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February 2014

A poem about the end of Shabbat on the road



Two thousand miles away
as evening cloaks the rockies
you gather to dine on song
as the angels do.

My holy third meal
will be local beer
and collard greens
at the airport food court.

You sing psalm 23 with fervor.
Even as the Queen prepares to depart
Her presence is so close
you can almost touch.

I wait for my aircraft.
Is this the magic hour
when my redemption
will draw near?

Se'udah shlishit means "the third meal." It's customary to eat three celebratory meals on Shabbat, one on Friday evening, one at Shabbat lunch, and the third late on Shabbat afternoon, and that third one is called se'udah shlishit. The meal is usually quite small; in some communities, it's only a token few bites of food, followed by long singing.

I have two strong memories of se'udah shlishit with my ALEPH community. One happened in January of 2009, the Shabbat when I had miscarried here at OHALAH. I remember sitting in an unlit room (with big windows through which we could see the impending evening) and singing psalm 23 and beginning to mourn my own deep loss. And the other happened in June of that same year, and was incredibly powerful and healing for me. I wrote about it here -- As Shabbat wanes.

It's a time of incredible poignancy. In a way, it's the time when Shabbat is most present and can be most palpably felt -- and in another way, it's the time when Shabbat is beginning to depart. There's also a tradition which says that at Shabbat mincha (afternoon prayer) time, that's when we are closest to moshiach (redemption.)

Yesterday, during the hour when I suspected my hevre (friends) were observing se'udah shlishit in Colorado, I was stuck in an airport, wondering when and how I would make it to Colorado for OHALAH. This poem was the result. It's a bit tongue-in-cheek, of course, but writing it allowed me to feel connected with my community from afar, and I share it here with a smile.

Happy news: Ben Yehuda and Open My Lips

By_since5766_onWhiteI am thoroughly delighted to be able to announce that my next book-length poetry collection, Open My Lips, will be published by Ben Yehuda Press, publishers of books of interest to the American Jewish community since 2005!

Open My Lips is a collection of contemporary Jewish liturgical poetry which I hope will move and delight both Jewish and non-Jewish readers. This collection sits at the intersection of poetry and prayer. Here's my nutshell description:

This volume of contemporary liturgical poetry is both a poetry collection and an aid to devotional prayer. This collection dips into the deep well of Jewish tradition and brings forth renewed and renewing adaptations of, and riffs on, classical Jewish liturgy. Here are poems for weekday and Shabbat, festival seasons (including the Days of Awe and Passover), and psalms of grief and praise. Intended for those who seek a clear, readable, heartfelt point of access into Jewish tradition or into prayer in general.

Ben Yehuda Press has published some wonderful books which are staples of my rabbinic bookshelf, among them Rabbi Shefa Gold's Torah Journeys  and In the Fever of Love: an Illumination of the Song of Songs and Rabbi DovBer Pinson's Thirty-Two Gates of Wisdom. (I'm also excited about some of their new books which I haven't yet read, among them Haviva Ner-David's Chanah's Voice, Sharon Marson's More Than Four Questions: Inviting Childrens' Voices to the Seder, and Ora Horn Prouser's Esau's Blessing: How the Bible Embraces Those With Special Needs.) I am thrilled that they are bringing out my new collection.

And -- this is particularly exciting to me as a participant in remix culture and someone who shares a lot of work online -- the publishers are enthusiastic about the poems being available online for people to share during services and poetry readings and so forth. They believe (and I agree!) that sharing poetry online doesn't diminish its sale market, but rather increases it. Our hope is that those who read the poems online, or encounter them during a service, will want to support the poetry and its publisher by buying a copy of the book.

Stay tuned for further information. For now, I hope you'll celebrate with me!

When our spiritual sap starts rising

11854688553_0ae44324f0_bYesterday when my son and I arrived home after preschool, I could see my shadow against the driveway's thin layer of snow. Night falls early at this season, and the sun had long since set. The shadow came from the half-moon suspended over our rooftop.

"Look, mommy -- stars!"  We stood there for a moment, our breath drifting up like fog, marveling at the sky. And then I hustled us indoors, because although we're not in the deep freeze of the midwest, the mercury was hovering around zero.

Having a child who likes to look up at the sky helps to keep me attuned to the ebb and flow of the seasons, the waxing and waning of the moon. Of course, so does the Jewish calendar. I wasn't surprised that the moon was half-full already; I know that next week is Tu BiShvat, which always falls at full moon.

