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Wisdom from Rabbi Alan Lew before Sukkot

The stars are shining on the top of my head, the wind is in my hair; a few drops of rain are falling into my soup, but the soup is still warm. I am sitting in a sukkah, a booth with branches draped over the top, which I have erected in my backyard. A deep joy is seeping out from the core of my being and filling me body and soul. It began as a kind of lightness. I felt it as soon as the shofar was sounded to signal the end of Yom Kippur. There were three stars in the sky then. I felt all the weight, all the heaviness of the day -- all the death and the judgement and the yearning, all the soulful thrashing and beating of breasts -- falling away all at once, suddenly gone. I felt light and clean.

I am rereading the final chapter of Rabbi Alan Lew's This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: the Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. That book begins with the deep dive of Tisha b'Av, when we remember the fallen Temples and confront death and destruction. And it ends with the ascent to the fall harvest festival of Sukkot.

I resonate with these words every year. The lightness which Rabbi Lew describes, which begins as soon as the shofar is sounded at the end of Yom Kippur: I know that feeling. For me it is in part the feeling of having my biggest and most awe-inspiring task of the year behind me -- I have led my community in prayer throughout that long day of fasting, and we have come out the other side! But it's more than that. It's not just the relief or release of a job well done. It's something deeper.

"You shall dwell in booths for seven days," the Torah enjoins us, "so that you will know with every fiber of your being that your ancestors dwelt in booths during their sojourn in the wilderness when they were leaving Egypt." This is a commandment we fulfill not with a gesture or a word, but with our entire body. We sit in the sukkah with our entire body. Only our entire body is capable of knowing what it felt like to leave the burden of Egyptian oppression beind, to let go of it. Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzraim. The root of this word is tzar, a narrowness. Egypt was the narrow place. Only the entire body can know what it felt like to be pushed from a place of dire constriction and into a wilderness, a spacious, open world. Only the body can know what it felt like to be born. Only the body can know the fullness of joy, and this is a commandment that can only be fulfilled with joy.

Did our ancestors really dwell in these little houses during the forty-year wandering after the Exodus? It seems unlikely. Then again, I'm not sure I think we ever actually were slaves in Egypt -- not in historical time, anyway. What matters to me about the story of the Exodus is that it is the narrative around which our peoplehood coalesces. We are the people who understand ourselves to have been enslaved in a place of constriction, and God helped us to become free, and now we live in covenant with the One Who offers us the opportunity for redemption every day of our lives. And we are the people who remember that truth every day in our liturgy -- and every spring at Pesach -- and also every fall during Sukkot.

In the sukkah, a house that is open to the world, a house that freely acknowledges that it cannot be the basis of our security, we let go of this need. The illusion of protection falls away, and suddenly we are flush with our life, feeling our life, following our life, doing its dance, one step after another.

"The illusion of protection." These are beautiful words. Every year I write something about how being in the sukkah helps me to face my own impermanence. The sukkah is temporary; just so, the apparently sturdy home in which I am blessed to live; just so, the apparently healthy body which I am blessed to inhabit. This year I am struggling with that impermanence a little bit, as I continue to wrestle with my own emotional and spiritual reaction to a loved one's continuing illness. Impermanence is one thing, but oy, does it have to come with suffering? And yet Sukkot will come in a few days and it will call us to be joyful. Not despite our impermanence, but in and through that impermanence. This is human life, the festival seems to say. Nothing is forever. Sometimes the rain falls in your soup. Open yourself to all of what is, and let yourself be flooded with joy.

Poetry + video = transformative works

I've been remiss in not mentioning this (though perhaps I can be forgiven for that, given the intensity of the High Holiday season), but The Poetry Storehouse is having its first anniversary and is celebrating that with a contest.

The Poetry Storehouse is a curated collection of "great contemporary poems for creative remix." All of the poets who have shared their work there are delighted to have our works transformed, both through being read aloud and through visual media (sound collage, videopoems, art, etc.) The first anniversary contest offers options for remixers (create a remix based on any poem currently on the site) and for poets (write a poem in response to one of the three featured videos,) and the winning entries will be published and shared widely.

If you are a poet or a remix artist, check it out!

And on a related note, I'm delighted to be able to share that Dave Bonta has created a gorgeous remix which features one of my poems ("Ethics of the Mothers") and a poem by January Gill O'Neil along with music by Serge Seletskyy and video from a variety of sources, including some which Dave shot himself.

Ethics of the Mothers/Prayer: poems by R' Rachel Barenblat and January Gill O'Neil from Dave Bonta on Vimeo.

It's a delight to see my words given new life in this way. In watching the video, I experience my own poem anew; the images Dave chose are ones I would never have imagined, and they work beautifully. This is a stunning videopoem. Go and watch!

