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Visiting a shul by the sea!

I'm off this weekend to Temple Beth-El of City Island, where I will be their scholar-in-residence as they celebrate their 80th anniversary with a Shabbaton of delicious practice, teaching, and togetherness! (I posted about this a while back.)

It's going to be an action-packed weekend. Tonight: kabbalat Shabbat services with "Your Band By the Sea." Tomorrow morning: services co-led by me, Reb David, and Reb Eva, followed by a public teaching at noon on the power of blessing. Tomorrow night: havdalah and a poetry reading in a private home. Sunday morning: a class on writing in spiritual life and then a poetry reading before I turn around and head home.

If you are in or around the New York city area, I'd love to see you at any of these events which are feasible for you! Logistical details again, for those who need them:

Friday and Saturday services / teaching at Temple Beth-El, 480 City Island Avenue

Sunday sessions at Samuel Pell House, 586 City Island Ave

( writing class: $20 for non-members, bring a notebook or laptop and an open heart)

Shabbat shalom to all!

Reparations and teshuvah

I want to call your attention to a remarkable essay published last week in the Atlantic, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, called The Case for Reparations. It is long, and it is tremendously worthwhile. Here is one very brief quote, to pique your interest:

Having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorized. In the Deep South, a second slavery ruled. In the North, legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated. Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalized them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society. Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.

Once you've read it, I commend to you the following specifically Jewish responses:

Ask yourself | Jewschool. "Once you read this very long piece (very long but read it) and nod to the facts and shake your head at the horrific racism at all levels most likely, most probably, you will think: But my family didn’t live in the U.S. when it engaged in slavery. But that doesn’t matter. Anyone living in the United States benefits from the economic realities built on slavery. Every white person has been enriched by the segregation of neighborhoods, schools, and Federally insured lending practices. This goes well beyond being afraid anytime the police stop you or having people cross to the other side of the street when you pass at night."

 The Jewish Case for Reparations -- to Blacks by Emily L. Hauser in the Jewish Daily Forward. "In the Hebrew tradition prophets cry out in the wilderness in part because their audience tends to be uninterested in the message. If the people were ready, after all, they wouldn’t need a prophet... We learn in Pirkei Avot that while we aren’t required to complete the task of righteousness, neither are we free to desist from it. Otherwise, we run the risk of (in Coates’s words) 'ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.'"

Late in the essay, Coates writes:

Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate—the kind that HR 40 proposes—we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion—and that is perhaps what scares us. The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper—America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world.

Coates is calling us to a process of what my tradition calls teshuvah -- the internal work of discernment, atonement, and creating change.

I hope his essay sparks a major American communal conversation. And I especially hope that it sparks a conversation in the American Jewish community (or, more accurately, American Jewish communities -- we are many and varied!) about racism, about our complicity in racist systems, and about teshuvah.


On the Tent of Nations, destruction of orchards, and the path to peace


Valley of fruit trees: before and after. [Source.]

Several years ago, during the summer when I was living in Jerusalem, I had the opportunity to spend an evening with a group called the All Nations Café. (I blogged about it at the time, and also spoke about it from the bimah of my shul on erev Rosh Hashanah that year.) It was an incredibly powerful experience for me -- talking with Israelis, Palestinians, and internationals who were  dedicated to peace and to forging connections across our differences. It's one thing for me as an American, living half a world away, to talk about my yearning for peace and coexistence. These folks were living that intention, and I admired them deeply.

I remember being particularly moved by hearing the story of the man on whose land we had gathered, a Palestinian man named Abed, who told us about his struggles to prove ownership of his family's land (despite holding papers dating from Ottoman times) and about the challenges which that entailed. I thought of the All Nations Café last week when I heard news about the destruction of the orchard at the Tent of Nations farm. (A side note: as I was writing this post the website seemed to be down, but I think that webmasters are in the process of mirroring it at a new location: Tent of Nations.) My friend and colleague Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb wrote:

Daoud Nassar and his family at The Tent of Nations in the West Bank was invaded by the IDF and their environmental and educational farm destroyed. Entire fields of grapes, apples, apricots, almonds, figs were wiped out. Hundreds of fruitful trees were destroyed. Daoud and his family own the land, have papers dating from the Ottoman Empire...I feel this deeply. Daoud is my friend. Those of us who know Daoud have been deeply impacted by his compassion, nonviolence, resiliency, creativity, and commitment to community.

Daoud has posted about the destruction on the Tent of Nations Facebook page:

Today at 08.00, Israeli bulldozers came to the fertile valley of the farm where we planted fruit trees 10 years ago, and destroyed the terraces and all our trees there. More than 1500 apricot and apple trees as well as grape plants were smashed and destroyed.

(His post is here.) I'm embedding a ten-minute video about Tent of Nations, which includes a tour of the land and gives a good sense for what and where it is. I really recommend watching the video -- take ten minutes and watch, before you read the rest of this post. (If you can't see the embed, it's here at YouTube: Tent of Nations: we refuse to be enemies.)

One of the articles archived at Friends of Tent of Nations explains that "The Nassar farm is part of a parcel of land, including eight nearby Palestinian farming villages, that Israeli authorities hope to annex in order to expand the Gush Etzion settlements, whose population is around 50,000." I know that there is a housing shortage all over Israel; I feel certain that that plays into the Israeli government's desire to annex West Bank land in order to build. But I suspect that the current Israeli government is also acting out of the intention to continue establishing "facts on the ground."

That article explains that when the Israeli government first declared intention to confiscate the land, the Nasser family made the conscious choice "not to be enemies," and founded the Tent of Nations, an organization whose aims are "to build bridges between people of different backgrounds, and between people and land." Author Emma Halgren continues:

The Israeli authorities have forbidden any permanent infrastructure development on the site, as well as access to the electricity grid and public water, so the Nassars have refurbished seven underground caves, painting them, fitting them out with comfortable rugs and cushions and connecting them to electricity from a generator so that they could be used for meetings and other gatherings.

I remember a similar situation on Abed's land where the All Nations Café met -- because land ownership was contested by the Israeli authorities, no construction was permitted, so Abed and his family had refurbished a small cave and had also erected tents. I remember hearing about how the cultivation on Abed's land involved rain-collection and solar power, because the legal limbo of the land ownership dispute prohibited him from accessing the surrounding electrical or water systems.

In a 2010 post about Tent of Nations (Tent of Nations receives demolition orders), Rabbi Brant Rosen wrote:

Some background: Daoud’s farm has been in his family for four generations; his ancestor registered his land with the ruling Ottoman Empire and the Nassars still have the original deed. In 1991... the Israeli military initiated proceedings to expropriate the Nassar family farm, which happens to be located between two Jewish settlements in the Gush Etzion Block.

Despite Daoud’s irrefutable proof of his family’s ownership of the land, the legal battle over it has stretched on for well over two decades – and the Nassar family has spent over $140,000 in legal fees to date. Up until now, their case has been essentially stuck in Israeli legal bureaucratic limbo.

