even while it goes above and beyond the lived reality of those places. And the same is true of the book's mythology / folklore / magic -- some of it draws on preexisting stories and ideas (djinn, ghuls), and some of it is Ahmed's own creation.

I like the different forms of religiosity we see here -- most especially the balance between Adoulla and his young companion Raseed. Adoulla's middle-aged, world-weary, and humor-laced way of being religious doesn't always dovetail neatly with Raseed's youthful fiery desire for spiritual purity, and that difference is neither ignored nor resolved; they exist side-by-side. I like the young lioness Zamia Laith Banu Badawi, and her growing sense of kinship with the alkhemist Litaz, despite their differences. We get just enough of each of their stories to make them real and whole -- and just little enough that I really want more of both of them. (Here's hoping they're both in the next book, eh?) And I like that Zamia and Raseed's relationship remains complicated and interesting to the end of the book -- there were a few different easy ways out, and Ahmed didn't take any of them.

And I like how Islam is reflected and refracted in this book. These characters aren't Muslim, precisely, in the same way that Dhamsawaat isn't any earthly city -- but in their ways of interacting with scripture, and their ways of talking about God, they evoke Islam for me as a reader, as I think they are meant to do. Hanging out with these characters makes me think of things I learned while studying Islam (particularly Sufism) in rabbinic school; the quotations from scripture have the same ring, to my ear, as translations of the Qur'an. And I really like the centrality of faith in the way the narrative unfolds. God is all over this book, is what I'm saying, and -- no surprise -- I love that. I find myself thinking of how the Narnia books aren't explicitly Christian, though to a reader who knows Lewis' theology, Christian ideas are visible in the book. (Actually, full disclosure: that was Ethan's insight.) I think this book works with Islam in a parallel kind of way.

I've read a number of really good books lately which work with entirely non-Western mythologies, characters, landscapes. None of them are set in our world, exactly. G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen (reviewed here) probably comes closest to our world.  N.K. Jemisin's Dreamblood duology and Elizabeth Bear's Eternal Sky books evoke aspects of this world's histories and cultures in really fascinating ways, but they're not set in this world. (Bear does neat things with an alternate-universe Mongolia, and Jemisin's books evoke ancient Egyptian culture and mythology.) All of these books open up vistas beyond the ones we've known, while also managing to give us new ways of thinking about the world we do inhabit. Come to think of it, that's what good speculative fiction always does, for me. Anyway. If this is the sort of thing you like, this book is definitely one to get. And hey! right now only it's six dollars for the Kindle, making it an easy gamble to take.

Chanukah and the obligation to sit still and notice

One of the customs of Chanukah is to sing a couple of hymns after we light Chanukah candles. One of them is Maoz Tzur, "Rock of Ages." (Here's an abbreviation of the traditional version. Here's Reb Zalman's version, which is singable to the same tune but celebrates the miracles of Chanukah in a different way.) And the other hymn is Hanerot Hallalu, "The lights which we light." Here's that second one:


"We light these lights for [commemoration of] the miracles and the wonders, for the redemption and the battles that you made for our ancestors, in those days at this season, through your holy priests. During all eight days of Chanukah these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them except to look at them in order to express thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, Your wonders and Your salvations." (From Talmud, Sofrim 20:6)

This little song is often overlooked and is not well known. Which is a shame, because it's quite wonderful.

Hanerot Hallalu teaches us that we light the candles of the chanukiyyah in order to remember miracles and wonders, and that their light is holy -- so holy, in fact, that we're not supposed to use that light for ordinary things. Instead, our job is to just enjoy them. To look at them. To contemplate them, and their small beauty, and to cultivate an upwelling of thanks and praise. In this way, Chanukah invites us into contemplative practice.

The Shabbat candles which we kindle each week are also holy. But they don't come with this same obligation. It's perfectly permissible to eat one's Shabbat dinner by the light of the Shabbat candles. But the Chanukah candles aren't meant to be used in any mundane way. The shamash candle, the "helper" which lights the others, casts ordinary usable light. But the eight candles in the chanukiyyah proper are there not to give us light to do the dishes by -- they're there to give us a meditative focus, something to look at as we coax wonder and gratitude to arise within us.

At this hectic season -- Thanksgiving and "Black Friday" just past, Christmas and New Year's on the horizon, everywhere around us a tumult of coveting and shopping and spending, the academic semester racing to its finale -- the very idea of taking the duration of the Chanukah candles as a time for quiet and meditation seems like a miracle. May we all be blessed to find our moments of stillness and peace as the candles burn low.

Here's a choral setting of Hanerot Hallalu. And here's a solo setting of an unknown melody. If your tastes run more toward a cappella, here's Six13's version. And here's a simple sung version, accompanied beautifully on piano.