Practice Makes Practice (a sermon for Yom Kippur morning, 5775)

The 20th-century American writer Dorothy Parker famously said, "Writing is the art of applying the tush to the seat." (She didn't say "tush," but the word she used isn't exactly appropriate to the bimah; you can extrapolate.)

This is one of my favorite aphorisms about the writing life. Writing isn't, or isn't only, a matter of talent or genius or having great ideas. One can have all of those things without ever writing a word. Writing requires perseverance. It requires showing up, day after day. It requires putting fingers to pen, or in my case fingers to keyboard, when the inspiration is there and also when it isn't there yet.

Over the years I've learned a variety of techniques for times when I don't "feel like" writing. Sometimes I promise myself a treat if I manage to write something. Other times I give myself a set period of time -- "thirty minutes and then I can get up and do something else." I can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. What matters is that I write.

The only way to get good poems is to write a lot of poems, and to accept that although some days are going to be better than others, I'm committed to continuing to write.

This is how spiritual life works, too. There are days when I wake up with prayers on my lips, when I can't wait to settle in to morning davenen, when I feel in-tune with the Holy One of Blessing from the get-go.

Those tend to be days when I'm on retreat. When someone else is taking care of the logistics of ordinary life, like meals and dishes. And childcare. And the to-do lists. And my responsibilities. It's remarkable how easy it is to feel prayerful and connected when someone else is providing for all of my needs.

But most of the time I am not on retreat. My spiritual life mostly happens in the "real world," where I have to juggle priorities, where I sometimes feel cranky, or get my feelings hurt, or make mistakes.

The best way to prime the pump for writing is to start writing and trust that some of what I write will be worth keeping. And the best way to prime the pump for spiritual life is to maintain my spiritual practices. There's a reason we call them "practices" -- because, like poetry, they require repetition, trial and error, showing up on the days when the spirit doesn't necessarily move you. Spiritual life requires putting your tush in the chair.

But it doesn't necessarily require putting your tush in the chair for hours on end. In fact, it's arguably better if you don't.

Continue reading "Practice Makes Practice (a sermon for Yom Kippur morning, 5775)" »

Longing and belonging (a sermon for Kol Nidre 5775)


Do you know what it's like to feel out-of-place? Have you ever walked into a room and felt uncomfortable? Or maybe you can remember, or imagine, standing with a cafeteria tray in your hands and realizing you have no idea which table to sit down at. Maybe it's an experience of walking into a cocktail party and noticing that everyone else seems to know each other. Or you show up at an event in your finest suit, only to discover that you're the only one who didn't know it was a jeans-and-sandals affair.

There is nothing easy or comfortable about feeling as though you don't belong. And it's hard enough to walk into a room full of strangers and feel out of place; it's even more painful to walk into a room of people you know and feel out of place there. To feel like the square peg in a round pegboard. To feel isolated by invisible circumstances, depression or illness. To feel as though you just don't fit.

We have all felt that way.

Have you ever traveled far from home and felt lonely? Been away from your family, or away from familiar settings, and felt alien and alone? Maybe it was your first night away at summer camp. Or a business trip where you found yourself in an anonymous motel. Or your first time traveling abroad in a place where you didn't speak the language and couldn't find your way around. Have you ever been far away and thought, "I just want to go home"?

Or maybe you've felt that way without even going anywhere. Maybe you've yearned to return to childhood when everything was safe and someone else took care of you. Maybe you've wished you could return to the time when your parents or grandparents were still alive. To a moment when things seemed easier. To the time before you had experienced sorrow. Or maybe you've yearned to return to the childhood you didn't have, the one where everything was safe and someone else took care of you. Maybe you've sat in your own home and felt distant from your surroundings, distant from your family, lonely in the midst of a crowd.

We have all felt that way, too. The poet William Stafford writes, in his poem "Great Blue Heron:"

Out of their loneliness for each other
two reeds, or maybe two shadows, lurch
forward and become suddenly a life
lifted from dawn or the rain. It is
the wilderness come back again, a lagoon
with our city reflected in its eye.
We live by faith in such presences.

It is a test for us, that thin
but real, undulating figure that promises,
“If you keep faith I will exist
at the edge, where your vision joins
the sunlight and the rain: heads in the light,
feet that go down in the mud where the truth is.”

Not only everyone, but every thing, in the world feels "loneliness for each other." And, Stafford teaches, if we keep faith -- if we believe -- real connections will exist, "at the edge," rooting us down "in the mud where the truth is."

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Before Yom Kippur

Prayer Before Yom Kippur

I now prepare
to unify my whole self—


with this holy community
with the Jewish people everywhere
with all people everywhere
with all life and being
to commune with the Source of all being.

