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November 2014
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What's next for Zeek?


I've been honored to be a part of Zeek magazine for many years -- as a contributor, a contributing editor, and now a board member. What began as a Jewish journal of thought and culture is now one of the strongest voices speaking the Jewish progressive call for a redeemed world.

And like many other independent publications, we're struggling financially. We've started an indiegogo funding campaign with hopes of raising $3600 to get us through the first quarter of 2015, during which time we hope to implement plans for longterm sustainability.

At ZEEK Magazine, we work each week to develop and lift up emerging and established Jewish voices on social change, spirituality, arts and culture. We delight in the intersections and new ideas that make this landscape feel vibrant and cultural shifts and social change possible.

What makes us different is how we do it: by giving readers a way to engage whenever possible so you can do more than just read or reflect, you can take action.

I'm really proud of the work I've been able to do with Zeek -- from the 2008 roundtable the Synagogue / Israeli Politics Mashup, to the 2009 interview with Rachel Adler, to New depths in Jewish/Muslim dialogue: Jewish privilege, which Zeek published earlier this year.

If you think Zeek has a meaningful role to play in the Jewish cultural and ethical scene, please consider making a donation to our indiegogo fundraiser. Any donation, no matter how small, will make a difference. Thanks, all, and happy secular new year!

Favorite posts from 2014, part 3

In this post: another handful of excerpts from, and links to, my favorite posts from 2014. This is the third and final installment in the series. Enjoy!


These are rocky shoals and unfamiliar waters, and there is no lighthouse guiding the way. Nothing is easy. And my heart overflows with emotion, because this is not what I want for my loved one, and I am entirely powerless to effect any change at all. What does it mean to try to maintain optimism in the face of a beloved's suffering? What does it mean to try to maintain hope? To what extent am I obligated to cultivate hope even if my loved one can't join me in feeling that hope?

-- Sorrow and illness, from near and from far


It's arguable that the beginning of every regeneration, for the Doctor, is an opportunity for teshuvah. The Doctor travels through space and time trying to do good. He inevitably falls short somewhere along the way. And he always gets the chance to start over. Perhaps these are my rabbinic lenses at work, but I've always experienced Doctor Who as a fundamentally Jewish show (even though there's no explicit Jewishness in it) because of how the show's structure centers around the idea of beginning again. Toward the end of the first episode of the new season, the Doctor reflects, "I've made many mistakes. It's about time I did something about that." That's the quintessential move of teshuvah: recognizing that we've missed the mark, resolving to orient ourselves in a new direction, and aiming to do better the next time the opportunity comes along.

-- New beginnings, Doctor Who, and teshuvah


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. By the time I was done, I had made myself a tallit katan.

-- String theory


I 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.

-- Letters from the sukkah


We need a larger framework of conflict transformation. We need to find a way to lift ourselves up, out of the positions we already hold and the things we've already tried. We need to seek to see the situation from a God's-eye view in order to create a path toward a different future. The Sfat Emet teaches that from where God sits (as it were) there are no binaries, no us/them, just goodness and oneness and love. As human beings we all have to find a way to see each other through God's eyes.

-- There has to be another way


Like Buzz Lightyear, the toy who grew into a mensch when he recognized who he was, we have limitations. We can't keep our lives on a perpetual course of ascent. But if we can learn to embrace the journey, we can turn our falls into opportunities to soar. Buzz, like Joseph, is arguably pretty conceited when his story begins. But by the end of the film he relinquishes ego with the very words which had felt disparaging to him at the start of the film: "This isn't flying -- it's falling with style!"

- Joseph, Falling With Style

Favorite posts from 2014, part 2

Recently I shared excerpts from, and links to, a handful of my favorite posts from early in 2014. Here's the next installment in that series.


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.

-- Listening across our differences


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?

-- Be kind


Stories are always interconnected. I can't tell the story of my life without at least touching on a lot of other people's stories: my parents, my grandparents, my teachers, my spouse and child, my friends. I'm tremendously grateful for that. I have a sense for how fortunate I am to have a life which is so rich in connections. And sometimes those connections mean I need to think about what I write and how I share. Not everyone favors the spiritual practice of living one's life in the wide-open. And not every story is mine to tell, even if it impacts my story in a profound way.

-- Spiritual life in the open


Our leader offers the teaching from Bawa that one should seek with every breath to say a prayer asserting that there is nothing else but God. And I think: kol haneshamah tehallel Yah, "let every breath praise You." And I think of the meditation practice which maps the four letters of the Holiest Name onto every breath: before breathing, yud; inhale on heh; hold the breath vav; exhale on heh. And I think: ein od milvado, "there is nothing else but God." I think: our traditions have this in common.

-- Morning zhikr on retreat


If being in your usual online spaces is giving you more anxiety, or more grief, or more anger than you can comfortably manage, give yourself permission to step away. (Or if you need permission from outside yourself, consider it rabbinically granted!) Keeping up with every latest update -- every news bulletin, every blog post, every Tweet and status update -- may help us feel informed, but it doesn't necessarily help us emotionally or spiritually. Guard your own boundaries however you need to do.