In the meantime, the Nassar family has used their land to establish “The Tent of Nations” an inspirational center that provides arts, drama, and education to the children of the villages and refugee camps of the region. Daoud and his family have also established a Women’s Educational Center offering classes in computer literacy, English, and leadership training. (Many rabbis and rabbinical students are familiar with Tent of Nations as a primary destination for Encounter – a well-known educational program that promotes coexistence by introducing Jewish Diaspora leaders to Palestinian life.)

I meant to go on an Encounter program during the summer I was living in Israel, but it was cancelled on account of violence. Many of my rabbinic friends and colleagues have visited Tent of Nations, and I hope to have the chance to do so someday as well.

Rabbi Rosen refers to Daoud Nassar's "irrefutable" proof of ownership; I assume he means the Ottomon-era deed to the land. Unfortunately for Daoud and his family, Israel maintains a policy of not recognizing Ottomon or British deeds in the West Bank (see Displacing: House Demolitions and Closure at ICAHD), so that deed isn't enough to protect the farm or the organization established thereupon. Because Israel doesn't recognize Ottoman or British deeds, the Nassar family has funded an extensive survey to further prove ownership of their land, but everything I've read suggests that the survey's findings are in a kind of legal limbo.

Recently I posted about a dispatch from Paul Salopek in Jerusalem. I quoted Paul: "In a 5,000-year-old city where changes in neighborhood zoning rules earn international headlines—such is the ferocity of ownership over each square inch of Jerusalem—we orbit painful questions of identity, of zealotry, of personal loss, of national survival." This is surely most intensely true in Jerusalem (because everything is more intense in Jerusalem!), but Jerusalem is also a microcosm of larger struggles for ownership and identity which persist across the land.

What precipitated this demolition of 1500 fruit trees and adjacent vineyards? A note from attorney Sami Khoury explains that the Israeli military authorities recently served papers to the Nassars indicating that their orchards were planted on state land and that the trees therefore constituted tresspassing. (There's something vaguely Kafkaesque, to me, about accusing fruit trees of being tresspassers...) Although the Nassars immediately filed an appeal with the military court arguing that the orchards were planted not on state land but on their own land -- and although legally no demolitions are supposed to take place while an appeal is pending -- the orchard was uprooted shortly thereafter. (There's an extensive timeline of events at the bottom of Rabbi Rosen's more recent post about Tent of Nations.)

I empathize with my Israeli friends who struggle for housing in a country where apartments are in short supply. And I'm sure that those who live in the settlements which surround the Tent of Nations land would be happy to have that land for their own building purposes. When I was in Israel I met several bloggers, one of whom was then living in Neve Daniel, one of the settlements adjacent to the Nassar farm; she mentioned the housing shortage, as did my friends in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem. But bulldozing fruit trees which have been so lovingly cultivated goes against the grain of my understanding of what Judaism is about.

The Torah teaches that we should not destroy fruit trees even in a time of war, and mainstream Jewish interpretation has understood this as an edict against any act of despoiling, in peacetime as well as war. Writes Rabbi Arthur Waskow (in an email to the OHALAH rabbinic email list, quoted with permission):

Torah could hardly be clearer. This early step in protecting both the Earth and human beings from "scorched earth" destruction helped create the tradition of menshlichkeit that is the best fruit of the Jewish people. Was it for cutting down that fruit and these verses of the Tree of Life that generations worked so hard to create a "Jewish" state?

For another perspective on how Torah prohibits the destruction of trees, see the essay Bal Tashhit: the Torah Prohibits Wasteful Destruction by Rabbi Norman Lamm, former president of the mainline Orthodox institution Yeshiva University -- hardly a lefty peacenik.

Destroying orchards is not ethical. Even if there is a housing shortage in the surrounding towns. In this era of consciousness about our footprint on the earth, there's no excuse for destroying productive agricultural land in order to build houses, and that may be especially true in the Middle East where rainfall and arable land are both limited. Because the Nassar farm is prohibited from accessing local water and power systems, they have developed (and are teaching others) sustainable agricultural practices, using solar power and rainwater, filtering "grey water" for reuse, and so on. This farm could be an exemplar to others of how to live lightly on the land.

Beyond that: destroying someone's farm and livelihood is not ethical; and kal v'chomer, when that farm is also home to a nonprofit organization which does so much good work, the destruction becomes even more shameful. One of Tent of Nations' projects is instruction in English and in computer skills for women in the neighboring village of Nahalin. These women are unable to leave their village because of travel restrictions (imposed by Israel), and would otherwise have few opportunities for education and personal development. (You can read more about that program in this April 2014 dispatch.) Tent of Nations also provides summer camp programs for local children from Bethlehem and nearby refugee camps, where the kids engage in projects like putting on Shakespeare plays and making mosaics out of broken tiles scavenged from rubble. These good works should not be met with this kind of destruction.

Beyond that: what impression can this possibly give to the wider world, except that Israel is destructive and power-hungry, trampling on the rights of the poor? That is not the Israel I know and love. But that is the Israel which is making itself manifest in the eyes of the world, and that grieves me.

I am among the many who believe that settlements are an obstacle to peace. (The recent Pew study showed that a plurality of American Jews hold this understanding.) I've been writing about this for years -- see West Bank settlements: obstacles on the road to peace, my liveblogging of a 2009 panel discussion featuring Akiva Eldar, chief political columnist and writer at Ha'aretz; Hagit Ofran, the director of Settlement Watch, a project of שלום עכשיו / Peace Now; and Scott Lasensky, a Senior Research Associate at the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention.

It seems obvious to me that the more Israel builds up the settlements, the more those settlements carve the West Bank into a disconnected block of Swiss cheese. And the more the West Bank is carved-up in that manner, the less plausible it becomes to imagine a Palestinian state there. Many of those who support settlement expansion agree with me that building settlements negates the possibility of a two-state solution -- there are members of the Knesset who support settlement expansion for precisely this reason. If there will be no Palestinian state, then either Israel must choose a path of perennial occupation, or Israel must choose to grant citizenship to the Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank.

I don't think that perennial occupation is sustainable. I also don't think it is ethical, and I believe that it is damaging both to the lives of those who live under occupation and to the souls of those who perpetuate the occupation. Is it time to give up on the two-state solution and instead work toward a binational state in which all citizens have equal rights? I don't pretend to have the answer to that question. But it seems to me that as settlements expand, we approach a moment when the question will become moot. And I think it's especially saddening when the intention of expanding the settlements leads to the destruction of an orchard like the one belonging to Daoud Nassar and his family.

If you're interested in learning more about how you can help Tent of Nations rebuild, I'm told the best way to stay abreast of the situation is to "like" their Facebook page, so that you will receive their updates on how they plan to move forward.



All at once

From God's high vantage
    -- spacetime spread out
        like an endless scroll --
 every trip I've taken
    between these two places
        is happening right now.

I'm passing myself
    at 30,000 feet: seventeen
        and flying home for Pesach

clutching a grey sweatshirt
    from the college my parents
        don't yet know I've chosen,

thirty-five with diaper bag
    full of earplugs to hand out
        when the baby starts to scream.

On a plane I haven't taken
    God can see me flying back
        with my black suit folded tight.
Knowledge I never wanted
    from the tree I know everyone
        eventually tastes, eyes watering

from the fiery sword
    barring me from the home
        to which no one can return.