May I find the words,
the music, the movements
that will put me in touch
with the great light of God.

May the rungs of insight and joy
that I reach in my devotion
flow from me to others
and fill all my actions in the world.

May the beauty of God rest upon us.
May God establish the works of our hands.
And may the works of our hands establish God.

(Rabbi Burt Jacobson)

Yom Kippur begins tonight and will continue through tomorrow night. This year it once again coincides with Shabbat -- the two holiest days of the year, layered atop each other.

May this doubly-holy day offer all of us opportunities for inner work and transformation.

I hope that you can forgive me for my imperfections this past year: times when I wrote something you didn't like, or failed to write about something you consider important; times when I didn't respond to comments or didn't do so quickly enough; times when my writing revealed unconscious racism or was hurtful in other ways.

For my part, I have done my best to let go of my internet-related frustrations from the old year -- the posts and emails and comments which were hurtful or frustrating for me -- and aspire to move into Yom Kippur bearing no grudges, with no cosmic or karmic baggage weighing me down or blocking my journey of teshuvah.

May this Shabbat-and-Yom Kippur be meaningful, real, and sweet. G'mar chatimah tovah -- may we all be sealed for good in the year to come.

Three psalms from Leonard Cohen before Yom Kippur


Sit down, master, on this rude chair of praises, and rule my nervous heart with your great decrees of freedom. Out of time you have taken me to do my daily task. Out of mist and dust you have fashioned me to know the numberless worlds between the crown and the kingdom. In utter defeat I came to you and you received me with a sweetness I had not dared to remember. Tonight I come to you again, soiled by strategies and trapped in the loneliness of my tiny domain. Establish your law in this walled place. Let nine men come to lift me into their prayer so that I may whisper with them: Blessed be the name of the glory of the kingdom forever and ever.



You let me sing, you lifted me up, you gave my soul a beam to travel on. You folded your distance back into my heart. You drew the tears back to my eyes. You hid me in the mountain of your word. You gave the injury a tongue to heal itself. You covered my head with my teacher's care, you bound my arm with my grandfather's strength. O beloved speaking, O comfort whispering in the terror, unspeakable explanation of the smoke and cruelty, undo the self-conspiracy, let me dare the boldness of joy.



Hep me in the rain, help me in the darkness, help me at my aimless table. Bend me down to the rain, and let the darkness speak to my heart. Blessed are you who speaks from the darkness, who gives a form to desolation. You draw back the heart that is spilled in the world, you establish the borders of pain. Your mercy you make known to those who know your name, and your healing is discovered beneath the lifted cry. The ruins signal your power; by your hand it is broken down, and all things crack that your throne be restored to the heart. You have written your name on the chaos. The eyes that roll down the darkness, you have rolled them back to the skull. Let each man be sheltered in the fortress of your name, and let each one see the other from the towers of your law. Create the world again, and stand us up, as you did before, on the foundation of your light.


These can be found in Leonard Cohen's Book of Mercy (McClelland & Stewart, 1984; re-released, 2010.)

A Communal Al Chet for 5775

I experienced my first Jewish Renewal Yom Kippur at the old Elat Chayyim in Accord, New York ten years ago. One of the practices which moved me most was a practice of collaboratively writing our own Al Chet prayer.

The Al Chet prayer -- "For the Sins (Which We Have Sinned Against You By....)" -- is a laundry list of places where we have missed the mark in the last year. That year at Elat Chayyim, before the holiday began, we each wrote down the places where we felt we'd missed the mark in the previous year. Then the index cards containing our words were mixed up and re-distributed. When it came time for the Al Chet prayer, we sang each others' words. The intimacy of that experience moved me deeply.

For the last several years, we've adapted this practice at my shul. At Selichot services on the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah I play quiet guitar music while people write down places where they've missed the mark, things they feel they need to release in order to reach forgiveness on Yom Kippur. Some of our Hebrew school kids engage in this same practice during Hebrew school. Then I collect the basket of cards and type up what's in it, and that becomes the Al Chet which our student hazzan and I chant on Yom Kippur morning.

For those who are interested, here's my community's Al Chet for this year. I share it in hopes that it might speak to you, too, and might help this prayer come alive for you in a new way.

(And if you're going to be at CBI on Saturday morning, you might consider not reading any further, so that these words can reach you fresh when we sing them from the bimah...)

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Yom Kippur, Eid, and remembrance of sacrifice

Happy_yom_kippur_1This coming weekend, when my community will be observing the solemn-yet-joyful fast of Yom Kippur, the Muslim community will be celebrating Eid al-Adha, "the feast of the sacrifice," commemorating the story of how Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son and God provided a sheep for the slaughter instead.