The New Year of the Trees. The birthday of the trees. The day when we count trees as a year older than they used to be, even though we no longer tithe their fruits. The day when we believe the sap starts to rise to feed the fertile season to come. Even here, where the ground is rock-solid, impregnated with ice.

If we get days which are warmer than freezing and nights which dip back down into 20s, maple sap really will start rising soon. I always look forward to the year's first maple breakfast at our local sugar shack -- a sign of impending spring even though soft rains and crocuses remain months away. But Tu BiShvat is about more than literal sap creeping up the phloem.

Tu BiShvat is when our spiritual sap starts rising to prepare us for the coming spring. We've been reading the story of the Exodus from Egypt in our cycle of weekly Torah portions; at Tu BiShvat, we take our first step toward Pesach, our celebration of freedom which marks spring's new beginnings. At Tu BiShvat, we assert our trust that our dry and cracked winter souls will be watered and nourished. We open ourselves to feel the abundance which is flowing into our hearts and spirits.

We are the trees, growing older year by year. We give ourselves over to trusting that in the fullness of time, our labors will bear fruit. That we will bring forth nourishment for ourselves and those around us. That this world of winter will end, and be replaced by spring's warm breezes -- and summer's clear sunshine -- and autumn's blaze of red and gold -- again and again, and again.

I make my way to the storage room adjacent to our garage where curls of etrog peel have been steeping in vodka since Sukkot. I decant the liquid, add a simple syrup of sugar-water, and bottle it: etrogcello, made from the pri etz hadar, the "fruits of the goodly tree" (a.k.a. etrogim) which were so central to our celebration of Sukkot. Pri Etz Hadar is also the name of the first haggadah for the Tu BiShvat seder, published in 1728.

When we sip this sweet bright fire at our Tu BiShvat seder next week, we'll swallow a taste of the autumn behind us -- and an anticipation of the autumn which is to come. Sunshine in a jar to nourish our souls, all the way down to the root.




The first creative act of the new year: I find an empty manila folder, uncap a blue pen with a thick nib, and inscribe the tab with "POEMS 2014."

It's the first poetry-related creative act, anyway. I wrote a d'var Torah last week, beginning 2014 not with poetry but with prose.

That's not surprising. I can't remember a year when I began writing new poems as soon as the calendar page had turned. Poetry doesn't require the kind of temporal spaciousness needed for writing a novel; it's something I can work on in fits and starts, an hour here, an afternoon there. But it does require emotional and spiritual spaciousness. And that's usually in short supply around the start of January.

Since late November, I've juggled Thanksgiving, our son's birthday, Chanukah, a family simcha on the other side of the state, a visit to my family in Texas, Christmas, school break, winter storms, New Year's, and more houseguests than I can count. Also synagogue work in all of its usual forms. There's been a lot of wonderful! But precious little normalcy: the usual flow of weekdays and Shabbat, workdays and childcare, meditation and prayer.

Poetry -- my poetry, anyway -- requires emotional and spiritual breathing room.

January seventh. The old year is really and truly behind us. 2014 stretches ahead. And now my POEMS 2014 folder waits to receive the first slim draft.

I won't write a poem today. I probably won't write a poem this week. But my desk is tidied. The holiday wrapping paper which had taken up temporary residence on the floor has been cleared away. I've re-hung the poems and my Bennington diploma on the newly-repainted wall of my study. When I stop typing, all I can hear is quiet. These are first steps.

Many years ago, when I worked for the artist Jenny Holzer, I typed up the following quote on a piece of brown paper and hung it over my desk:

I do not write every day, I read every day, think every day, work in the garden every day, and recognize in nature the same slow complicity. The same inevitability. The moment will arrive, always it does, it can be predicted but it cannot be demanded. I do not think of this as inspiration. I think of it as readiness. A writer lives in a constant state of readiness. (-- Jeanette Winterson)

Readiness. One breath after the next. Breathing in; breathing out. Right here; right now. The manila folder of my year is open. Receptive. Ready.

Bo: the Calling to Serve

Here's the d'var Torah I meant to offer today at my shul, until services were cancelled on account of dangerously low temperatures. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Stay warm and safe, y'all!

This week's Torah portion, Bo, contains one of my favorite verses in Torah: va'anachnu lo neda mah na'avod et Adonai ad bo'enu shamah, "And we shall not know with what we are to serve Adonai until we get there."

In context, it's speaking about animal sacrifice. Moses and Aaron have come before Pharaoh to ask permission for all of the Israelites to travel into the wilderness in order to pray to our God, and in that era, prayer meant sacrificing animals on the altar.