-- Not everyone can carry the weight of the world


Reb Zalman could be very serious when the moment demanded, but he was frequently merry when he taught or when he led davenen. His eyes twinkled. He laughed a big beautiful belly laugh. He sang often while teaching -- lines of psalms or prayer, quotations, references, which were almost as likely to be in Arabic or Latin or Greek or Sanskrit as they were to be in Hebrew or Aramaic. He held an enormous wealth of kabbalistic and Hasidic teachings in his mind and was able to draw them forth and speak them in contemporary language, using metaphors which reached us where we are today.

-- Remembering my rebbe 


Reb Zalman, Rev. Howard Thurman, and Christmas

Thurman01My teacher Reb Zalman (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z"l) frequently told the story of how, when he began studying religion at Boston University, he used to enter the chapel each morning to pray shacharit, Jewish morning prayers. But he found that the crucifix which occupied a central place in that chapel made him uncomfortable, so he chose to pray in a closet instead.

Shortly after he began this practice, he noticed that someone had moved the crucifix aside and placed the Bible in the center of the room in apparent deference to his needs. In entering the chapel a bit early one morning, he saw who was moving the cross -- an African-American man who he didn't recognize, but assumed (from his humility and his quiet service) might be the janitor.

He wanted to study religion from an academic perspective, but was in those days still very close to his Chabad roots, and he questioned whether academic study of religion was "kosher" for him. So one day he decided to go and visit the dean, one Reverend Howard Thurman.

Imagine his surprise when he entered the dean's office and saw the very same man who had moved the cross to make him more comfortable! (I always heard multiple things in his voice at once when he told that part of the story -- chagrin that he had mistaken a dean for a janitor, alongside amusement at how the Holy One of Blessing works in mysterious ways.)

Reb Zalman admitted his fears about the academic enterprise at hand: would it shake his faith? Would it cause him to doubt? "Don't you trust the ruach ha-kodesh?" asked Reverend Thurman. (Ruach ha-kodesh is Hebrew for "holy spirit," more or less.) Reb Zalman realized that of course he did, and that if God had led him there, surely it was where he was meant to be.

I thought of that story again when I found, on the blog Telling Secrets, a beautiful poem from that same Reverend Howard Thurman. Although I am Jewish, I find profound resonance in his poem about Christmas:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

For those who celebrate, may today be meaningful. And may all of us enter, in days to come, into wthe holy work of finding the lost, healing the broken, bringing peace among people. Speedily and soon, amen.


(For more on Reb Zalman z"l, there's a wonderful PBS interview at Religion & Ethics Newsweekly: Extended interview with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. He tells the Rev. Thurman / ruach ha-kodesh story in that interview too.)

Happy Erev Christmas

Jewish-Christmas-shirt-2TI've taken to posting a message on my congregational blog at this time each year, entitled a greeting from the rabbi before Christmas. I wrote it and shared it there last year, and received a lot of response from people with whom it resonated. It seemed worth reposting this year.

It sometimes seems as though our options at this season are either to dislike Christmas (to feel disenfranchised by its ubiquity and Othered by our minority status) or to embrace it and assimilate altogether (losing our Jewishness in the process.) But I think there are more choices than those.

Christmas isn't "our" holiday. For me that's part of its charm. As a working rabbi, there's something delightful about being able to relax on someone else's festive day -- knowing that my Christian colleagues are leading late-night services tonight while I have the option of relaxing in my PJs. (Have fun, y'all.)

I know that I have friends for whom Christmas is a truly meaningful religious time. I enjoy getting glimpses of their religious festival: learning about their theology, hearing their holy songs, resonating with the themes of their sacred story. I've always loved these things. What a glorious wealth of music, story, and tradition has arisen over the course of two thousand years of the Christmas story. My love of, and my practice of, my own tradition isn't diminished by the existence of theirs alongside it.

And I also have friends who experience the day purely as a midwinter festival of gift-giving. For some people the decorated fir tree may have become associated with the cross, but for most it's a fragrant symbol of renewed life in darkest midwinter having nothing to do with Jesus. (And it hasn't always been Christian custom. The early Christian church condemned the decoration of one's home with evergreen boughs, and the Puritans preached against the "heathen custom" of the decorated tree.)

Holiday lights of various kinds lift my spirits at this time of year -- whether or not they're derived, as some argue, from ancient customs of burning a solstice bonfire. And there's always the tradition of eating Chinese food, which Jews have evidently been enjoying on Christmas since the late 1800s. Most of all, I enjoy it when people are kind to one another, and the existence of Christmas seems to spur a lot of people to be nicer and more generous at this time of year. I'm always in favor of that.

I said earlier that Christmas isn't "our" holiday. But that binarism has been complicated by the reality of dual-heritage families. Today many Jews do feel some ownership, because we have Christian family. For some of us, Christmas has become at least partially "ours." Perhaps we hang ornaments on an evergreen, in our own home or in the home of in-laws; or give and receive gifts; or accompany family to late-night services. I don't believe that doing any or all of these makes one "less Jewish."

15415030917_77aff8a006_zFor others, this can be a time to celebrate with Christian friends even though this holiday isn't "ours" at all. One of my congregants told me that for her, Christmas is like someone else's birthday. "If I'm invited to their party, I go and I have a great time, even though it isn't my birthday."

