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"To boldly go": on Lech Lecha and Star Trek

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Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before. [Source]

If you're a Star Trek fan, just reading those words has probably caused the theme music to swirl wildly through your head.

(I've just revealed myself as a fan of Next Generation, since those are the opening lines of that second iteration of the show. In the original series, the opening lines referenced the Enterprise's "five-year mission," and closed "where no man has gone before." Among my college friends, it was common to whoop and cheer out loud when we heard Sir Patrick Stewart intone "no one has gone before.")

This week's Torah portion begins on a similar note. We're reading Lech-Lecha this week, which begins:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ...

The Eternal said to Abram: "go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father's house, to the land that I will show you....

These are the voyages of the patriarch Abraham. (He'll inherit the extra syllable in this week's portion.) His continuing mission: to explore the ancient Near East, to seek out new tribes and new civilizations, and -- spiritually, at least -- to boldly go where no one had gone before.

Abraham is regarded as the first monotheist. Midrash holds that his father Terach was a maker of idols, and that young Abram knew them as false gods and smashed them in his father's workshop. (The same story appears in the Qur'an, as I've mentioned before.) In this week's Torah portion, God tells Abram to boldly go toward a destination which will be revealed as he gets there.

Abraham's travels show the importance of the journey. He displays emunah, faith and trust, by allowing himself to wander where God will take him. Jewish tradition holds that he was a paragon of hospitality whose tent was open to all comers. In that, he's not so different from the crew of the USS Enterprise -- though their wanderings aren't explicitly theological. Theirs is a secular humanist vision.

Abraham's descendants, too, will wander in what could be seen as a continuation of his voyages. (Judaism: The Next Generation.) Jewish tradition imputes meaning even to the wandering in the wilderness which the Israelites will endure after the Exodus from Egypt, and Moses' life too seems to be more about the journey than the destination. I think we're still on Abraham's journey of discovery.

I like to read the opening words of this week's parsha, "lech-lecha," not only as "go forth" but "go forth into yourself." Each of us is Abraham. Each of us is on a voyage of discovery. We're all always going wherever God will lead us. And we're all always exploring new worlds -- even if we're doing so internally, on emotional and spiritual planes, rather than in the vastness of the Gamma quadrant.

 

 

 

With gratitude to Joy Fleisig (@datadivajf) and Lee Weissman (@jihadijew) for the Twitter conversation which sparked this idea!

 


An afternoon on Heimaey

For #throwbackthursday: a few photos from 1998, illustrating a short essay of that same vintage. As far as I can recall, this one was never published anywhere.

 

Lonely Planet is my favorite series of travel guides. The guidebooks focus on exciting places. They're geared to the budget traveler. And I'm charmed by the fact that the series started out as a xeroxed handful of pages about the founders’ journey across Asia. The trick with Lonely Planet, though, is that you have to learn how to interpret their enthusiasm.

Imagine a spectrum of travelers. At one end is the tourist who prefers posh and expensive glamour-travel. At the other end is the traveler whose hiking boots have seen the world and who has the capacity to be entertained by watching fish swim by in a small stream. (No joke; that’s one of the pastimes the Faroe Islands section of our guidebook recommends.) Lonely Planet is geared toward that second archetype.

The Lonely Planet Guide to Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands says of the island of Heimaey, one of the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands, so named after the Irish slaves who unwittingly became their first inhabitants), that visitors normally allow themselves a day or two there, but many wish they’d allowed more. "If you have fine weather (which can include light rain, fog, or overcast skies), three days will allow time to best appreciate the place," the Guide says. We read these words as we were planning a five-day stay in Iceland at the start of our honeymoon. We decided to spend two of those days on Heimaey.

We woke around 5:30 to take a small plane from the tiny domestic Reykjavik airport to the tinier Heimaey one. (Getting up early was no problem, given that the sun had never set.) As we approached the island from the air, everything on its small teardrop shape was visible: at one end, the cross-shaped single airstrip; at the other end, two volcanoes, the harbor, the colorful roofs of Heimaey town.

Island

Continue reading "An afternoon on Heimaey" »


The work

Post_black525This is the work: remembering reasons for gratitude before I even get out of bed. There is always something for which I could be saying thank You.

This is the work: balancing brisk ("c'mon, we've got to get out of the house, I'm going to be late") with gentle ("want me to help you with your sneakers?")

This is the work: laughing at the same jokes again and again, because no one has an appetite for repetition like a five-year-old who's just discovered the "interrupting cow."

Noticing where I've made progress in my inner life, and celebrating myself for that. Noticing where I'm bumping again into things I thought I'd figured out, and forgiving myself for that.

Fixing the same meals, singing the same songs, doing the same bedtime routine. Waking myself up to the sweetness cradled in that routine's familiar contours.

Finding blessings in whatever unfolds. Even when the day is boring or grey or I feel as though I'm walking on a treadmill without getting anywhere. Can I turn the treadmill into a meditation labyrinth, where what matters are my conscious foosteps, not the destination?