Jewish readers may be nodding along in recognition; after all, we read that story just last week at Rosh Hashanah. (In my community, as in many communities, we read the story of the casting-out of Hagar and Ishmael on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and the story of the akedah, the "binding of Isaac," on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.)

Of course, there are differences in how our two traditions have memorialized this shared story. In Torah, the son who was almost sacrificed is clearly named as Yitzchak (Isaac.) In the Qur'anic account the son is not named, though there is a passage in which the son consents to what is to come, which becomes a model for the virtue of gracefully acceding to God's will.

In the class on Islam I took several years ago, I learned that there are Muslim commentators who  taught that the son in question was Isaac, and others who taught that the son in question was Ishmael. Muslim tradition offers support for both viewpoints; Wikipedia notes that

Though it is generally believed by Muslims that Ishmael was the son who was almost sacrificed, among scholars and historiographers of early Islam there is much debate. There are such persuasive arguments for both, that in fact, it is estimated that 130 traditions say Isaac was the son, while 133 say Ishmael.

(If this subject interests you, don't miss Was Abraham commanded to sacrifice Isaac or Ishmael?, which cites a wide variety of Muslim sources on each side of the debate, and also includes both the Torah text and the Qur'an text in English translation.)

I remember learning that classical tafsir (Muslim exegesis / scriptural interpretation) was "polyvalent" -- in other words, it presumed that sacred text naturally supports more than one reading. But as the tradition continued to develop, commentators began to lean toward resolving ambiguities. The Persian scholar al-Tabari (d. 923 CE) argued that the almost-sacrificed son was Isaac. Later commentators, among them al-Tha'labi (11th century CE) and al-Kathir (d. 1373 CE) argued instead that it was Ishmael. Perhaps these later commentators were writing with the intention of further differentiating our communities, and asserting the primacy of their narrative and genealogy over ours.

Today most Muslim sources indicate that the son in question was Ishmael. And Ishmael's willingness to allow God's will to unfold makes him the paragon of islām, the spiritual virtue of surrender or submission to God, from which that religious tradition takes its name. That Arabic word comes from the 3-letter root s/l/m, which connotes peace and wholeness. Peace and wholeness are found when one is able to "let go and let God," to borrow a phrase from the Twelve-Step lexicon.

Over on this side of the family tree, that same root -- ש /ל/ מ -- is at the heart of the word shalom. And our tradition too contains interpretations in which the son indicates his willingness to be sacrificed. (In my Akedah cycle, poem #2 draws on the midrash which depicts Isaac saying to Ishmael that if God were to ask him to be sacrificed he would not object. In that midrash, God promptly replies, 'This is the hour,' and sets the akedah in motion.) I wondered whether that version were influenced by the Muslim telling of the story, in which the son's submission is a central virtue -- but then I realized that Bereshit Rabbah was written down in the 5th century C.E., and Islam began in the 7th century C.E., so the arrow of causality isn't so clear.

(And, of course, on the Christian branch of this family tree, the son's willing submission to the will of the father is exemplified by Jesus' willingness to die on the cross. But that's a whole other post. Maybe I'll manage to write about that before Easter.)

I spoke in my Rosh Hashanah sermon (Children of Sarah and Hagar) about the the Isra'iliyyat, the body of interpretive traditions transmitted during times of close connection between early Muslims and Jews. It seems to me -- in broad generalization -- that during times of tension, both comunities have pulled back from accepting (or even acknowledging) our influences on one another. I'd like to see us instead choose to honor our cross-pollination and interconnection.

UrlOur traditions both hold dear the story which says that God provided a ram for sacrifice in the place of the boy. Jews celebrated that story last week in shul, and will link back to it again at the end of Yom Kippur when we blow a tekiah gedolah on the shofar which reminds us of the ram God provided so that Abraham's son might live. Muslims will celebrate that story this coming weekend, with feasting and prayer and providing food (mutton, from sheep sacrificed in remembrance) for those in need.

In both versions of the story, God sends an animal to stand in for the child. My friend and teacher Rabbi Arthur Waskow has suggested that we can read this story as a divine instruction not to kill our children in the name of faith, but instead to pour our zeal into feeding those who hunger. What might our world look like if every nation could take that instruction to heart?

I am perennially moved by the ways our traditions have shaped and informed each other. To me this is one of the most beautiful things about being a person of faith in the world: exploring the differences and similarities in the ways we tell our sacred stories of encounter with the Infinite, and honoring how others' stories have informed and impacted our own.

To my Jewish readers: g'mar chatimah tovah, may you be sealed for good in the year to come. To my Muslim readers: eid mubarak, a blessed festival to you!