I love that comparison. Christmas celebrations are like someone else's birthday party. (Come to think of it, they are someone else's birthday party -- that nice Jewish boy described in Rabbi David Zaslow's excellent book Jesus: First-Century Rabbi.) But there's no need to feel threatened by celebrating someone else's simcha.

That's the attitude with which I grew up. My parents had both Jewish friends and Gentile (Christian) friends, and I have many fond childhood memories of Christmas parties which we attended together. The photo of my mother and me which illustrates this post comes from one such party, in 1982.

Whatever your relationship with the holiday may be, I wish you a merry erev Christmas! I'm always tickled at the fact that Christmas is a holiday that Christians celebrate the way that we do -- not starting at sunup, but beginning the night before, an eve followed by a morning. (All Jewish holidays begin at sundown; for that matter, all Jewish days begin at sundown. Think of how the passage of time is first described in Torah: "and there was evening and there was morning, the first day.")

I hope that your night, and your day, are merry and bright.


Related: On "Otherness" and Christmas, 2012.


Favorite posts from 2014, part 1

CLM_Bestof_14_2Over the course of 2014 I've spent countless hours writing the material which appears on this blog. Some of my posts come together quickly; others take days or weeks to polish and prepare. Either way, they move off the front page and they tend to disappear into memory. So each year, as December draws toward its close, I reread the year's worth of material and share excerpts from some favorite posts which I hope merit re-reading. 

This year when I did my rereading, I found that there were more than ten posts which I hoped might have staying power. So instead of one top-ten list, I'll be sharing a handful of favorites in three posts over the course of the next week. Here are my favorites from the early part of 2014:


Both a snowstorm and Shabbat offer a break from ordinary workday realities. A time to cease the mechanisms of production and to relax, secure in the knowledge that there's nothing we're supposed to be doing, so we can just be for a change...

It was hard for me to understand Shabbat being like the wolf who causes a stir both before and after his arrival, but Shabbat being like the winter snowstorm which forces us to slow down, stop working, enjoy family time -- that's a metaphor which immediately resonates for me.

-- How Shabbat is Like a Snowstorm


I always try to hold on to the both/and. To see things from both sides. To celebrate what is wonderful without ignoring what's problematic: in Torah, in the literary sources I read, in my relationships, in my life. This is one of my central life-values. And I also try to live out this value when it comes to the contemporary Middle East...

When I am fortunate enough to be able to travel to the Middle East (and when I'm at home, reading blogs and newspapers as widely as I can) I try to stay open to the tension between [opposing] truths. I try to remember that the reality is always more nuanced, more beautiful and more painful, more complicated, than any of the easy stories anyone wants to tell.

-- The spiritual work of wrestling with the both/and


Perhaps a new prayer should be composed to recite before taharah in cases where cremation has been chosen. That prayer could gently remind the soul that in life it made this choice, and ask for God's gentle care as the soul returns to the Mystery from which it came. Our sages teach (Mishnah Yoma 8:9) that "God is the mikveh of Israel," and that when we seek to immerse ourselves in divine presence (e.g. during Yom Kippur) God's presence purifies us. A prayer for taharah before cremation could assert that as the water we pour cleanses the body, a return to God's enfolding presence purifies the soul, and that that return takes place regardless of what becomes of the body's component molecules.

-- On taharah before cremation


All of this may sound unusual to those of us who are most familiar with the Jewish practice of liturgical prayer, known in Hebrew as tefilah. We may have the notion that meditation is something Buddhists do on their cushions, whereas Jews engage in  something different altogether! Except... I'm not so sure it's all that different. I think there's a clue to the meditative quality of Jewish worship in the very word we most frequently use to mean prayer.

-- A short history of Jewish meditation


Here's the thing, though: most of us don't live on retreat. Most of us don't have the luxury of beginning the day in perfect silence and contemplation, gliding into a joyful morning service, and only then engaging in trivial or ordinary speech. Most of the people I know wake up to someone's needs: the needs of children, the needs of parents, the needs of a sick or disabled partner, the needs of animals. Who has the luxury of avoiding "trivial matters" until after morning prayer? Certainly not me.

-- Privilege, prayer, parenthood

Anticipating the return of the sun


Human beings have been paying attention to the ebb and flow of daylight for a very, very long time. Stonehenge, that iconic circle of stone slabs in Great Britain, was built sometime between 3000 BCE and 2000 BCE. Its central sight-lines point to the location where the summer sun rises on the summer solstice (June 21), and where the winter sun sets on the winter solstice (December 21).

In the fifth century BCE, in Persia, December 21 was the most important holiday of the year. It was called Shabe Yaldā, which means 'birthday eve.' According to Persian mythology, the god Mithra was born on the 22nd of December (to a virgin mother, no less! Dear Christianity: apparently the Zoroastrians came up with this sacred story first.) He symbolized light, truth, and goodness.

Among Romans, in early centuries of the Common Era, December 25 was the date of the festival of Sol Invictus, the birthday of the returning or unconquered sun. Sol Invictus was the official sun god of the later Roman empire. Elsewhere on the continent, among the Vainakh peoples of the northern Caucasus (think Chechnya), the 25th of December was the date of Malkh, the sun's birthday.