This is the day that God has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. It only comes once. Tomorrow will be a new day, filled with new joys and new adventures. Or filled with new sorrows and new challenges. Or all of the above. But whatever it is, it won't be today. I don't want to miss today.

This is the work: setting boundaries even when our son doesn't like them, even when he tells me tearfully "if you say that one more time I won't be your friend!" Letting him know that it's okay to feel what he feels, and that I hear him, and that the rule still stands.

Letting myself know that it's okay to feel what I feel, and that God hears me, even when the world doesn't conform to my every wish any more than it conforms to our son's every wish. Remembering that even on my crankiest days, I am loved unconditionally.

Setting aside expectations so that I can embrace what is, whatever it is. Trying to grow radical acceptance and trust in the sometimes rocky soil of my heart. Watering that soil with prayer. Practicing the mantra of "I love what comes and I love what goes."

Parenthood is -- spiritual life is -- a parade of constant changes. Infancy gives way to toddlerhood, which gives way to childhood. The bitter passes away, and so does the sweet. Maybe for God, every instant of our lives coexists, but we're time-bound. This is the work: this moment, right now.

 

Image: a poetry postcard featuring a quote from Sophie Cabot Black. I learned the phrase slightly differently from my mentor Jason Shinder z"l -- "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work."

 


Lesson



After the party
    the trees reveal
        their elegant bones.
        
When winds blow
    they flirt, naked
        branches touching.
        
The hills unveiled
    show off their hips,
        put on new clothes.
        
Now they're professors
    in faded purple corduroy
        with conifer elbow patches.
        
They sit zazen
    and teach stillness.
        How to love what comes
        
and what goes.
    How to appreciate
        colors now muted

and light diffuse
    soft as wet leaves
        cushioning every step.
        
Bless what's fallen
    gracefully yielding
        to disintegration.




This poem began its life as the prose post Once the leaves fall, which I posted yesterday.


Once the leaves fall

I always forget that once the leaves fall, the trees reveal their elegant bones. So do the mountains. With branches bare, the contours of every hillside come clear. I can see houses, hills, horizon through what used to be a solid wall of leaves.

The hills take on their late-fall garb. Now they're turning a faded purplish-brown with patches of evergreen -- starting from the tops of the mountains, where the leaves are all already down. These colors are comforting and gentle on the eyes.

The skies here have been overcast lately. I tell myself that they are pearlescent and dove-grey rather than gloomy. I think of how beautifully Dale writes about diffuse light, about light during rain, and resolve to savor these variegated clouds.

We're on the last week before the time change. Next Saturday night, while we are sleeping, our nation's clocks will shift backwards an hour. In early mornings, the time change is a mercy; our wakeup time won't be pitch-black anymore. (Not until midwinter, anyway.)

And early evenings...? That's the trade-off. We're heading toward the time of the year when it will be dark by the time we finish Hebrew school on Monday afternoons. Every summer I remember that fall and winter are like this, and I can't quite remember how it's bearable.

But this time of year has its beauty, too. There's one house on Route 7 which I pass on the way home from work every day which is already lighting an electric candle in every window at nightfall. Some mornings now when our son wakes me I get to see the sunrise.

And after twenty-odd years in New England I find that there's comfort in the turn of the seasons, the inevitable change in the mountains' everyday dress, the way that month leads on to month and the year unfolds exactly the way it always does, the way it should.

Sunrise


Go into the word and reveal the light: a different reading of Noah

Last week we read parashat Noach -- the Torah portion which tells the story of Noah, the flood, the ark, and the rainbow. One of my favorite teachings about this story turns it into something else entirely. It hinges on the Hebrew word teva, "ark," which can also be understood to mean "word."

When God tells Noah to enter the ark -- so teaches the Baal Shem Tov -- God is also saying, "Enter the word." Go deeply into the word. Which word? The words of prayer. God's instruction to Noah is also an instruction to all of us. We're meant to go deeply into the words of prayer.

Some interpretations continue: just as the ark had three floors or levels, our use of words has different levels: mundane or ordinary speech on the bottom floor, conscious speech on middle floor, and holy speech on the top floor. (I'm not sure this refinement originates with the Baal Shem, but it's lovely.)

The instructions in Torah continue: Noah should make a tzohar, a window, in the ark to let in light. We need to make spaces for light in our words, to ensure that every word we speak is one which brings light to the world. In everything we do, we need to make sure that divinity can shine in.

The grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Efraim of Sudlikov (usually known by the title of his best-known book, the Degel Machaneh Efraim), writes -- in one of his short commentaries on Noah and the ark --  that there is always light hidden in the darkness.

Sometimes, the Degel notes, light seems to be covered-over and we can't access it at all. At those times, it's our job to open up the covering and reveal the light. Because light can be found even in the darkness. Maybe especially in the darkness, because darkness is what makes us seek.

 


Cheshvan

Tonight at sundown, when we enter into Shabbat, we will also enter into a new lunar month. On the Jewish calendar, we're about to begin the month of Cheshvan.

