Previous month:
October 2014
Next month:
December 2014

We have to build a better world than this

This post talks about violence against women. If that is likely to be triggering for you, please guard your own boundaries and read with care.


What can I say in response to the many awful things wrong in the world? The endless news ticker of atrocities both large and small, the many entirely legitimate reasons to be furious and to feel despair? This week my Twitter stream is peppered with posts about Gamergate and Jian Ghomeshi -- two currently-unfolding stories having to do with rape, assault, intimidation, and violence against women.

Violence against women -- from rape, to "doxxing," to other forms of silencing and intimidation -- is everywhere. We read about it in Torah (see On the silencing of Dinah) and we read about it in the news. I am trying to hold all women who have been victimized in my prayers. May they know healing and wholeness, safety and comfort, integrity of body and integrity of spirit. May they not be afraid.

It's harder for me to pray for the men who have committed these transgressions. I find myself thinking of the generation of Israelites who left Egypt and didn't make it to the promised land, their psyches too scarred by slavery to allow them the expansiveness of a new way of being. I wonder whether it's possible to redeem men who are so steeped in toxic entitlement that they would commit such acts.

And then I remind myself that ultimately forgiveness and consequences are in God's hands, not mine. (Thank God for that.) But I do have control over how I cultivate my own compassion and kindness. And I can do everything in my power to show the boys whom I teach, and the boy who I am raising, how to treat women with the respect due to one who is made b'tzelem Elokim, in the divine Image.

Pirkei Avot teaches that it's not incumbent on us to finish the work, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it. Creating a world where women can live without fear -- that's part of the work. We have to build a better world than this. Full disclosure: I'm not sure how. People hurt other people out of alienation, and I don't know how to heal that. I don't know how to fix a problem this systemic.

But I know that we have to try. That the world needs more kindness. That we all long to feel at-home and cherished for who we are. That Jewish tradition teaches us to cultivate hope in place of despair. It's not incumbent on us to finish the work, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it. Write, teach, help, listen, pray, mentor, be kind: what can you to do begin creating the world we need?







Poetry reading in Pittsfield

Edited to add: This reading has been canceled because there is a funeral in my community that afternoon.

November is Jewish Book Month. Jewish Book Month is an annual event of the Jewish Book Council dedicated to the celebration of (what else?) Jewish books. The Jewish Federation of the Berkshires is sponsoring a variety of Jewish Book Month events around the county during November.

I'm delighted to be able to let y'all know that Jewish Federation of the Berkshires has invited me to be part of the county's Jewish Book Month programming. I'll be sharing some of my poems at 1pm on Thursday, November 6 at Knesset Israel on Colt Road in Pittsfield.

70FacesSmall WaitingToUnfold-small

A kosher hot lunch will be provided at Knesset Israel at 12pm; the poetry reading will follow at 1pm, and all are welcome to come for one or both. If one comes only to the reading, the cost is $3 (I believe that the kosher hot lunch requires a reservation -- you can confirm that by calling Jewish Federation or Knesset Israel.)

Here's a description of the event:

Poetry of Sacred Time

Join poet and rabbi Rachel Barenblat (author of 70 faces: Torah poems and Waiting to Unfold, both published by Phoenicia Publishing, and of the forthcoming Open My Lips, coming from Ben Yehuda Press) for a poetry reading which dips into the wellsprings of Jewish sacred time. Rabbi Barenblat will share Torah poems, motherhood poems, and poems which engage with Jewish liturgy and with the unfolding of our festival year. Q-and-A and booksigning to follow.

If you're in the area, I hope you'll join us. I'll have copies of my books available for sale and am happy to inscribe them. They make great Chanukah gifts!

The One Who Sees Me: a short d'var Torah for parashat Lech Lecha

Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. (Cross-posted to my congregational From the Rabbi blog.)

ELROIIn this week's Torah portion God calls to Avram with the words "lech-lecha" -- "go forth!" or "go you forth!" or perhaps even "go forth into yourself." God calls Avram to leave the house of his father and venture forward to the place which God will show him. God promises him that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars. But his wife Sarai is unable to conceive. She gives him her slave-woman Hagar as a concubine so that Avram can father an heir.

Once Hagar is pregnant, she treats her mistress with disdain. Sarai, in turn, is so abusive that Hagar runs away. That's when Hagar has the encounter with the angel.

The angel tells her that her descendants will be too numerous to count -- the same promise which was given by God to Avram. He tells her that she will bear a son and will call him Ishma-el, because "shama El," God has heard you. (If you remember the story of Chanah who yearned for a son, which we read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, her son's name Shmuel comes from those same words, and means the same thing.)

In return for learning her future son's name, Hagar gives a new name to God. She names God as El Ro'i, "The One Who Sees Me." And on that theme of seeing, she asserts that she has seen God: "even here I have seen the back of the One Who looks upon me!"

Many generations later, Moshe will plead to be shown God's glory. God will shelter him in the crevice of a rock and as God's goodness passes by, Moshe will see God's back, or perhaps God's afterimage, a reverberation of divine Presence. Our tradition considers Moshe the greatest prophet who ever was or will be; Moshe had a direct relationship with God! And yet now we see that Hagar, "The Stranger," the slavewoman, has just seen God in the same way.

Later in this week's Torah portion, God renames Avram as Avraham and Sarai as Sarah. In Torah, a changed name means a changed inner being. In the case of Avraham and Sarah, each of them receives the letter ה / heh, which can represent divine presence, or divine breath, or the deep hidden wisdom of the Five Books of the Torah. So what does God's new name tell us about the nature of God?

Hagar names God in a very personal way: not only "The One Who Sees," but "The One Who Sees Me." God is the One Who sees each of us, in our triumph and in our distress. God is the One Who sees through our masks and pretenses to the core of who we most deeply are. God sees our hopes, our fears, and our dreams. When we try to flee from the things in our lives which are most difficult or painful, God sees us where we are.

Being truly seen means being vulnerable. Maybe that's frightening. I think it's also a gift. God is the One Who Sees Me. And you. And you. And you.

I experience Torah not only as a story about those people then, but also about each of us now. Each of us is Avram, called by God to go forth, to go deeply into ourselves. Each of us is Sarai, trying to do the right thing, and struggling with jealousy sometimes. And each of us is Hagar, seen by God and seeing God in turn.

As we walk the journey of self-discovery, we are never alone. Even in times of despair, may each of us feel in our hearts that God is El Ro'i, the One Who Sees Me and responds with love.