In the 4th century of the Common Era we find the first written documentation of the festival of Yule, a midwinter festival held by Germanic peoples of northern Europe around December 21. (An Old Norse variation on the name also appears in Icelandic eddas of the 13th century.) Yule traditions include the burning of a yule log, keeping a fire burning through the longest night until the sun begins to return.

Among pre-Christian Slavs, the 21st of December was Koročun, the day when the "old sun" of the old year was defeated by darkness; the day transitioned into Koleda, when the "new sun" of the new year is born. One Polish tradition for Koleda was hanging evergreen boughs decorated with apples, colored paper, stars made of straw, and ribbons. (So decorating evergreens was a solstice custom.)

Among Christians, the 25th of December is of course Christmas, which commemorates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century rabbi whom they consider to be the son of God. He is referred-to in Christian scripture as "the light of the world." In the Christian scriptures there is a recapitulation of Isaiah's "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;" for Christians, this light is Jesus.

Jews celebrate light in the darkness of midwinter via the festival of Chanukah, which begins on the 25th of Kislev. (Because our calendar is lunisolar, that date moves around on the Gregorian calendar.) The moon of Kislev is always waning when the festival of Chanukah begins. A few days into Chanukah we get the moon-dark night between the old moon and the new moon -- truly winter's darkest night.

During each night of Chanukah we kindle an additional light in the chanukiyah, literally bringing more light into the world as each long winter night (in this hemisphere) passes and is gone. We light our candles in remembrance of the miracle of the oil which burned for eight days instead of for one -- a representation of God's presence in the world and in our hearts, burning ever-bright.

I love knowing that since time immemorial, human beings have marked the hinge-point when the earth tilts in the other direction and the days begin to change again. I love knowing that when I kindle my sweet little Chanukah lights, not only am I part of a chain of Jewish tradition of bringing light into the darkness, but I'm part of a practice which spans much of recorded human history.

Happy Solstice to all! Here's to the returning sun!


Related: Hanukkah and the Winter Solstice at My Jewish Learning by Rabbi Arthur Waskow



Miketz and Chanukah: letting your light shine

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

The first thing Joseph does, when summoned from Pharaoh's dungeon, is shave and change his clothes. Presumably he does this because it's not appropriate to appear before the ruler of the land in rags... but given the importance of clothing in the Joseph story, I see something deeper.

Remember his coat of many colors. Remember the garment which he relinquished to Potiphar's wife in escaping from her clutches. Remember Tamar, who disguises herself in a cloak in order to orchestrate justice. Clothing in this story is symbolic of internal reality.

As a child I learned from my mother that how we dress gives us an opportunity to show respect for others. We dress nicely because that's a way of showing the people we meet that they matter. Surely that's part of what Joseph is doing at this moment in his story.

I also learned from my mother that how we dress can impact how we feel inside. When I'm not feeling great, sometimes brushing my hair and putting on lipstick can help me perk up and feel ready to face the world. That may have been part of what Joseph was doing, too.

And another thing he may have been doing is adjusting his outer appearance so that it matches what he knows about himself inside. A number of Hasidic teachers speak about the tension between pnimiut, what's hidden deep inside, and chitzoniut, the external face one presents to the world. We each carry a divine spark inside. That spark connects us with the Holy One of Blessing.

That spark is the source of our light; as we read in psalms, "the soul of a person is the candle of God." As we kindle candles, God kindles souls. If we're willing to be kindled, we can carry divine light into the world. But we each get to choose whether and how to reveal that light.

For me, one of the challenges of spiritual life is trying to ensure that my external face matches my internal light. Deep down, I'm always connected with God. But can I manifest that reality in the face I show to the world? Am I willing to risk letting my inner light shine?

Because it does feel like a risk sometimes. This world doesn't always reward those who let their light shine. I could be laughed at. I could be sneered at. I could be told that I am delusional, or naive. Someone could lash out at me because they don't like my light.

One of the primary mitzvot of Chanukah is pirsumei nes, publicizing the miracle. This is the origin of the custom of putting a chanukiyah in the window or in a public place -- because we're not supposed to keep it hidden, we're supposed to let the light of Chanukah shine.

As we're supposed to let the light of our souls shine. Whatever clothing we wear, whatever persona we adopt, it's our job in this world to be human candles. To shed light in the darkness, wherever we go.

When do you feel most able to let the light of your soul shine through?

Who are the people who help you cultivate that feeling?

Where are the places, what are the practices, which help you shine the most?

This Chanukah, will you rededicate yourself to letting your light shine?


Worth reading (on Chanukah)


We are all of us afraid of the dark. At night, anxieties suppressed or repressed come swimming to the surface of consciousness: am I safe? Am I loved? Am I needed? Is there meaning in the world, or is it all, ultimately, just a swirl of chaos?...

Judaism does not ask us to ignore this darkness and the sense of doom it might educe in us. On the contrary, it asks us to face them squarely, and then, ultimately, to defy them. But how?...

"The soul of man is the lamp of God," the Book of Proverbs tell us (20:27). What this means is that ultimately, our task is not to light candles, but to be candles. We have the potential to be the bits of light that help bring God back into a world gone dark. As the Sefas Emes puts it in discussing Hanukkah, "A human being is created to light up this world" (Hanukkah, 1874).