Rosh-chodesh

Cheshvan is an empty month. A blank slate. An open expanse. It is the only month which contains no Jewish holidays (aside from Shabbat) and no special mitzvot. Some people have the custom of calling this month Mar-Cheshvan, "Bitter Cheshvan," because after so many weeks of feeling ourselves to be in God's presence, we enter into a whole month with no festival opportunities to feel that closeness.

Some rabbis (me included) joke that Mar-Cheshvan is short for "Marvelous Cheshvan," and that Cheshvan is our favorite month precisely because there is nothing in it. After the hard work and the emotional-spiritual rollercoaster of the Days of Awe and Sukkot, a month containing nothing but weekdays and Shabbat feels like a gift. A time to embrace emptiness and quiet. Thank God for Cheshvan; I can't keep up this work-pace anymore!

But I think there's a deeper truth hidden in the "I ♥ Cheshvan" jokes. Our festival cycle has a rhythm, a natural ebb and flow. Times of extroversion and times of introversion; times of intense spiritual work and times of quiet when the aftereffects of that work can reverberate in our hearts and souls. After the spring journey of Pesach and the Omer, we get a quiet period before the summer's fasts and Tisha b'Av and the ramp-up to the Days of Awe. After the fall journey of the Days of Awe and Sukkot, we get a quiet period before the small holidays which stud the wintertime lead us toward spring and Pesach.

(These are northern-hemisphere interpretations; if you live in the global South, the seasonal rhythm is inverted, but the holidays still lead one to the next, and the spiritually-fallow periods are still built-in.)

The quiet time matters too. It's like the silence after the chant, writ large. When a long-anticipated event is over, there can be a let-down. All that time preparing and getting excited, and now it's over; now what? But Cheshvan offers the opportunity to experience the quiet time after the feasts and festivals as a necessary part of the rhythm.

Reb Zalman (may his memory be a blessing) used to speak about the importance of "domesticating" the peak experience -- taking the spiritual highs we can experience on retreat, and using their energy to fuel spiritual practice when we're home again. Coming down from the big fall holiday season is a little bit like coming home from a retreat. We return our focus to all the details of ordinary life. But that doesn't mean that we're no longer in the radiant Presence. We just have to remember how to access that Presence through ordinary living. Avodah b'gashmiut, in Hasidic parlance.

We couldn't live at the intense pace of the Days of Awe and Sukkot all the time. From the practical work of preparing services and sermons and setting up chairs and building sukkahs, to the intellectual work of studying the holidays' texts and liturgies and themes, to the emotional work of noticing what arises in us during the holiday season, to the spiritual work of teshuvah and inner transformation -- there's no way to sustain that level of activity and experience all the time. And that's okay.

The downtime helps us integrate the experience we've just had. Try this metaphor on: the quiet month which comes after all of the festivals is like the morning after a grand and elaborate wedding. The planning and preparation all culminated in a beautiful ceremony and a fabulous party -- and now it's the next day; the first day of the rest of the couple's life; time to integrate the memories and carry them into whatever comes next. Tishri was the wedding. Now it's the morning-after.

The party is finally over. The last guests have gone home. Awaken to your quiet house, a sweet sunrise, coffee filling the room with fragrance. Cup your hands around your mug and look around you. Something new is beginning, right here in this quiet place. Welcome to Cheshvan.

 

Related: The year as a spiritual practice, 2009


A glimpse of 1977

14980893193_c48a01464a_zWhen I traveled to San Antonio over the summer I brought back a bag of old photographs, which I am slowly digitizing, a few at a time.

Many of the photos are undated, so I have to guess at when they were taken. This one, though, says "1977" on the back. I'm grateful for that piece of metadata. It tells me that in this picture, I am two going on three, and my mother is only a couple of years older than I am now.

This was taken in the backyard of my childhood home. That house was made of limestone, with a roof made out of red clay tiles in the Spanish style. I remember that gate around our swimming pool, and I remember the little sculpture of a turtle (visible, though blurry, in the bottom right-hand corner) which had been shaped around a pipe, so that water could be made to spray into the pool out of the turtle's open mouth.

Some years later, when I was a decent swimmer and it was safe to take the railing down, my parents replaced the pebbled concrete around the pool with red bricks. And eventually the turtle too went away, though the little fountain remained. I think I insisted on keeping the turtle in the secret hideaway I constructed in the small space between our backyard and the backyard of our next-door neighbors. But none of that had happened yet when this photo was taken.

So many of the experiences I think of as having been formative hadn't happened yet when this photo was taken. At two there's an inconceivable amount of growing and changing ahead. My mother, in contrast, was already recognizably herself when this photo was taken. She had been a mom for years; she had already grown into the adult she intended to be. Of course there were decades of adventures ahead for her, too -- but I think nothing is as extreme as the changes we undergo as kids.

When I look now at photographs of myself as a child with my parents, I'm conscious of being a link in a generational chain. It's fascinating to imagine our son, when he is approaching forty, looking at photographs of me holding him when he was two. What will he see in the expression on my face, the way I look at him, the way we are together? What will he remember of those early years of stubbornly insisting "I do it," climbing and running and falling, playgrounds and sippy cups?