But in our own post-sacrificial era, a deeper meaning comes through. We never know with what we will be called to serve God until we "get there," wherever "there" is. This moment. The next moment. The moment after that.

I love this verse in part because it was one of the themes of my ordination ceremony. The ten of us who received smicha together offered divrei Torah, words of Torah, in the middle of the ceremony. We wove together the stories in Bo and Beshalach -- preparing to depart from Mitzrayim, and the Exodus into the unknown -- with our own journeys from yearning to ordination, to this new mantle of service which we were about to take on.

Some of my classmates offered prose. Others, music. I offered poetry. Poetry about taking the leap into the unknown, even when you don't feel ready. Poetry about trusting that there will be enough -- that you will be enough -- that manna, and Torah, and hope, and love, will continue flowing.

The children of Israel didn't know what they would find in the wilderness. Surely they had no idea that they would wander for forty years in the space in-between where they had left and where they were going. But they trusted -- at least in their better moments! -- that they would find the inner resources they needed.

We don't know what this new year will hold. What will 2014 bring for us? Surely there will be joy, and there will be sorrow. There will be exultation, and there will be grief. Will we be able to face both the bitter and the sweet with kindness and compassion?

We shall not know with what we are to serve Adonai until we get there. Each of us serves in our own way, with the skills and abilities we've been given. In each moment, a new opportunity to serve. And each of us will encounter tasks which we are uniquely suited to perform. The Hasidic masters teach that there are broken places which only you can heal; there are sparks which only you can uplift.

Just before my ordination, one of my dearest teachers blessed me that I might find sustenance in serving the servants of the Most High. I serve God through serving you: my community, those who thirst for Torah and for connection with something greater than themselves. And all of us, as Jews, serve God. With mitzvot -- with good deeds -- with our search for meaning -- with our acts toward healing the world and completing the work of creation.

Serving God isn't something which only rabbis do. It's something we're all called to do. That's what it means to be Jews. Our ancestors left Pharaoh's slavery and embraced covenant with God: not servitude, but service.

We shall not know with what we are to serve Adonai until we get there. We are called to bring all of ourselves, all of our hearts and souls, all of our inner resources to serving the One Who speaks the universe into being. And we each serve in our own unique way.

May we enter into this new year secure in the faith that we'll have the inner resources to serve in whatever ways we are called, to meet whatever challenges lie ahead. We won't know what 2014 will hold until we get there. But in our response to what arises, we can always choose kindness over selfishness, compassion over indifference. We can aspire to serve with all that we are.


All of us, bringing our all: a d'var Torah for Bo

Funny story: I went to prepare this Torah portion for services, and gravitated toward these verses. I had these thoughts. I thought, "hm, this seems familiar, have I written about this before?" but I searched my divrei Torah index and there was no d'var Torah on this theme. So I wrote this one. A few days later it occurred to me to go through my archives from last January post by post, and sure enough, in 5773 I wrote a d'var Torah for parashat Bo which works with these very same ideas. Whoops! (I've now edited that index to include last year's d'var Torah.) Anyway, I wrote a new one to offer at shul tomorrow (which will appear here on Sunday.) So here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week which I'm not going to use!


Last week we read about Moses and Aaron going to Pharaoh, asking for permission to take their people into the wilderness to make offerings to Adonai. Pharaoh, not surprisingly, said no. God's response was the first several plagues.

In this week's Torah portion, the plagues continue. And for a moment, Pharaoh relents. "Go worship your God," he snaps to Moses and Aaron. "Who's going with you?"

Moses replies, "We will all go, with our youths and elders; we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds." The phrase "youths and elders" is a rhetorical figure of speech which uses two extremes to convey a totality. The text says "young and old," and we're meant to fill in "and everyone in between."

The Eskenazi and Weiss translation reads "We will all go, regardless of social station." Rich and poor and everyone in between. Those who had assimilated into Egyptian ways, and those who had retained strong Hebrew practices, and everyone in between. Those who had power, and those who were powerless, and everyone in between.

How powerful that in this moment, as Moses has first taken on the mantle of leading our people out of slavery, he insists that making offerings to Adonai is something which all the people must do.

The Hebrew word עבודה (avodah) means service, as in the service of sacrifices we once offered, now replaced by the service of the heart which is prayer. We will read soon in Torah about how the priestly system of sacrifice began in the wilderness, and then about the priestly apparatus which existed once the Temple is built. But here in this moment before the Exodus, Moses offers a glimpse of a radically egalitarian future in which all of us are called to be servants of the Most High.

Not just the priests. Not just the men. Not just those with social standing. All of us.

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