All of these brief quotes are from Lighting Up the Darkness by Rabbi Shai Held. His whole essay is beautiful and I commend it to you.

Tonight we'll enter into the fourth night of Chanukah. Chag urim sameach -- wishing you a joyful continuation of the festival of lights! And Shabbat shalom, too.


Photo: fourth night of Chanukah. From my flickr stream, taken a few years ago.

Three from the vaults - old Chanukah photos

For #throwbackthursday, here are three old Chanukah photos. The first two of these are photographs of me with my middle brother.


This one's about 30 years old. If you look closely you can see my homemade Chanukah decorations taped to the framed Calder print on the rear wall. I think this was taken the year that my parents were in Kenya over Chanukah, traveling with a friend who was a hematologist and whose work frequently took him to Nairobi. My parents traveled with a tiny chanukiyah which held birthday candles, and arranged for me to celebrate Chanukah with different family members on different nights.



And this one's from 1988. My bat mitzvah took place on Shabbat Chanukah, so my brother -- who is a woodworker in his spare time -- made this beautiful chanukiyah which holds twelve-inch tapers. We lit it at my bat mitzvah, and my parents used it for many years thereafter. People in Texas like to joke that everything is bigger there; this chanukiyah definitely fits that bill.

(That same brother is responsible for the giant mahogany dreidel which I brought to Massachusetts during my last year of college. I remember placing it on the coffee table in the house I shared with several friends that year. When I came back, one of my housemates held the dreidel reverently in his hands. He looked up at me and without missing a beat said "very large Jews have been here!")


While I'm indulging in Chanukah remembrances, I want to honor the fact that today is my maternal grandfather Eppie's 18th yahrzeit. (Here is a post I shared about him ten years ago on this Hebrew date.) This photograph was staged on the day before my bat mitzvah, which was during Chanukah - you can see my father on one side, my grandfather Eppie z"l on the other, handing the Torah to me.

I hope that your Chanukah continues to be joyous and bright!

New essay in Beyond Walls - and a chance to learn with me next summer!

I have an essay in the Beyond Walls digital magazine this week. My essay is about how writing can be transformative (in the personal / spiritual sense, not the fannish sense), and it's called Transformative Work. Here's a taste:

Writing can transform. In writing, we are in transit: boundary-crossers moving from one state of being to another. (This is the meaning of the Hebrew word Ivrim, usually rendered as "Hebrews;" etymologically, to be an ivri is to cross over.) All writers are in some way boundary-crossers, or if you prefer, boundary-bridgers. In writing, we reshape the world around us, forming new realities on the page. My tradition teaches that God speaks the world into being in every moment. We are made in that image. When we write, we create worlds.

Writing—the act of writing; the gerund which implies continuing practice—can be transformative. When I sit down to write, I'm opening myself to the possibility of transformation. I'm embracing the possibility that in the process of writing I will find myself changed. This is true whether I am writing liturgy, or poetry, or a blog post about this week's Torah portion.

Writing is a journey with an unknown destination...

(Read the whole thing: Transformative Work.)

The reason my work is featured in this magazine is that I'll be teaching next summer at a week-long writing workshop for clergy. It's called Beyond Walls Spiritual Writing Institute, and it will be at Kenyon College.


Here's a description:

You already feel confident writing to those you know in your church or synagogue. Yet clergy of all faiths tell us that there’s another conversation that matters, outside their institution’s walls, among those who aren’t there for services, but are reading, thinking, caring about living a moral and spiritual life. This is your chance to learn the best ways to join that conversation.

This one-week writing intensive program teaches you how to be a more expressive, authentic, and skilled writer, honing what you have to say and becoming more proficient and current in how to say it in media as diverse as op-eds, blogs, the personal essay, and social media. Our multi-faith approach is founded on the belief that our writing traditions have something to teach one another. Seminars and lectures by some of the most prolific and respected spiritual writers today will help develop your personal voice as a spiritual exponent in your community.

The list of faculty and speakers is fantastic, and includes Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, Rodger Kamenetz, and poet Marie Howe, among many others. It's going to be a fantastic week. If you are a clergyperson (of whatever stripe), I hope you'll consider joining us!

Happy Chanukah!

Tonight at sundown we'll enter into the Festival of Lights, also known as the Festival of Rededication, also known as Chanukah. (Or Hanukkah. Whatever. It's a Hebrew word. Its real spelling is חֲנֻכָּה -- I think the English variant with the "ch" comes closest, but mileage varies.)


First candle in the chanukiyah.

(Chanukiyah may not be a familiar term for everyone. A chanukiyah is a special menorah made for Chanukah, with eight branches and a ninth candle for lighting the others, instead of six branches and a seventh candle for lighting the others which is what you would find on a menorah designed for giving light but not specifically for commemorating the miracle of the oil which burned for eight days.)

If you're looking for some good Chanukah-themed reading, I recommend Abigail Pogrebin's recent 'A Split in the Jewish Soul': Hanukkah Reconsidered in the Forward. It's part of her excellent "Wondering Jew" series, and it opens up some important questions about the holiday and what it means to us as modern Jews -- especially as we struggle with questions of innovation and change.