 

 

I'm taking advantage of the #throwbackthursday / #tbt meme -- which usually involves posting old photos on Thursdays -- as an opportunity to write short snippets of remembrance, sparked by whatever old photo I find to post. I can't guarantee that I'll do this every Thursday, but I'm enjoying the practice so far.


A poem about the name no one can know

SECRET NAME


No one knows the name I was given
by the one who taught me Torah
in my mother's womb. The tap
on my philtrum hid it from me
along with the mysteries of splendor
the secret of mixing fire and water
the spiced air of Eden.

When this deployment is through
and I stand before the Throne
I will not be asked
why I was not Zusya
but did the names I earned
live up to my very first name
which only the angels can speak?


Turning again to Luisa A. Igloria's poetry prompts, I accepted the one for the 21st: Write a poem about your secret name(s).

There's a midrash which holds that an angel teaches each of us all the Torah in the world while we are in the womb, but when we are born, a tap beneath the nose / above the lip makes us forget.

Re: "why I was not Zusya," if you don't know the Hasidic story about Rabbi Zusya on his deathbed, go and read -- it is wonderful.


String theory

It's a good thing my rabbinic smicha wasn't contingent on my sewing skills. That was the thought which kept going through my head as I struggled with carefully snipping seams (without snipping fabric), placing careful stitches to keep the seams from unravelling further, and then stitching four squares of folded fabric to make reinforced corners. I am not a seamstress, so this pushed the limits of my sewing capabilities. My stitches are far from beautiful or even. But they're functional, and that's what matters. Then I lined up threads in groups of four -- three short, one long -- and pushed them through the reinforced corners. And then I twisted them and tied them.1 By the time I was done, I had made myself a tallit katan.

Next week I'm going to be teaching my fifth-through-seventh-grade class about the mitzvah (connective-commandment) of tzitzit: wearing fringes on our garments. In theory they should already be familiar with this one. They've seen adults wearing tallitot (prayer shawls) in shul. And every Saturday morning, in the third paragraph of the Shema, we pray the verses which instruct us to place fringes on the corners of our garments in order that we might remember the commandments, and the Exodus from Egypt, and our relationship with God. Here's the way I usually sing them (the translation is designed to be singable to the same trope melody as the Hebrew):

And God spoke to Moses saying: speak to the children of Israel and say to them
that they should make tzitzit on the corners of their garments for all time,
and they shall place on the tzitzit a little thread of blue.
And these shall be for you as tzitzit, that you may look upon them,
that you will remember all of the mitzvot of Adonai and you shall do them,
so that you will not go running after the cravings of your heart
or the turnings of your eyes which might take you into places where you should not be!
So that you may remember and do all of My mitzvot, and be holy like your God.
I am Adonai your God,
the One Who brought you out from the land of Egypt to be your God.
I am Adonai your God!

(These verses are part of Jewish daily prayer too, though most of my students have never experienced weekday davenen.) But just because we sing the words all the time -- even given that I sing these particular words in English to make sure they're understood, and hold up my own tzitzit as a visual aid -- that doesn't necessarily mean that my students have ever paid attention, or thought about what the mitzvah means. I want to change that.

Continue reading "String theory" »


Tools for new beginnings

"This Shabbat is Shabbat Bereshit," I say, "the Shabbat when we begin the cycle of Torah readings again with 'In the beginning...' -- or 'With beginnings...' -- or perhaps 'As God was beginning...'"

I'm speaking aloud to those who've come for Friday morning meditation at my synagogue. My eyes are closed but I know who else is in the room.

"It's a time of new beginnings for us too. What will we need as we enter into this new year?" I let the question float for a moment.

"Imagine that you're standing at the bottom of a flight of stairs," I say, "and at the top there is a door. Walk up the stairs slowly, one by one. When you reach the top, the door opens, and inside is -- you! An older version of you, one who has lived through this year to come and knows what you will need. Invite yourself in. Sit down together. And accept whatever gifts your future self has to offer."

We move into silence.

I am picturing the same room I have pictured before when I have done meditations like this. It is cosy and has windows on all sides; I think it's octagonal, like a room in the turret of an old Victorian. There are rugs and bookshelves and an overstuffed chair or two and probably somewhere there is a cat. On the table between the two chairs is a teapot and a pair of cups, and my older self pours me a cup of tea which warms my hands.

"You're here to get tools for the year to come," she says, and I nod. "Excellent. I was hoping you'd drop by."

The first thing she hands me is a fountain pen. I recognize it: it's Dad's old Mont Blanc, the one I loved so much as a kid, which he gave to me when I went off to college. "I haven't seen this in years," I marvel. My older self smiles. "So this is -- what, writing?"

She nods. "Writing is the best tool we have. Whatever the year brings, write through it. Write it while it's happening. Write what you remember after it's over. Write for yourself, write for an audience, just keep writing."

The second thing is my velvet tefillin bag. "I'm wearing these now," I say, because I am -- here in the sanctuary, where my body is sitting -- though I don't have tefillin on in my imagination.