I'm spending a few days in south Texas, visiting my parents and reintroducing my son to the sights, sounds, and scents of my childhood hometown. Flying down here a few days ago, I was struck by the vivid notion that if I could see the world as God sees it, I would see all of my trips between my birthplace and the Berkshires at the same time...including trips I haven't taken yet.

The final two stanzas allude to the story from early in the book of Bereshit (Genesis) when a cherub with a flaming sword is stationed at the entrance to the Garden of Eden to keep Adam and Chava out. One can read the Eden story as a lesson about childhood and about the bittersweet implications of gaining knowledge and losing innocence. No one can remain in Eden forever.

Wishing everyone blessings on this 42nd day of the Omer.


Rituals, spiritual fidelity, and turning toward God (Naso)

Next weekend I'll be the scholar-in-residence at a Shabbaton at Temple Beth El of City Island. In anticipation of my visit, they graciously invited me to post a d'var Torah at their rabbinic blog. For the sake of completeness, I'm also archiving it here. Enjoy!

In this week’s Torah portion (Naso) is the strange ritual of the Sotah, which on its face concerns an allegedly unfaithful wife, a jealous husband, and a magic brew of water and dust. When our sages say of Torah, “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it,” I believe they invited us to turn this Sotah passage so it reveals not only old-paradigm patriarchy and heterocentrism, but also deep wisdom for today. Before we can turn it, though, we need to look with open eyes at what it is we’re turning.

Here is the p’shat (the simple surface meaning) of the Sotah ritual. If a husband suspects his wife of infidelity, he should bring her to the priest with an unseasoned grain offering. The priest will dissolve dust from the temple floor in a vessel of sacred water; write the words of a magic spell on a piece of parchment; dissolve those words in the water; and make the woman drink it. The spell indicates that if she was unfaithful, her thigh will sag and her belly will distend. (Some commentators read these words to imply miscarriage; others see them as describing an immediately visible physical response to drinking these “waters of bitterness.”) If the woman has not been unfaithful, then nothing will happen and/or she will remain able to conceive. Either way, that’s the end of the strange Sotah story.

Almost everything about the Sotah ritual challenges our the modern sensibility. First, the gender inequality: a man could accuse his wife of adultery, but there’s no parallel ritual for a woman suspecting her husband of infidelity. While a woman’s sexuality is “owned” by her father or husband, a man’s sexuality is his own and untestable. Second, the Sotah assumes heterosexuality: there’s no ritual for a same-sex couple. Third, there’s the uncomfortable suggestion that an unfaithful woman will inevitably miscarry or become infertile, implying that anyone who miscarries or is infertile may be suspect. I have a sense for how emotionally and spiritually devastating miscarriage and infertility can be in the modern world, and I have no doubt that these experiences were equally powerful for our female ancestors. To link the pain of infertility with this kind of moral judgment adds insult to injury. For these reasons and others, we cannot read the Sotah to guide difficulties among intimate partners in today’s world. We need to turn it around to make it meaningful.

What if we read the Sotah, instead, as a psychological drama in which its actors represent different parts of the self? Through that lens, the verses about the Sotah tell an entirely different story: here’s what to do if I come to feel that some part of me has betrayed the greater unity to which I aspire. First, I must bring my whole self to a holy place, a place of prayer and connection with divinity. Body, heart, mind, and soul: all of me must present in order to move forward. In that holy place, I meet with a spiritual facilitator, someone who has a deep connection with God (symbolized by the Sotah ritual of appearing before a priest). With that person’s help, I articulate where I fear that I went wrong.

Then there’s a ritual of washing-away my misdeed. We write the words down and then let them dissolve. I drink from the living waters in which my misdeeds have dissolved — a way of internalizing, literally taking-into-myself, how my mistakes have been forgiven and washed away (symbolized by the physical drinking of the Sotah potion). If my teshuvah process is incomplete and I haven’t wholly integrated forgiveness, this process may make me feel worse (symbolized by the physical effects of drinking the Sotah potion when one is “guilty”). But if I’m able to release myself from my own misdeeds, then I come away with a clean slate, ready to begin again (symbolized by the Sotah promise of fertility).

Seen in this way, the ritual of the Sotah becomes a kind of spiritual direction session, an opportunity to work with a trained facilitator to fully effect the transformation of teshuvah, repentance and return.

Continue reading "Rituals, spiritual fidelity, and turning toward God (Naso)" »

The scent of memory

Lilac+bushI'd never encountered lilacs until the end of my first year of college. That was my first year living in New England, and my first Berkshire spring. Suddenly, as exams approached and the end of the year loomed, the tall bushes alongside the President's house and all around town sprouted flowers, and their fragrance was unbelievably beautiful. I remember my then-boyfriend picking sprays of lilac and bringing them to me in my dorm room. (That boyfriend has now been my spouse for almost sixteen years.)

I loved the lilacs' color palette of white and pale lavendar and deep purple. I loved the way they transformed otherwise ordinary greenery into a profusion of color. The color of lilacs reminded me of mountain laurels, which bloomed all around my childhood house in San Antonio in the spring; the scent reminded me of wisteria. But lilacs aren't quite either of those things. They are deeply, unmistakeably, themselves. I will always associate them with spring in the Berkshires when/where they and I first met.

(Alas, no one has developed a way to share scent through the internet. So unless you know the scent of lilacs and can hyperlink yourself to that memory, I can't share it with you, though I wish I could.)

This morning as I exited my car and made my way to Tunnel City Coffee for Torah study with the local Jewish clergy, the scent of lilacs caught me by surprise and quite literally stopped me in my tracks. I looked over and saw that the tall lilac bushes alongside the parking lot have, since last week, exploded like fireworks into a wild riot of lilac blossoms. I stood there and just breathed for a few moments, drawing their scent deep into my lungs, reawakening the neurons which called forth all of my lilac memories.

Now that I've lived here for many years, the season of lilacs carries other associations -- not so much the end of the school year (though the coffee shop this morning was packed with students frantically preparing for exams) as the long-awaited coming of green to our hillsides, the counting of the Omer and eager anticipation of Shavuot, the time when the forsythia bushes are shedding their yellow blossoms in favor of new leaves, the cusp of what will become summertime but isn't quite there yet.

I recited the blessing over blooming trees with our son some time ago. (Well -- we said the blessing after a fashion, in our own way.) But this morning as I scented the lilacs on the breeze, I said a shehecheyanu, the blessing sanctifying time. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of all being, Who has kept me alive, sustained me, and enabled me to reach this moment! And then I went on my way... but I will carry the scent of lilacs with me through my day, with gratitude and with a smile.

Paul in Jerusalem

Some weeks ago, I wrote a poem inspired by Paul Salopek's Out of Eden walk, his seven-year quest to cover -- on foot -- the original migratory journey of humankind. (You can find my poem on the Out of Eden blog -- Couplets and kilometers -- and it's now available in April Dailies, which you can read about here.) If you have any interest in travel, I can't commend Paul's work to you highly enough. You can read his chronicle of his journey at National Geographic, and on the companion website you can listen to audio clips, look at photographs, and encounter other multimedia glimpses of where he's been.

As it happens, these last several weeks he's been walking through some places to which I have a deep attachment. (Me and just a few other people, as it happens.) His most recent blog post is about a city I revisited only six weeks ago:

"This place is too complicated," says Yuval Ben-Ami, my walking partner in Jerusalem. He is a big man with gentle eyes. A writer. A radio host. A street singer—a bard. He has hiked Israel’s entire perimeter along its borders. He knows its village bus stations. Its cheap Ethiopian restaurants. Its most scenic battlefields. He has been up all night thinking. "The only way we can do this--"

And with a blue pen he draws a curlicue...

That's from Vortex: Walking Jerusalem, the most recent dispatch from Paul. Later in the essay he writes:

In a 5,000-year-old city where changes in neighborhood zoning rules earn international headlines—such is the ferocity of ownership over each square inch of Jerusalem—we orbit painful questions of identity, of zealotry, of personal loss, of national survival. We trudge over a hundred lonesome boundaries—invisible and monumental—that Israeli and Palestinian Jerusalemites do not cross...

I found his post incredibly resonant with my own sense of the city. It's poignant, surprising, and thoughtful.

Once you read it, click through to the walking Jerusalem map. You can see the dotted line of his walking journey through the city, and if you click on any one of the little icons, you'll be taken to a photograph taken in that spot. (As it happens, one of the first icons I clicked turned out to be the bookstore where I went for lunch with Bethlehem Blogger -- the place where I purchased Crossing Qalandiya, which I just reviewed recently.)

I'm looking forward to continuing to read Paul's dispatches -- especially as he walks through places which are entirely unknown to me. But there's something especially powerful about reading his words, and seeing his photos, from a place which I am fortunate enough to already know and love.

Happy Lag B'Omer!

BonfireHey, did you know that today is a Jewish holiday? Today is the 33rd day of the Omer. Since Hebrew numerals are also letters, today is called Lag B'Omer -- the letters for 33 spell out the word לג or lag.

Today is the yahrzeit, the death-anniversary, of the sage Shimon bar Yochai. He lived during the first century of the Common Era, and Jewish tradition says that he wrote the Zohar (the central work of Jewish mysticism.)

Tradition says he brought down the wisdom of the Zohar, which was passed-on orally until it was finally committed to print by Moshe de Leon in 13th-century Spain. Those with a more historical-critical bent might suggest instead that de Leon wrote the Zohar in an intentionally old-fashioned Aramaic. Either way, today is a day when we cultivate gratitude for the Zohar's spiritual fire.

"Zohar" means "splendor" or "radiance." It's a source of great light, in the sense of illumination and wisdom and insight. Maybe that's part of why we traditionally light bonfires on Lag b'Omer -- to send literal sparks flying upward as a reminder of the intellectual and spiritual sparks of our mystical tradition and its wisdom.

For more on this holiday, you can check out my Lag B'Omer category. I'm still quite fond of my 2009 post The bonfire of the expansive heart, which offers a few different classical interpretations of Lag b'Omer (the end of a plague which had been caused by Rabbi Akiva's students not respecting one another; the end of a Roman massacre of Jews during the bar Kokhba revolt),  and then focuses on a teaching from Rabbi Zvi Elimelech of Dinov which offers some beautiful thoughts about what it means to have a good heart.

May we all experience the Omer as a time for cultivating and expressing the best of our hearts, and a time for (as Rabbi Zvi Elimelech writes) "bringing together opposites in friendship." Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be so!

On engraved-pathways and connective-commandments: Bechukkotai

CJ_Candlesticks"If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments..."

These are the opening words of this week's Torah portion, Bechukkotai, as rendered in the standard Jewish Publication Society translation. Why mention both "laws" and "commandments" -- isn't that redundant? Actually, not in the original Hebrew. Torah uses different words for different kind of mitzvot. Specifically, here, we have the terms chukim and mitzvot.

The word chok means a mitzvah for which we do not know the logical reason. (They're often juxtaposed with mishpatim, mitzvot for which the reason can be understood. Caring for the needyfor instance: it's clear why that's the ethical thing to do.) Kashrut and brit milah are two big chukim. No one who engages in these mitzvot does so for rational reasons. These are mitzvot which ask us to trust in practices we can't understand.

My teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi teaches that the word chok comes from the root meaning "engraved." He writes:

In order to transmit an engraved message, the medium of transmission must give up something of itself: this is what the chipping-out process of engraving entails. And the medium of transmission here is us. More than the other types of mitzvot, the chukim ask for a higher level of surrender to a will that is not our own...[and] I have found that they bring me closer to the realization of God.

Surrender is not always easy for moderns. I will admit that I struggle with the spiritual value of surrender. For women in particular, there is deep spiritual wisdom in learning how and when not to surrender -- how and when to prioritize our own needs and desires. And yet I can't deny Reb Zalman's point that sometimes giving myself over to a practice (such as wearing tefillin on weekdays) impacts me in deep spiritual ways.

Wearing tefillin changes me. Every time I do it, I feel different. I can't rationally explain why that is, but I know that it's true. When I lay tefillin, also, it leaves a mark on me for a while afterwards. I have to wind the straps tight, or it falls off the arm -- which means that when I unwind the straps, there is a spiral on my arm. The action engraves itself on me, and even once that engraving has faded, it has an impact on my actions and my choices and my heart.

The English word "laws" doesn't seem to quite cut it. Let's try "engraved-pathways," and look at that first verse again:

"If you follow My engraved-pathways and faithfully observe My commandments..."

We usually translate mitzvot simply as "commandments." But the Talmud teaches that the word mitzvah can also be linked with the Aramaic word צוותא / tzavta, "connection." A mitzvah isn't just something which God commands us to do. It's an act which connects us. Mitzvot connect us with our ancestors -- with our descendants -- with the world around us -- with the source of meaning and mystery which we name God.

Perhaps the English word "commandments" doesn't reflect the Hebrew deeply enough. Let's try "connective-commandments." And let's skip ahead a few verses and see what the Torah teaches will happen if, in fact, we do these things which God asks:

"If you follow My engraved-pathways and faithfully observe My connective-commandments... I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people."

This, Torah tells us, is the reward for allowing our lives to be engraved with the furrows and pathways of religious practice, the grooves of gratitude and ritual which we carve and through which our hearts and minds learn to flow. This is the reward for practicing the mitzvot, which connect us in to our deepest selves and out to our community around the world, back through the chain of generations and forward to the descendants we can't yet imagine. If we do these things, God will be present with us. The active covenantal relationship between us and God will flare to life and stay alive within us.

This week's Torah portion also tells us that if we follow in these pathways, the rains will fall in their season and we will have abundance. For many years, the Reform movement looked askance at verses like these, seeing in them a kind of supernaturalism which belied the reality that rains and good harvests -- good fortune and blessing -- come to everyone, or they don't, but either way, they don't seem to come only to those who lead ethical lives. We all know that bad things sometimes happen to good people, and vice versa (whether or not those people live a life of mitzvot); how then can we assert that our following of mitzvot impacts the rains and the harvest?

But in an era of increasing awareness of climate change, we may find new resonance in these verses. When we -- writ large; we, the human community -- act in awareness of our connections with each other and with our Source, then we are good stewards of our planet. And when we do not, we contribute to a changing global climate increasingly characterized by floods like the one in Boulder earlier this year, drought like the one my parents have been experiencing in Texas in recent years, even the melting of the western Antarctic ice sheet which appears, scientists say, to now be inevitable.

But we can always choose to act in mindfulness of our connections. Our connections with each other, with our tradition, with our planet. When we do these things, we let God into our lives. And when we give ourselves over to the wisdom and practices of Jewish tradition; when we use the connective tools of our tradition to link ourselves with our generations and with our source; those choices will create their own reward.


This is's the d'var Torah which I offered yesterday at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Image: candlesticks engraved with the words שבת שלום, "Shabbat shalom."

Listening across our differences

ThumbSometimes when I look at my Twitter stream, and see the wide (and passionate) diversity of opinion which my friends express about Israel and Palestine, I despair of common ground ever being forged. If I can't imagine my friends on the one side really hearing my friends on the other side, how can it be possible that those who disagree with each other even more strongly than my friends will ever break bread together in peace?

Ethan has written a fair amount about the dangers of homophily, and about the echo chamber which arises when one is only exposed to limited opinions and perspectives. (Here's an early blog post on the subject; for more, I highly recommend his book Rewire.) I try hard to stay open, and to hear the voices of people who are different from me -- and I know that there are so many axes of difference that I'll always be working to broaden my hearing.

Am I listening to women as well as to men? Am I listening to people of color as well as to white people? Am I listening to transgender folks as well as those who are cisgender? Am I listening to people from the global South as well as people from the global North? Am I listening to people who are poor as well as people who are wealthy? (And so on, and so on.) And -- what do I do when the voices to whom I am listening are in tension with one another?

Listening can be a powerful and active thing. I learned this during my year as a student chaplain at Albany Medical Center. The greatest gift a chaplain can offer isn't "the perfect prayer" or "the right teaching," but real and whole presence. When I sit by someone's bedside, and open myself to hearing who they are and where they are, I manifest the listening and loving ear of God.

It's a lot easier to do that when I'm sitting by a hospital bedside than when I'm comfortably ensconced behind my desk encountering someone else's version of the news. And yet the opportunity to respond with openness and compassion is as real on Facebook and Twitter as it is when I'm ministering to someone who is suffering. Beyond that, while we don't all have the holy opportunity to engage in formal pastoral care, we all have countless opportunities to listen every day.

Ethan makes the case that homophily -- listening only to people like ourselves; that phenomenon referenced in the saying "birds of a feather flock together" -- can make us ill-informed about the world. Being a rabbi, I'm inclined to frame that same truth in religious terms. I think we have a religious obligation to broaden our sphere of understanding. Every person in the world is made in the divine image. No matter where they're from, or where they fall on the political spectrum, or where we might agree or disagree.

When we listen to people who are different from us (and different from each other), we can open connections between one experience and another, one understanding of the world and another. We encounter different facets of the infinite diversity of creation. The shema, which we recite every day, calls us to this work of listening. Listen up, y'all, it exhorts us. We are in relationship with the Source of All Being! And that Source is One. It's our job to listen to the unity which thrums behind our diversity.

There's a Talmudic story which teaches that the difference between God and Caesar is that Caesar puts his image on every coin and they are all alike -- whereas God puts God's image on every human, and we are all different as different can be. (For a beautiful drash on this, I commend to you Rabbi Arthur Waskow's God & Caesar: the Image on the Coin.) This is, as my programming friends would say, a feature and not a bug. It's not a flaw or an accident -- it's part of what makes creation so incredible.

And because we are so different in so many ways across this wide world (and even across narrow subsections of our world!), sometimes we disagree. I struggle with that sometimes. Like many clergy, I'm a born peacemaker, and I've had to learn to resist the temptation to put a "band-aid" over disagreements in a facile attempt to bring healing.

It is not always easy to hold a posture of openness to differing perspectives and views. Sometimes it feels like my own heart has become the container where opposing voices are duking it out. (Those are generally times to step away from the computer and ground myself in cooking, or reading a book to our child, or in poetry and prayer.)

But I think that cultivating that posture of spiritual openness -- developing the habit of keeping one's heart and mind open to other perspectives, even when (especially when) those other perspectives challenge us -- is some of the most important inner work we can do. And if there come moments when I look at our heartfelt differences of opinion and I feel despair, then I have an opportunity to pray that I might soon be returned to the ability to look at our differences and see opportunity for connection again.


Image: from a print by Jackie Olenick.

Turning five

    What do you miss?
    asked the interviewer--
            -- Luisa A. Igloria, "What do you miss?"

My mother's gathered blue silk
beneath my fingers. Sun hat

sketching a floppy bow. Pearls
heavy as an Olympic medal.

Scratchy gold ribbon twining
my ankles, tethering my shoes.

Not yet knowing why clip-on earrings
wouldn't fool my dad for an instant.

Not yet knowing all the rules
that even God can't break. Certainty

that luncheons and pink lemonade
would last.


In response to What do you miss?

For further reference: Dress-up party.

Talking to kids about friends, neighbors, and danger

My dear friend Ayesha Mattu tweeted this to me, and my mind started racing. Because on the one hand, I am an incredible admirer of Abraham. I try to take him as a role model. At every Jewish wedding I perform I mention that the chuppah (wedding canopy) is open on all sides, like the tent of Abraham -- a symbol of welcome and openness to the diversity of human experience. I love that Abraham is called the "friend of God," and I love that our tradition teaches he went forth in response to God's call into unknown adventure. I want our son to grow up to emulate Abraham in these ways.

And on the other hand...our son is four-and-a-half. I know that he still inhabits the Eden of believing that everyone in the world is loving and kind and genuinely wants the best for him. Someday I am going to have to teach him that he can't trust everyone, and that breaks my heart -- but that's a heartbreak I infinitely prefer to (God forbid!) the heartbreak of him blithely following someone into harm. How do I navigate that tension?

The Hasidic master known as the Meor Eynayim ("The Light of the Eyes") taught that when Abraham opened his home in hospitality to strangers, he was greeting the face of Shekhinah. In other words: when we open ourselves to those who are different from us, we encounter the presence of God. I believe this deeply, and I aspire to live by its light. After all, the verse most often repeated in Torah the injunction to love the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Being kind to the stranger is central to our tradition.

We've tried to teach our son to be kind to everyone he meets. To treat everyone he meets as a potential friend. To be gracious (okay -- as gracious as a four-year-old can be!) in sharing toys and art supplies and stickers when friends come over. To be open to meeting new people and having new adventures. So far I think it's working. He is one of the most open, sweet, and (age-appropriately) generous kids I know. Once, in an airport, he saw a baby crying and he wanted to give that baby his lovey, because he knew the lovey helped him stop crying when he was sad. I love this about our kid.

And yet I know that not every new person, not every new adventure, is safe.

I remember a few years ago taking our son to the local coffee shop (with which he was already intimately familiar!) and standing at the counter to buy some ground coffee -- and looking down to discover that he was no longer by my side. I panicked and shouted his name. "Oh, he's over there," said the barista, pointing to a table, and I saw our son seated with four perfect strangers, merrily babbling to them as they laughed, clearly enjoying his company. "I figured you knew them...?" I did not know them. Thank God, they were friendly strangers! And in our small college town, that's usually a safe assumption. But that isn't true everywhere.

In the Twitter conversation which arose out of Ayesha's tweet, she mentioned the tension of wanting to keep her son safe and also wanting him to connect with the homeless and with those in need. I know the feeling, though I'm pretty sure our son has never seen a homeless person -- homelessness does exist in our rural county, but not in his orbit. We try to teach him generosity in the small ways that we can (for instance, teaching him that the clothes he's outgrown go to other kids; that toys he's outgrown go to kids who might not have toys of their own) -- but I don't know how he'll respond the first time he sees genuine need. And I hate that we will eventually have to teach him that there are people in the world who seem ordinary but might have hurtful intent.

How can I teach our son to emulate Abraham's openness and hospitality without putting him in danger? Right now his experiences with unfamiliar adults are curated and moderated by we who care for him -- his parents, his grandparents, his schoolteachers. As he gets older, we'll continue teaching him discernment about strangers and safety in different situations. (Here's a good article about how to talk to young children about strangers.) I desperately want to protect him from harm -- and I also don't want him to lose his ability to be open to, to befriend, and to learn from people who may be different from him.

Other parents, teachers, therapists, social workers, anyone reading this who wants to weigh in: how do you balance teaching children about openness to strangers, to the "Other," with age-appropriate awareness of the world and its dangers?

The road and the walking

Wanderer, your footsteps are
the road, and nothing more;
wanderer, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.
By walking one makes the road,
and upon glancing behind
one sees the path
that never will be trod again.
Wanderer, there is no road--
only waves upon the sea.

Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino, y nada más;
caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda
que nunca se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante, no hay camino,
sino estelas en la mar.

Antonio Machado, Campos de Castilla (1912), translated by Betty Jean Craige

I encountered this poem in a daily "Making the Omer Count" email from the Jewish Mindfulness Network (sign up here) and it struck a chord. "Wanderer, there is no road / the road is made by walking." I hear the poet saying that although we may imagine that there is a single correct path on which we're "supposed" to walk, that's a fallacy -- a comfortable and perhaps comforting notion, but not ultimately true. There is no single right way to live a life. Do you find comfort in the idea that you're "doing it right" -- or do you castigate yourself with the idea that you're "doing it wrong"? The self-praise and self-blame are equally incorrect. There is no single path. Wherever you are, is wherever you are. You can't be in the wrong place, because by definition, whatever path you're walking is your path.

We may imagine that we know where we're going. We may pretend that we're in control of the journey and we can anticipate both the destination and the turns the road will take along the way -- but that too is a falsehood. No matter what I do or don't do, there are things I can't control. Sickness and health; other people's choices; what hand of cards I will be dealt in any given moment -- all beyond my ken. The only thing I might be able to control is how I respond to what arises in me and around me... and even there, my ability to maintain control isn't absolute. What would it feel like to yield, to let the road unfold as it will and to seek the blessings in wherever the road takes us? What would it feel like to trust that my footsteps are the road, that I am always already where I am meant to be?

"The road is made by walking." This line shifts me from thinking in terms of an individual life, to thinking in terms of community. I think of halakha, the Hebrew word usually translated as "law." Halakha is the ongoing conversation between our texts, our sages, and today's interpreters. Halakha is the process which seeks to connect our actions with the revelation at Sinai and our communal connection with God. And the word halakha comes from the root which connotes walking. In its deepest sense, halakha is not a set of strictures and instructions -- it's a way of walking. My teacher Rabbi Daniel Siegel has taught that halakha doesn't speak; halakhists do. Which is to say: there is no single authoritative voice of the halakha. Instead we have the many and varied voices of those who strive to interpret what has come before us. We make the road by walking.

"By walking one makes the road[.]" Each of us walks her own path. Only in looking back may we achieve full clarity on where we've been and how we got to where we are -- and that hindsight comes with the price of not being able to walk any stretch of the road twice. I think of all of the milestones I've passed along the way, and I know that the road of my life will never return to those places. Not only that, but the minute during which I began to write this post...? Gone, and unrecoverable. The minute during which you began to read...? The same. The only path we can see clearly is the one we've already walked, and because we've already walked it, it's fixed. The road ahead is limitless potential, an infinity of choices and changes. Only the road behind can be known. Every step I take builds the road of my life beneath my feet.

And after all this, Machado takes the poem's ultimate turn: in truth there is no road, only waves on the sea. Life is flux and change, the ratzo v'shov ("running and returning") of Ezekiel's angels and of our own spiritual lives, the waves going out and the waves coming in. That, in turn, reminds me of one of my favorite parables which I first heard at Elat Chayyim from Rabbi Jeff Roth -- the two waves in the middle of the ocean, one big and one small, and the big wave was weeping with fear. "Why are you crying?" asked the little wave. "If you could see what I see," said the big wave, "you'd cry too -- we're headed for a rocky shore, and when we reach the rocks, we'll be shattered into nothingness!" But the little wave had access to a deeper wisdom, and said to the big wave, "we're not waves -- we're water."

We're not waves, we're water. We are more than individual souls who shatter on the rocky shoals of death. That within us which is eternal remains eternal, even when the form we've taken during this life comes to its end. An individual wave disperses into foam, but the motion of the sea is forever. And so are we. My path, your path, the footsteps of everyone who has ever lived and everyone who will ever live -- waves which come and go, run and return. Life, being, the very cosmos -- expanding and contracting, inhaling and exhaling, beginning and ending, beginning again.

Announcing April Dailies

AprilDailiesOne of my readers asked me recently, "Are you going to publish your National Poetry Writing Month poems? Because otherwise, we're going to have to resort to just printing them out." My mother said the same thing to me last year. In both cases, I promised that I could improve upon a sheaf of print-outs.

On that note, I'm delighted to be posting today to announce a new chapbook -- April Dailies! Here's the official description:

Writing daily poems is a discpline designed to prime the pump of creativity and to hone attention to the ideas, phrases, and everyday miracles which are a part of every life.

This chapbook collects the results of an annual month-long experiment in attention: daily poems written during the spring of 2013 and 2014, now revised for publication.

(It also replaces the chapbook I put out last year, which contained last year's daily poems plus the commentaries I'd posted alongside them -- that one's now officially out of print.)

Here are this year's poems, arising out of recent travels in Jerusalem and Hebron, Pesach and the journey into the Omer, small-town country life -- and last year's poems, arising out of parenthood, brushes with sorow, and spring.

Many of the poems have been substantially revised from the original versions posted here during NaPoWriMo.

I love the discipline of writing daily poems, especially in the context of a community of others who are engaging in the same practice. It's a lot like writing weekly poems, a practice which I've had off and on for years. (See 70 faces and Waiting to Unfold, both published by Phoenicia.)

Whether writing daily or weekly, the process mimics my former life in small-town journalism. The relentless constancy of regular practice mitigates against perfectionism, and that in turn lets me access a different kind of creativity.

Writing daily poems keeps me attentive to the poetic possibilities of ordinary life, just as daily prayer practice keeps me attuned to living with prayerful consciousness. I hope that reading them brings some joy to you.