Or, on a different note: Chanukah Human Menorah. "Do-it-yourself menorahs are quite common this time of year. Take some sort of material, a little arts here, a little crafts there, and you have yourself a handcrafted, bespoke fixture of light. //  Can we apply these basic elements to transform our personal lives into menorahs? Can we, as human beings, become fixtures of light in everything we do?"

To all who celebrate, I wish a joyous Festival of Lights! May we all experience increased light during these dark days.

Wintertime haiku


Thumbnail punctures peel:
the reproachful cat
leaps off of my desk.


Juncos, chickadees
flitting from roof to feeder
a quick minuet.


Red boots, purple coat:
vivid colors bright against
snow and trunk and slush.


Crumpled tissues rest
like soft misshapen snowballs
everywhere I go.


Last summer's dry wood.
Woodsmoke: incense offering.
The sun will return.

I wrote this as a series of prose lines -- Midwinter means -- but then I started carving away at it, to see whether these images would work better in poetry, and I came away with five haiku. I think I like the haiku better; what do you think?

Shabbat shalom to all!

Midwinter means

Midwinter means a world of white outside my window. Fine lines of white limn every branch and twig. The distant hills vanish beneath a scrim of snow.

Midwinter means fragrant clementines like tiny hand-held suns. When I puncture the peel with my thumbnail, the cat gives me a reproachful look and leaps off of my desk.

Midwinter means listening to Värttinä in the car. I don't speak a word of Finnish but their music comes from long nights and crisp snow.

Midwinter means the decadent pleasure of hand lotion and lip balm softening my thirsty skin.

Midwinter means the pleasure of watching juncos and chickadees flitting to and from the birdfeeder on the deck. From feeder to railing to roof and back again.

Midwinter means a dozen kinds of hot tea, usually with milk. Black tea with apricot. Earl Grey in all of its variations. Chai. But green tea with toasted rice, I drink plain.

Midwinter means the eye takes a keen pleasure in vivid colors against the white and brown and grey of snow and trunk and slush. Red boots, purple coat.

Midwinter means I scatter crumpled tissues like misshapen snowballs everywhere I go.

Midwinter means the repetitive rhythm of wrapping paper, fold and crease and tape in place.

Midwinter means last summer's wood burning bright, a stand-in for the sun which will always return.

World to come

Winter funeral.
A forest of old coats
transports me
to my grandparents' closet,
waxy marbles underfoot.

In the world to come
there are no mothballs.
No resplendent lynx pelts
from the era before
anyone objected to furs.

No housecoats or slippers
cardigan sweaters
sequined poodle skirts
or wedding dresses
sheathed in drycleaning bags.

Only garments of light
woven from every kindness
every Shabbat candle
every word of gratitude
offered in this life

where we need layers
to protect
our fragile skin
our hidden hopes
our tender hearts.


The teaching that in the world to come we will wear garments made of light, woven out of the mitzvot we performed in this life, comes from the Zohar. 


Seven stops

JewishCasketAlmost every time I'm humbled and honored to preside over a funeral, someone asks me why we make seven stops.  It's Jewish tradition to pause seven times while carrying the casket to the grave. I lead the pallbearers a few steps, then stop and hold up a hand and they stop with me. Then we walk a few more steps, and pause. And again, and again, until we've stopped seven times. It gives the processional a strange, halting rhthm. It is a somber kind of dance.

In Talmudic times (the early centuries of the Common Era), it was customary for the funeral procession to stop and sit down seven times on the way from the grave back to the home, perhaps to shake off the spiritual residue of the cemetery. In the Geonic period (roughly 500 - 1000 CE), the pauses acquired a liturgical component, the recitation of words from Psalm 91 at each stop. In the modern era these seven stops happen not on the way from the cemetery back to the town, but at the cemetery itself.

Why seven stops? (For that matter, why stop at all?) The wonderful folks at Kavod v'Nichum ("Honor and comfort," probably the best Jewish burial resource on the internet) offer several historical explanations on their page about Stopping on the way to burial. But when I am asked, I don't usually dwell on the historical reasons for the practice. I tend to focus on the spiritual resonance of the lived practice, instead. First, I point out that seven is a meaningful number in Jewish tradition.

Seven are the days of the week, the six days of creation plus Shabbat. So seven represents a perfect whole, a complete unit of time. The seven stops can represent the six days of creation plus Shabbat, or in a more metaphorical sense, the whole and complete unit of time which is the life of the deceased. The stops might represent the "six days" of the life from beginning to end, and the "Shabbat" of rest into which the beloved soul has now entered. They might represent the seven days of shiva ahead.

Seven are the lower sefirot, the qualities or aspects of God which we too can manifest in the world: lovingkindness, boundaried strength, balance, endurance, humility, rootedness, nobility. We cultivate each of these qualities day by day and week by week during the Counting of the Omer, the 7-week journey from Pesach to Shavuot, each year. And every life contains these qualities. In pausing these seven times, we honor these qualities as they manifested in the beloved soul who has now left this life.