"I know." She gives me a private little smile. "Consider this a reminder about spiritual practice in general. Davenen, meditation, laying tefillin, talking with Shekhinah in the car -- whatever you can do to remind yourself that you're part of something bigger than your own life and that you're connected with the Holy One of Blessing."

The third thing she hands me is a ball of string. "Tzitzit?" I hazard a guess, because I've been thinking about tzitzit lately, and she grins and shakes her head.

"Remember that exercise where you sit in a circle with a group of people and one person holds one end of a ball of string, and throws it to another, who throws it to another...?"

I nod; of course I do, we have the same memories.

"We're all connected," she continues. "One person tugs on the string, everyone in the circle feels the pull. The string represents your connections. Keep them alive and humming. Reach out to people when you need them. Trust that you're always part of a web of connection. You're never alone."

I place the pen, the tefillin bag, and the string into my purse.

We sip our tea. After a while I say "Sorry, I have to--"

"--have to go, I know," she finishes for me. "See you next time."

I return my attention to the sanctuary where I'm seated. "Whatever gifts you've received, tuck them away so they'll be safe," I say aloud. "Say thank you for them. And walk slowly back down the stairs, back to this place and time, back to where we are."

I wonder what gifts my fellow meditators received. And I resolve to follow my own directions, and to take five minutes to write this down before I forget.

Happy Shabbat Bereshit, everyone. Here's to starting the story anew.


The silence after the chant

PauseToday is Shemini Atzeret, 'The Pause of the Eighth Day.' Sukkot is a seven-day holiday. Today is day eight.

Shemini Atzeret has various customs, including reciting the memorial prayers of Yizkor. And the tradition offers beautiful supplicatory prayers to recite on this day which ask God for rain. (I wrote a contemporary one several years ago, in the form of a ghazal.) But my favorite teaching about today is that today is a day for sitting still.

The Hasidic rabbi known as the Slonimer Rebbe teaches that there are two days called atzeret, "pausing," during the year. On each of these days, God asks us to be people who choose to pause, to linger in the divine presence.

Continue reading "The silence after the chant" »


Good grief

Grief is a funny thing. A peculiar thing, I mean, not an entertaining one. It creeps in unexpectedly when everything seems fine, silent as Carl Sandburg's fog which "comes / on little cat feet." It does not listen to reason. It pays no attention to any list of gratitudes. When it wells up, cue the waterworks.

Grief brings fragility. As though the delicate eggshell of the heart could crack open at any moment, revealing an endless salt wellspring. Even writing about it from a distance, I want to keep it at arm's-length. I use stock phrases: "a funny thing," "cue the waterworks." I'm deflecting to keep it at bay.

Grief doesn't only come in the aftermath of loss. There's anticipatory grief, awareness that a loss is coming. And sometimes losses compound one another. The loss of health. The loss of the unthinking freedom which comes with health. The loss of an anticipated future, of what one thought would be.

Grief is, I find, not like depression. When I have experienced depression it has placed a scrim between me and the world, whereas grief leaves one exposed and open. When I can head depression off at the pass, that's a good thing, whereas trying to evade grief seems emotionally and spiritually unwise.

Also unlike depression, grief has a known cause: loss, or the expectation of loss. It's not an existential sadness without explanation. Grief has meaning. As Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz has written, grief can offer the gift of transformation when we allow ourselves to feel it fully and to be changed.

Continue reading "Good grief" »


Apples and honey; falling leaves

ApplesAll the world feels redolent with apples and honey at this time of year. I've taken our son apple-picking twice since Rosh Hashanah. We go to a local orchard, only a few minutes away from our house. I love the palpable abundance of apple trees laden with fruits. And there's nothing else quite like the spicy-sweet crunch of a honeycrisp apple, especially one we've just plucked from the tree.

And when I look out the window in the morning, or step outside into the sukkah, or walk around the playground, the trees are brilliant orange and yellow. When the sunlight filters through their leaves, the very air feels honey-colored: golden and bright. The hillsides are an autumnal kaleidoscope, shifting and changing as the jewels of the leaves tumble, catch the light, float through the air.

It's easy to wish, "if I could only capture this moment!" Right now, with the trees all rustling and brilliant, with the sukkah standing proud in the backyard, our son singing silly songs in the car on the way to preschool. But even as it's happening, it's changing. Already some of the trees have lost the leaves at the top of their highest branches. The end of one thing, the beginning of the next.

Today is the seventh day of Sukkot, also known as Hoshanna Rabbah. Rabbah means great; hoshanna means "please save us!" In many communities people gather today to recite hoshanot, prayers which beseech God to save the earth. In the immediate aftermath of the climate march, with the drumbeats of the need for change ringing in our ears, these prayers take on a different urgency.

This year of 5775 is a shmita year, a sabbatical year, during which Torah teaches we are not to harvest in the land of Israel but instead to let the earth rest and lie fallow. "By the time the next shmita year rolls around," one of my colleagues said to me recently, "it will be too late to turn the earth around." A sobering thought. Ana Adonai, hoshia na -- please, God; please save us! -- takes on new resonance.