Available at for $5.70 at, and for £3.50 at and €4.00 at Amazon Europe.

Crossing Qalandiya: letters between two women

You have no idea how strange I feel lately - almost as if I've started seeing things differently -- through your eyes. Maybe this is normal, because we know each other relatively well now, and of course this has an effect. I keep finding myself explaining 'your side' to people. And, frankly, I am shocked at some of the reactions I get.

There are many people here who are completely blind to the way things look from your point-of-view, and to what your people are going through. I am sure this is also true for some of the people on your side. But suddenly it has become clear to me that so many of the problems are the result of miscommunication and misunderstandings... so the only solution is dialogue.

Crossing-qalandiya-220x330That's from one of Daniela Norris' letters to Shireen Anabtawi, as collected in Crossing Qalandiya: Exchanges Across the Israeli/Palestinian Divide, published by Reportage Press in 2010. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The book begins with a letter from Daniela, and here are her first words:

Dear Shireen, I hope you are well, and that you remember me. We met in Geneva last month, at a cocktail party, at Michelle's house. I admit that I was taken aback when you said you were from Palestine. I was convinced you were Italian or Greek -- something Mediterranean, anyway -- but I didn't imagine you were Palestinian.

It is strange, but despite the few kilometres that set us apart, I have never really gotten to know a Palestinian woman. Certainly not one as charming as you. What can I say? I am embarrassed to admit that the image I had of Palestinians was somewhat different...

I have a confession: I hesitated before I went to meet you the next morning. After all, you are supposed to be "The Enemy," and who knows what The Enemy has in store for them? But we said we'd bring our kids along, and when I arrived with my two little boys and saw you waiting at the café with your two beautiful children, I was ashamed of my previous thoughts... Ever since I met you, I read and listen to the news from our region differently, with more compassion for the other side -- your side.

Shireen, in turn, writes back:

Dear Daniela... I appreciate your frankness. I must admit that the only Israelis I've met over the past years have been the soldiers at road-blocks, and I, too, found it strange to meet an Israeli woman with whom I was able to connect so easily....

You ask about my daily life in Ramallah. I hope that one day you'll be able to visit me here. Ramallah is beautiful. When I was in Europe and said I was from Ramallah, people asked me whether we had roads, shops, food. I was surprised to hear these questions. It's so sad that this is the image we have in the eyes of the world.

...All in all, my life here is pretty good, but I must admit that it is difficult to come back to Ramallah after spending time in Europe. When we travelled, we drove from country to country and were rarely asked to show a passport. Here, if I want to visit my family in Nablus, I have to show documentation and permits; not only that, but I have to wait long hours at road-blocks, in the heat or in the rain...

Daniela and Shireen met by chance at a party in Geneva. Daniela had worked for the Israeli Foreign Service for seven years, and later was an advisor to the Permanent Mission of Israel at the UN in Geneva. Shireen is a former director of Public Relations at the Palestinian Investment Agency in Ramallah, and later worked for the Palestinian Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva. As the book's introduction explains, the two women met many times in Geneva over several months, with and without family members, and their friendship bloomed. Neither speaks the other's language, so their communication was in English, the language which they shared.

Once they returned home again, despite the geographical proximity of their homes, they were worlds apart. So this correspondence began. Each wrote in her native language, and then translated it into English before sending. The end result is this book, which I bought at the Educational Bookshop in Jerusalem last month and have only now finished reading.

Continue reading "Crossing Qalandiya: letters between two women" »

Be kind

5b628aa5790b9c0a1cb9a1bb68101832A while back, one of my friends posted something on Facebook which resonated with me -- a quote which suggested that we never know when someone is facing something difficult or painful, or carrying some hidden grief, and so the most important thing is to be kind.

When I did a google search, trying to find the quotation in question, I found "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle," sometimes attributed to Plato, sometimes Philo, and other times to John Watson -- not the Arthur Conan Doyle character, but the reverend. (For more on this: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle -

I've seen a variation on this idea raised in response to various online imbroglios. If someone doesn't reply to your comment right away, don't assume that they're ignoring you; if someone posts something distressing, try to give them the benefit of the doubt; you never know what's going on in their life behind the privacy of the computer screen.

But even in person, I think it holds true. We never really know all of what's arising in someone's head and heart, or what anxiety or sadness they may be carrying. A fear, a difficult diagnosis, distance from a loved one, regret... we hold a lot of things in our hearts, and many of them are not easy to sit with.

In such a situation as this -- and this is the situation in which we all live, whether or not it's particularly acute at any given moment -- what could be more important than being kind?

One of the commentors on that quoteinvestigator post noted that this is very like a teaching from Mahayana Buddhism. To wit: suffering is pervasive; we compound our suffering by forgetting that we are interconnected; the way out is to recognize our interconnectedness and to treat everyone with kindness.

In my religious tradition we say that chesed, lovingkindness, is one of the fundamental characteristics of God -- and as we are made in the divine image and likeness, lovingkindness is an essential human quality, too. "On three things the world rests," says one of our aphorisms: "on Torah, and on avodah (service / prayer), and on gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness)." Without acts of lovingkindness, the world would not endure.

It's not always easy to respond to the world from a place of chesed. I am reminded of this daily in a hundred tiny ways. Our child dawdles getting dressed and I risk being late to meet someone. Someone sends an email which agitates me and makes me angry. I hear something on the news which raises my ire. I don't always manage to respond in the way I might wish.

But it's a goal worth aiming for. Because we all suffer, and we all carry wounds both old and recent, and we all yearn to be met with kindness.

Another poem of hope


When Moshiach comes
    everyone will celebrate
        interdependence day.

We'll line the streets
    for a parade of children
        leading lion cubs and lambs,

wave flags emblazoned
    with our blue-green earth
        against the star-spangled void.

All the world's marching bands
    with their gleaming epaulettes
        will play anthems in counterpoint.
On that day we'll remember
    that every molecule on earth
        is made of the same stardust.

All humanity is responsible
    for one another. The trees
        breathe out what we breathe in.

The only way
    to get it together
        is together.

The idea that every molecule on earth is made of stardust comes from a recent episode of the show Cosmos, hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

"All humanity is responsible / for one another" is a riff on the Talmudic phrase Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, "All Israel is/are responsible for one another."

"The only way to get it together is together" is a quote from Reb Zalman.

Poems of miscarriage and healing

After reading Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin's poignant and courageous essay Can We Please Tone Down Mother's Day This Year?, about facing Mother's Day after repeated miscarriage, I wanted to post here to offer a reminder of a small resource which is free to share: my chapbook Through, poems of miscarriage and healing, published in 2009.

Through is available for free as a digital download, or printed at cost (under $5) if you want a paper copy for yourself or for a loved one.

Here's what others have said about the collection:

"This can't have been an easy experience to write anything about at all, let alone to distill into ten brief, searing, and luminous poems. As with Rachel's earlier chaplainbook, these are accessible poems with several different layers of meaning, so I think almost anyone who's ever gone through a miscarriage will get something out of it. Which is not to say the audience should end there: miscarriage is a subject every bit as relevant and revealing of the human condition as warfare, for example. So why doesn't it get more attention from writers and artists?" -- Dave Bonta, at Via Negativa

"The Velveteen Rabbi, Rachel Barenblat, has written a collection of poems about miscarriage -- based on her own -- and offers Through to any reader who wants or needs them. As Dave Bonta points out, miscarriage is not a widely discussed topic, certainly not by men too often, but not even by women. Find comfort and companionship in shared grief and experience. For yourself, or someone you know." -- Deb Scott, at ReadWritePoem

Miscarriage, and sorrow around infertility and attempts to conceive, are among the silent scourges we usually endure alone. But I believe there can be some small comfort in sharing our stories and in knowing that others have walked -- continue to walk -- these difficult paths.

You can read excerpts from the collection, and/or click through to the free download or the at-cost printed edition, at the original post announcing the chapbook's publication: Miscarriage poems: "Through."

May comfort come to all who mourn.

Entering Week Four of the Omer

Aharon-Varady-Sefirot-HaOmer-ChartI haven't been blogging the counting of the Omer this year. I wish I had been able to commit to a practice of writing something inspired by the themes and teachings of each of the 49 days, but there was just no way -- it was either daily poems during April, or daily posts during the Omer, but I couldn't see how to do both! (Maybe some year I'll try writing a cycle of 49 poems during the Omer count, but this was not the year for it.) But I've been thinking a lot about the Omer journey this year.

Today is the 21st day of the Omer -- in the kabbalistic system, the day of Malchut she'b'Tiferet. Malchut means sovereignty, nobility; it evokes the presence of Shekhinah, the immanent divine Presence dwelling within creation. Tiferet means harmony, balance, compassion. In his Omer guide, Rabbi Rami Shapiro describes today's quality as "the capacity to help others without demeaning them." The ability to respond with harmony and compassion from a place of gentle presence and connection with God.

Tonight at sundown we'll enter into the fourth week of the Omer. This is the middle week of the seven: three weeks before, three weeks after. This week is the hinge between the first half and the second half.

In the kabbalistic system, this is the week of Netzach, endurance. (Here's the post I wrote about this week a few years ago: Seeking endurance.) About this quality, Rabbi Min Kantrowitz writes:

Netzach is like spiritual fuel... Helping us get through difficult times with grace, Netzach is available during the bumpy events of ordinary times and the dramatic and unavoidable traumas of life.

Also in that kabbalistic system, the first day of each week of the Omer is the week of Chesed, lovingkindness -- so the day which will begin tonight at sundown will be the day of Chesed she'b'Netzach, Lovingkindness Within Endurance. Rabbi Min writes:

Chesed she'b'Netzach is the fuel that keeps a parent awake for hours in the middle of the night soothing a colicky infant, sustains the exhausted caregiver helping his dying lover, and supports the underpaid teacher of distracted and energetic adolescents.

Perhaps these descriptions will resonate with some of you, as they resonate with me.

Any substantive journey of transformation -- be it counting the Omer, preparing for the Days of Awe, studying for years toward rabbinic ordination, or parenthood -- requires endurance. There comes a time when one has traveled such a distance that the old shores of one's former life have receded in the distance, but the new shores of who one is becoming are not yet visible on the far side of the sea.

The 22nd day of the Omer, which begins tonight, invites us to cultivate lovingkindness as we seek to draw on our own endurance. This is not about gritting our teeth and getting through it. This is a process of responding to whatever arises, as we seek to continue doing the work, with kindness and with love.

How can you be kind to yourself as you try to sustain the big work of your life? How can you hold yourself with love even as you struggle to keep putting one foot in front of the other, despite obstacles and difficulties which inevitably arise? Can you respond even to those difficulties from a place of unending love?

This week's portion: creating liberation; Shavuot; and the Jubilee

Liberty+bell+PAThis week's Torah portion, Behar, tells us that when we enter into the land we may farm for six years but the seventh year should be a Shabbat for the land. During that year we should neither sow nor reap; it is a chance for the earth to experience the sacred rest which is part of the structure of creation. The Torah goes further: not only is every seventh year meant to be a shmita (sabbatical) year, but after seven "sevens" of years -- 49 years -- the 50th year is the Yovel, or "Jubilee," and that year too is a year of sacred rest.

During the Yovel, all debts are cancelled; those who have gone into indentured servitude are released; and any land transactions which have taken place are annulled so that the land can return to its original owners. Or perhaps I should say, original caretakers -- since Torah is clear that the land may be lent to the tribes of Israel, on condition of appropriate behavior thereupon, but it truly belongs to the Holy One of Blessing.

It's always striking to read these verses during the counting of the Omer. This week's Torah portion instructs us to count seven "sevens" of years, and to celebrate the 50th year as a time for proclaiming liberty throughout the land. Right now we are counting seven "sevens" of days, and we will celebrate the 50th day as the time of the giving of the Torah. What might the parallel teach us? How is Shavuot like the Jubilee?

In his collection Tales of the Hasidim, Martin Buber recounts that the rabbi of Kotzk was asked: "Why is Shavuot called 'the time the Torah was given' rather than the time we received the Torah?" The Kotzker answered: "The giving took place on one day, but the receiving takes place at all times." Shavuot is the day when we celebrate God's gift of Torah -- but the reciprocal process of actively receiving Torah is ongoing. The Jubilee year is the year when we celebrate release from our accumulated debts and transactions -- but the reciprocal process of actively creating liberation is ongoing.

The sabbatical and Jubilee year teach the importance of emunah, trust and faith. In the ancient world, taking a year off from cultivating food was a profound gesture of emunah. It required a leap of faith in God Who would provide even if we stopped our farming and harvesting. (And if that were true of the sabbatical year, how much more so the Jubilee year.)

My b'nei mitzvah students frequently ask me whether this ever actually happened. Maybe, maybe not. I can offer a variety of rabbinic teachings about the conditions under which we are traditionally considered obligated to follow these teachings. But for me, that's not the interesting question. I'd rather ask: what spiritual truths can we learn from this week's Torah portion?

As Shabbat is our weekly reminder to relinquish work and to recognize ourselves as holy and beloved regardless of our job titles, salaries, or accomplishments, the shmita year reminds us that the earth too is holy and beloved regardless of how "valuable" it may be and regardless of how we may usually put it to work for us. And the Yovel year urges us to let go of debts and grudges, to relinquish old angers and outdated paradigms, in order to experience true freedom.

It's only when we are free that we can choose to enter into a different kind of relationship -- the covenant between us and God which we reconsecrate and renew at Shavuot. Slaves to Pharaoh, slaves to overwork, slaves to opinion and custom can't enter into real relationship with God. But once we are free, then we can choose: not to be enslaved, but to serve. Our purpose in this life is not earning money or seeking fame. It's serving God through caring for our planet and living in right relationship with each other.

This requires emunah, trust and faith, no less than the temporary cessation of farming did. To proclaim release and liberty -- to consciously free ourselves from old paradigms, constricted understandings, the grudges and hatreds we have taken on -- requires us to trust that something better is possible. It requires us to believe that there is more to who we are than our accumulated labels. But imagine if each of us could really do that. What new Torah might we be capable of receiving at Shavuot then?


Image: closeup of the Liberty Bell, with its inscription of a verse from this week's Torah portion: "Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."