Those are some reasons why the stops are seven in number. (There are others, but these are the ones which resonate most with me.) And as far as why we stop in the first place, I teach that we pause as a sign of our reluctance to complete this journey with our loved one, this final chance to accompany them as far as we can go. The Hebrew word for funeral is levayah, which means accompaniment. In pausing these seven times, we linger with our loved one just a little longer before we say goodbye.


Joseph, Falling With Style


I place before you the assertion that Buzz Lightyear, the fictional toy astronaut, is relevant to this week's Torah portion. (This is a classical technique of Torah exploration: begin with an assertion or a verse from somewhere else in Torah, then relate a piece of the weekly Torah portion, then loop back around to the prooftext with which the argument began. I'm using Toy Story as my prooftext. Yes, I am the mother of a five-year-old. Roll with me here.)

At the beginning of this week's Torah portion we meet Joseph. Joseph is the youngest of many children. He receives special gifts from their father, like that multicolored tunic, and he knows that daddy loves him best. He seems to be the center of his own universe; no wonder he dreams of sheaves of wheat and then of stars in the sky bowing down to him. What surprises me is that he tells his brothers about his dreams. Can he really not have recognized how that would make them feel?

Joseph's story is the classic example of descent for the sake of ascent. He is thrown into a pit... which is a necessary precursor to being lifted out. He is taken down into Egypt... which is a necessary precursor to rising in Potiphar's employ. He is thrown down into the dungeons... which is a necessary precursor to being lifted up and becoming Pharaoh's chief vizier. In English we say "What goes up, must come down." But in this story, before we can rise, sometimes we first have to fall.

Nobody wants to do that. It's human nature not to want to fall. We speak of depression as a pit from which it is difficult to emerge. We speak of difficult life experiences as narrow places, a kind of personal Mitzrayim. We don't want to "fall ill." We don't want to fall down. Professional acclaim comes from going up the ladder, not down it! We surround ourselves with possessions, college degrees, and even children as though those could guarantee us a life of nothing but ups.

But every life contains some falls. Everyone descends, sometimes. Into sorrow; into difficult circumstance; into sickness; into something. What's interesting to me is how Joseph handles his series of descents. By the time he's been thrown into Pharaoh's dungeons, he could easily be bitter and resentful. Time and again life has thrown him curveballs. Surely this is not where he expected his journey to take him. He could be forgiven for railing against the unfairness of it all.

But he doesn't. Instead Torah tells us that "God was with him." Torah says that four times. I'm not sure whether God is with him because he's humble, or the other way around, but he's gained some humility along the way. When the cupbearer and the baker come to him in prison to ask him to interpret their dreams, he says "surely God can interpret!" He knows now that he can interpret dreams not because he's such a bright guy, but because he opens himself to the presence of God.

And God is with him, even when he falls down. For me, this year, that's the lesson of this week's parsha: that the Source of All Being is with us even when we fall. That sometimes it's through our falling that we become able to experience God's loving presence, as close to us as our own heartbeat. And that falling can be a precursor to rising -- can, in fact, spark a kind of rising even if our circumstances seem bleak. Maybe once we've been "down," we can more wholly appreciate being "up."

Like Buzz Lightyear, the toy who grew into a mensch when he recognized who he was, we have limitations. We can't keep our lives on a perpetual course of ascent. But if we can learn to embrace the journey, we can turn our falls into opportunities to soar. Buzz, like Joseph, is arguably pretty conceited when his story begins. But by the end of the film he relinquishes ego with the very words which had felt disparaging to him at the start of the film: "This isn't flying -- it's falling with style!"

What would it feel like to emulate Buzz and Joseph, to embrace "falling with style"? We can't keep ourselves from falling sometimes... but if we have faith in the journey, and learn to cushion our fall (whether with balls and trampolines, as Buzz does, or with spiritual practices to keep us resilient), maybe we can find gracefulness -- and even grace -- in the journey of life's perennial glide.


Alone and not alone: a brief d'var Torah on Vayishlach

9-karen-novak-jacobHere's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday morning at my shul for parashat Vayishlach. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

"Jacob was alone, and a man wrestled with him until dawn."

Torah just told us that Jacob was levado, solitary, alone. And then Torah tells us that Jacob wrestles all night with an unnamed man, which in Torah usually means an angel. An angel, in Torah terms, isn't a creature with wings who plays the harp on a cloud. An angel is a shaliach, a messenger of the divine.

Jacob was alone -- except for that messenger of the divine, that representative of divine presence. God can't be seen or touched. Maybe that's why God sent that angel: because God knew that on the eve of meeting his brother again after so many years, on the eve of what could have been another fight or could have been a joyful reunion, Jacob needed something tangible.

"Jacob was alone, and a man wrestled with him until dawn."

Even when Jacob feels at his most alone, he is never alone, because God is with him. Even when we feel at our most alone, we are never alone, because God is with us. When do you feel most alone: in the middle of the night? When you are grieving? When you lose sight of hope? When you hear terrible news? Camped by the riverside, Jacob must have felt alone in those ways... but he wasn't alone, and neither are we. We are loved by unending love, and that love is always with us.