OrangehillsAnother Hoshanna Rabbah custom is circling the sanctuary seven times holding our lulavim, the bunches of branches with which we have beckoned blessings all week, and then beating the willow branches against the ground. The falling leaves represent the rain which is always so urgently needed in the Middle East.

We don't observe Hoshanna Rabbah in any formal way in my congregation. There will be no circumnambulations of the sanctuary, no beating of willow branches against the patio stones. But I will watch leaves fall from birch and oak and maple as the day unfolds. They drift and spiral to the ground, and they evoke the precipitation which I know will fall as the season deepens. Already our lawn is becoming obscured by their fading colors.

I know that it won't be too long before the lawn is obscured instead by fallen snow. And then it will be green again, and so will the trees. The end of one thing, the beginning of the next. I read recently that the leaves of our deciduous trees contain these astonishing pigments all the time, but when photosynthesis is happening, the chlorophyll obscures the reds and oranges and golds.

And then the trees gracefully let go of the need to keep producing food, trusting that their reserves will see them through what's coming, and for a gleaming fiery moment their hidden brilliance can shine.

 


How to Build a Time Machine

 

Start with two-by-fours and bolts.
Fashion a rectangle. Add crossbeams.

Then attach four posts sticking up
like the frame of an old-fashioned bed.

You'll need another pair of hands
to invert it, a wobbly table

higher than you are tall.
Lattices brace, giving the illusion

of wall. Hurl cornstalk javelins
onto the sketch of a roof. Thread

strands of light around the rafters,
golden garlands between the corn.

Hang variegated gourds beside
whatever shiny art or gadgetry

appeals to the five-year-old eye.
When the last paperclip is hooked

you're ready to step inside.
Wave palm fronds until they clack,

thumb the etrog and breathe deep.
Notice the sky change.

There's no controlling
where it will take you: to last year?

To next year? To the year when illness
revealed the fragility of your veins?

Or maybe to the forty years' wandering,
smoky cookfires and bleating goats,

nights beneath the tender curl
of God's sheltering embrace.

When you re-enter your old house again
don't be surprised if the ceiling

seems too plain. The side effects
are temporary. At week's end

pack the holy components
back in the Rubbermaid ark. Return it

to the basement. Unscrew the walls
and lean them against the garage

where they'll linger, inanimate
logs waiting to be lashed together again

into the raft which will ferry you
across next year's unknown seas.


I found myself wanting to write a poem but casting-about for inspiration. So I turned to the list of poetry prompts which Luisa Igloria shared last National Poetry Writing Month, and chose the one for the 13th day of that month: Write a poem which incorporates a set of instructions on how to get somewhere specific, and then on returning or coming back. The "somewhere specific" wound up being more a state of mind than a literal place, and I suspect the poem will become much shorter in revision at some point, but for now, I'm pleased with it.


What we remember

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My maternal grandmother; her two daughters; three of their daughters, including me.


Sometimes I wonder: what stories will our son tell about his growing-up, in years to come? How will he remember his childhood? What memories will he seize onto and hold fast amid the swirl of all the other memories which wash away? Sometimes I can't believe that he won't remember much of these early years. How can it be that he won't remember last night's potluck dinner in the synagogue sukkah, sitting at the kids' table, singing along with the Shabbat blessings, and then whooping and laughing while playing tag with the other kids in the deepening dark outside the sukkah which gleamed with strings of little lights?

And yet I don't remember much about being five, much less the years which came before it. My fifth birthday party was a dress-up party at a fancy restaurant called the University Club, at the top of one of the few tall buildings near our neighborhood. I remember dressing up in one of Mom's blue dresses -- made of crinkled chiffon, I think, or something like it -- and wearing a big strand of her pearls and a floppy sun hat. I remember that she asked if I wanted to pierce my ears to surprise my father, but I wasn't ready to do that, so we got me clip-ons instead. I remember the scratchy gold ribbon which held the high heeled shoes on my feet. Do I remember this because there is a Polaroid picture of it and I've had that photograph to remind me in the interim? Am I remembering a memory of a memory?

I must have been attending the Judson Montessori school then, in the old church building just around the corner from the Pontiac dealership. I remember painting at an easel, doing math with sticks which represented tens and hundreds, looking at a timeline made out of felt which depicted the earth's history. (Most of it was black, denoting the time when the earth formed and cooled. Then there was green for the time when plants arose, and yellow for the dinosaurs, and human history was represented by a tiny nubbin of red felt at one end.) I remember eating meals there while listening to Ravel's "Bolero." I remember coming home and throwing tea parties with my miniature set of rose-printed china, filling the tea cups with Bosco-flavored chocolate milk.

A basically happy childhood blurs together in memory. We remember the unusual moments against the backrop of undifferentiated normalcy. (Take the winter of 1985: I remember the "San Antonio blizzard of '85" which dropped thirteen inches of snow on my hometown, and I remember my middle brother's wedding the week of that blizzard, but the rest of the season is lost to me now.) As we age, it seems, our more recent memories are stacked on top of the pile and the oldest memories compress like flakes of soft snow packed over centuries into glacial ice. What would it take to find those memories again?

Continue reading "What we remember" »


Letter from the sukkah

SukkahOn the festival's first night I carried a tray out to the sukkah bearing dinner, kiddush cups, wine and juice, a lighter for the candle I encased in a many-pointed glass star so that the wind wouldn't blow it out. Our son complained that he couldn't see the moon, but we came back outside later when it had just risen -- huge and yellow over the dark horizon of the hills -- and he jumped up and down with joy.

I spent much of the first day of Sukkot bundled up in the sukkah: jeans, socks, fuzzy slippers, a shirt, a sweater, a jacket, a knitted hat and scarf, and fingerless gloves. Above me the cornstalks rustled in the breeze. Occasionally yellow maple leaves drifted down from one of the trees overhead and made their way through the schach of the roof to land on my laptop. I was chilly, but I stayed out for a long time.

Being in a sukkah feels like being indoors and outdoors at the same time. The fresh air says "outdoors;" the feel of roof and walls says "indoors." But not too indoors. I can see sky through the roof. The usual views of our backyard and the valley are broken into squares by the sukkah's wooden lattice. All around me, decorations and our son's apple-themed art hang as though in midair.

Sukkot is so short, in the grand scheme of things. Seven days. I didn't want to miss it; I didn't want to waste it sitting indoors at the desk where I sit the whole rest of the year. The commandment is leishev ba-sukkah, "to dwell in the sukkah" -- literally, "to sit in the sukkah," which always makes me think of sitting zazen. The point of sitting in the sukkah is just sitting in the sukkah. Gloves and all.

PomegranateI try repeatedly to photograph our sukkah in a way which would show you what it looks like, what it feels like. But as with the panorama of the autumnal Berkshire hills, the pictures of the sukkah don't capture its reality. Autumn light streaming past golden tinsel garlands and shiny glitter pumpkins, the endless soft rustle of the roof, the little lights which gleam at nightfall. All I can capture are glimpses.

The sukkah has to be experienced in four dimensions, including time. The sukkah only exists for a short window of time. And yet the sukkah is also a portal in time, a door to every other year when I have sat in a sukkah. The ghosts of ten sukkot are imprinted on this back yard. Surely God, Who inhabits all of space and time simultaneously, can see next year's sukkah, and the next, and the next...

In the sukkah I can hear crickets chirping. Soon hard frosts will quiet the hillsides. Soon -- but not yet. On the first evening of the festival, as we ate dinner in the sukkah, we listened to an invisible neighbor playing "Auld Lang Syne" on clarinet. Our own private Sukkot serenade. The soundscape of the week also includes chipmunks rustling in the hillside's fallen leaves, and Canada geese calling overhead.

The sukkah, some say, represents the cloud of glory which followed the Israelites in their 40-year wilderness wandering. This is a house of divine presence. The walls and roof may be barely-there, but Shekhinah surrounds me with her embrace. I think of the angel song, that prayer for surrounding our son with wonder, strength, light, comfort, and the presence of Shekhinah all through the night.

Weather will blow in. Eventually the sukkah will come down. Temporariness is an inextricable part of the design. And yet this is where we're supposed to rejoice. Not despite the leaky roof, short lifespan, short-term design -- but with them, in them, through them. Go outside in order to go inside. Through this parody of a roof, recognize the sheltering Presence which curls protectively over us all.


Inviting (science) fictional ushpizin

There's a Jewish custom of inviting ushpizin, holy guests, into the sukkah each night. In the most traditional paradigm one invites seven (male) Biblical figures; in a more contemporary paradigm one invites Biblical figures of both genders. Each of the invited guests represents or channels a particular mystical energy, so in calling on that figure to invite them to one's sukkah, one is also inviting that figure's qualities to flow into the sukkah and into one's life.

For instance, on the first night it's traditional to call on Abraham. In kabbalah, Abraham is connected with the sefirah (divine quality) of chesed, overflowing lovingkindness. On the second night, one would call on Isaac, who is associated with gevurah, boundaried strength. (And so on.) Here's a lovely Seder Ushpizata by Rabbi David Seidenberg -- a liturgy for inviting and calling-upon these incorporeal guests and their holy qualities. And here's a fantastic infographic on the ushpizin, which lists the traditional (male) ushpizin, an alternative list of female ushpizot, and even a set of Hasidic figures who can be mapped to the seven nights of the festival.

FireflyShortly before the holiday began I found myself pondering aloud on Twitter how one might map these seven kabbalistic qualities to characters from Firefly. The tweet drew enough response that I figured it was worth expanding into a post! If one wanted to welcome the crew of Serenity on all seven nights of Sukkot, in what order would they be called-on, and what qualities would we ask them to channel for us?

(If you are not a fan of Joss Whedon's tragically short-lived "space western" Firefly, the remainder of this post may hold limited appeal for you. No disrespect is intended, in this bit of whimsical geekery, to the traditional custom of inviting Biblical ushpizin.)

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Fall's beauty

At this time of year I want to take photographs all the time. Everywhere I look, fall colors blaze. The hillsides are a slowly-shifting tweed of late-summer green, orange, yellow, rust, and bright flares of pure red. Every day the color balance is different. Every day the color balance is beautiful.

Bailey

When light shines through the trees everything looks golden. Against the backdrop of dark clouds, the colors pop. And I know that at any moment the winds or the rain could knock the leaves off the trees and reveal bare branches beneath. Part of what makes it so gorgeous is that we know it can't last.

Noppet

Fall highlights the reality that everything in the world is always changing. I want to capture the beauty as though I could keep it, hold on to it, save it for another day. And I can -- to an extent. I can photograph it and write about it and remember it. But I can only inhabit the now right now.

Cemetery

This is one of the lessons of Sukkot for me each year. The beauty around me is always changing. We build the sukkah and it is beautiful. We decorate it, and it is beautiful. And as soon as it's built, it starts to come apart, and that's beautiful too. The trick is learning how to see the beauty in its changes.

Field

The challenge is finding the beauty in what is -- whatever is. Saying thank-you to God for the radiant splendor of a northern Berkshire autumn -- and for the muted colors which will follow it. This moment is all there is, and it is always passing. And it is always right now. And it is always beautiful.


Relearning how to slow down

Sometimes it's a little bit difficult for me to wind down after the holidays.

There's so much to do in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The most important parts for me are liturgical (practicing parts of the service with my hazzan, talking through transitions, trying out harmonies) and language-based (sermons, sermons, sermons), but there are preparations in other realms, too. From finding the white kippot at shul and putting them out for use during the holiday season, to making sure we have enough yizkor / memorial candles, to doing a sound-check with the microphones...the list is lengthy. (And did I mention the start of the Hebrew school year, conveniently timed?) My half-time job becomes fulltime. Since sometime this summer, the Days of Awe have been at the forefront of my consciousness all the time.

And suddenly they're over.

And what comes next -- starting tomorrow night -- is a week-long festival where I'm supposed to just sit. It's a bit of a shock to the system.

15276824938_b368d34fb4_nOkay, building the sukkah takes work. But that's Ethan's job; he's the carpenter in our family, and on Sunday he built us a beautiful new sukkah with latticed walls. Decorating the sukkah is the task which falls to me and to our son, but that's not work by any stretch of the imagination -- it's play. We festoon the structure with autumn-colored tinsel, tiny lights, gourds and pumpkins, giant leaves and acorns made out of felt, and a pair of shiny red pomegranates which our son calls "jewels." (They do look rather like jewels.) Over the course of the week he'll make more decorations. By the end of the holiday I expect the walls will be entirely covered in his handiwork.

And yes, there are mitzvot (connective-commandments) associated with this festival. I'll take up my Four Species and wave them in all directions, beckoning blessing. I'll sing the psalms of Hallel. I'll have friends over to rejoice in the sukkah with me. But that's it. None of this holds a candle to the work -- both practical and spiritual -- of the High Holidays! The mitzvah of Sukkot is mostly just being. Being in the sukkah. Sitting in the sukkah. "Dwelling" in the sukkah (or at least eating meals there, weather permitting) and feeling joy in the sukkah.

This feels like a real gift to me, this year. Just when I am at my most tightly-wound, the tradition gives me this built-in opportunity to shift gears. It is time to transition from the overwhelming and slightly frantic season of the Days of Awe to the slower, gentler pace of Sukkot. Sukkot is called chag ha-asif, the festival of ingathering. If I were an ancient Israelite farmer, this would be my season of gathering my crops and bringing some to give to God at the Temple in Jerusalem. Today most of us are ingathering memories, impressions, emotions. Ingathering the scattered pieces of ourselves and integrating into a renewed whole.

It's time to bring in the harvest. What have these recent weeks brought forth in me? What feelings, ideas, insights from the Days of Awe can I carry with me into this simple sketch of a house, exposed to the elements, sometimes buffeted by the winds and the rain?

When I sit still and imagine entering the sukkah tomorrow night for the beginning of chag, I notice the clamor of my mind. What's next? Am I forgetting something? What am I supposed to be doing right now? The rapid-fire multitasking which seems so integral to congregational leadership at this time of year has become a habit. And I'm grateful for it, because it allows me to be fairly high-functioning during my busiest time of year. But it comes with the price of continuous partial attention: no matter what I'm doing, some part of my brain is already thinking about the next thing. I'm a little bit chagrined to discover how difficult it is for my mind and heart to st still. I need to re-learn the practice of slowing down.

I'm reminded of lines from Mary Oliver which I learned from Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg many years ago on the day after Yom Kippur: "so this is how you swim inward, / so this is how you flow outward, / so this is how you pray." Yom Kippur is a time of swimming inward, sometimes battling the mighty currents which seek to keep me distracted from and ignorant of what's really happening in my heart. It's a time of inner work, seeking to make myself a channel so that I can help blessing flow into the world. But our holiday cycle is all about balance. Rosh Hashanah was outward-focused; Yom Kippur was inward-focused; and Sukkot is a time of flowing outward once again. Relax: the hard work is done. The current will carry me where I need to be.