At the end of the wrestle, Jacob says "I will not let you go until you bless me." In return the angel blesses him with a new name, Yisra-El, the One Who Wrestles With God. God is with us not only as a loving presence, but also sometimes as a wrestling partner. Sometimes we overflow with love and gratitude toward God. Sometimes we struggle with God. And that's okay too. Because in the struggle, there's always the possibility of a blessing, if we're able to open ourselves to receiving it.

"Jacob was alone, and a man wrestled with him until dawn."

What do you struggle with most, right now -- and can you imagine finding God in that struggle? Maybe, in the wake of recent news about grand juries choosing not to indict police officers responsible for the deaths of unarmed Black men, it's a struggle for social justice, and the fear that the road to justice is too long and too difficult to tread. Can you find God in that struggle? Maybe it's a struggle with doubt, or with fear, or with illness -- personal circumstances, family circumstances, work circumstances. Can you find God in that struggle?

We are klal Yisrael, the inclusive-community-of-God-Wrestlers. As the Jewish people, the "children of Israel," we take our name from the name the angel gave Jacob on the banks of that river. We too can do what Jacob did: can take our struggles in hand and insist "I will not let you go until you bless me." Imagine saying that, right now, to the thing you struggle with most. What blessing would you receive? What blessing do you need to receive, to give you the strength and the courage and the hope that you need, so that the struggle can become not a grind but a joyous dance?


Image of Jacob wrestling the angel: by Karen Novak.


Prayer After Eric Garner


Nishmat Kol Chai / Breath of All Life:
Your breath enlivened the first man,
You breathe
the breath of life in each of us.

Today our breath is shortened
as we remember Eric Garner gasping
"I can't breathe," an elbow pressed
around his neck.

Breathe into us
determination to build a better world
where no innocent is killed
by those sworn to serve and protect.

Ignite us toward justice.
Eric Garner was made in Your image.
His six children, bereaved: in Your image.
Every Black man, woman, and child

twenty times likelier to be killed by police
than their white neighbors:
in Your image.
Help us to root out from every heart

the hidden prejudice
which causes police to open fire in fear,
which transforms a child in a hoodie
into a hoodlum, a person into a threat.

Comfort the families of all who grieve.
Strengthen us to work for a world redeemed.
And we say together: Amen.

Nishmat Kol Chai is a Hebrew name for God; it means "The Breath of All Life." It is also the name of a prayer which explores this theme, recited on Shabbat and festivals.

On "Your breath enlivened the first man," see Torah, Bereshit (Genesis) 2:7.

On "twenty times likelier to be killed by police / than their white neighbors, see Pro Publica's report Deadly force, in black and white.

For more on the connections between the Hebrew n'shima (breath) and neshama (soul), and how these relate to the death of Eric Garner, see Rabbi Pam Wax's post I Can't Breathe -- IMO Eric Garner.

Here's a statement from T'ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights on the death of Eric Garner and our justice system: Justice for Eric Garner.


Justice, justice shall you pursue


I know that I do not understand the American legal system as well as I could. I know that I particularly don't have a nuanced understanding of grand juries and how they function. But even from my relatively inexpert standpoint I can tell that something is not working right in our justice system.

You probably know by now that a grand jury has decided not to charge the NYPD officer who choked Eric Garner to death. Apparently the officer thought he was selling loose cigarettes. Which he wasn't. But that's not the point. Eric gasped "I can't breathe" eleven times before he died.

Chokeholds, as it happens, are banned by NYPD's standards. Eric was unarmed when the officer choked him and killed him. The whole awful incident was caught on video tape. And now the grand jury has decided not to press charges against this officer who killed an innocent Black man.

If the case had gone to trial, prosecutors and defenders could have argued the facts of the case. But the grand jury's decision means it won't go to trial. Exactly like the recent grand jury decision which means that officer Darren Wilson won't be tried for the killing of Michael Brown, either.

What message can this grand jury decision possbibly send to Americans of color? Judging by the Black voices in my Twitter stream, what it says is that Black lives are insignificant. How else to interpret the reality that someone who kills a Black man in full view of the public isn't even brought to trial?

People of color do not feel safe in this country, and I can understand why not. Don't believe me? Read about how Black moms have to have "The Talk" with their kids -- about how to appear unthreatening, and accept humiliation as necessary, in order to not be killed by trigger-happy fearful white people.

It is terrible enough that people live in fear of their children being mistreated, humiliated, or killed because of the color of their skin -- because a Black teenager (even in his own home!) might be mistaken for a criminal, or if he reaches for a bag of skittles he might be "reaching for a gun."

It is so much worse that people live in fear of the police and the legal system which are supposed to protect us from precisely that kind of prejudice and injustice. Cops are supposed to keep us safe. The legal system is supposed to be righteous and just. And right now those seem to be questionable.

This isn't just about officer Daniel Pantaleo and the fact that he will not see trial. It's about the fact that white people and people of color experience different systems of justice. It's about the shameful truth in W. Kamau Bell's On Being a Black Man, Six Feet Four Inches Tall, in America in 2014. (Read it -- the shame lies not in his fear of police, but in the fact that today's reality gives him reason to fear.)

I am holding the grieving family of Eric Garner in my prayers. And I am doing my best to listen to people of color in this country about the reality they inhabit, and to take their lead on working toward change. I do not want to live in a country where the following tweet seems so painfully true: