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February 2015

Revising Days of Awe

One of the great pleasures for me of last year's Days of Awe was getting to co-lead davenen (with the fabulous student hazzan Randall Miller) using a pilot edition of Days of Awe, the machzor which I created building on the wonderful work of Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser. Days of Awe was several years in the making, and went through more than thirty printed proof drafts -- and, of course, once we used it in realtime for our high holiday services, I found things which I wanted to fix. I knew that would happen; that's why this was a pilot edition! Still, it was interesting to see what needed revision.

Some of the edits are minor, e.g. places where two Hebrew vowels were trying to occupy the same space and therefore looked blurred, or Hebrew typos which needed a global find-and-replace, or places where I left out a line of transliteration. Others are more substantive. For instance, after the Days of Awe were over, I translated a relevant Lea Goldberg poem and now I want to include it in Ne'ilah. Or I realized while leading services last fall that I wanted to include the Hebrew refrain for "We Are As Clay." Or I realized that I hadn't included "Eliahu Hanavi" and "Miriam HaNeviah."

I've been working this winter on revising Days of Awe toward a second edition. Some additions, some subtractions, some general improvements. I've made a point of not changing any of the pagination. So if a community has copies of the pilot edition and then augments their collection with copies of the second edition, their prayer leader will still be able to give page numbers and they will work for both versions. The nifty material which is new to the second edition won't be in the first-edition volumes -- but a creative shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) should be able to work around that.

I'm uploading revised versions of both manuscripts (the right-to-left edition and the left-to-right edition) now. I plan to order a printer's proof of each, and spend some quality time with it, to make sure that I'm happy with how the changes look in print. (I may also reconvene my editorial / proofreading team.) What this means for everyone else is that Days of Awe is temporarily unavailable while I'm proofing the second edition. I assume that most people aren't thinking about the high holidays during January and February, so I figured this was a good time to do this work.

If you used Days of Awe last fall in your congregation or in your own solo prayer, and have suggestions to offer for the second edition, I welcome them!



Edited to add: the machzor is now available again, with all of the abovementioned changes made. Thanks for your patience!


For the birds


Woodpecker, snacking.


I love our bird feeder. Okay, in fairness, it's not the feeder itself that I love -- that's just a tube of plexiglass with some little bird rests attached. It's the birds who come to the feeder. The juncos and chickadees and sparrows and occasional woodpecker who spend the winter visiting our deck and supping at the repast of mixed birdseed that we provide. I love to watch them from inside.

Often I marvel. They are so tiny, especially the black-capped chickadees. January temperatures here can be arctic. How can something so small sustain itself when the air around it is so cold? It seems as though they ought to just freeze and drop like stones. How can their tiny hearts keep beating? How can their feathers insulate them enough to withstand this level of bitter cold?

But this is their native habitat. (And though I've been here for more than twenty years, it isn't mine; perhaps that's why I still boggle at the profusion of wildlife which flourishes not despite the winter but because this is the climate for which these creatures and plants evolved.) These birds are apparently perfectly content to winter over, and I'm grateful for that, because they cheer me.

When our son and I step outside first thing in the morning to go to preschool, we are often greeted with the sound of a woodpecker, hidden somewhere on the forested hill which abuts the house. "Shhh!" our son will say to me, and we both stand stock-still and wait, and just when it seems as though the sound isn't going to come again, we hear it: rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. And we both beam.

I feel an obligation to the birds. I don't bother to feed them in the summertime; at that time of year, the world is filled with living things for their delectation. But in winter, I feel as though they depend on me. I like being here for them. And when I see them swooping through the air to land on the feeder, and then swooping away to the trees beyond our hillside, my heart swells with gratitude.

What the birds do naturally -- fly, most of all; sing their particular songs, making sounds I can only attempt to imitate; thrive to preen and roost even in the snow, even though they're tiny -- is inconceivable to me. And every time I'm reminded of how amazing the birds are, I remember again that there's more to the world, even the simple world on this hill, than I can understand.


Sylvan stirrings in the still and chill of winter


For those who don't live locally -- here's the Rabbi Reflections column I wrote for the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of the Berkshire Jewish Voice. (I didn't come up with the title, though I quite like it.)

Every winter, as we turn the page on the secular calendar and welcome the Gregorian new year, I begin to look forward to Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees. For me, Tu BiShvat is the first step away from midwinter and toward the longer days and brighter light of spring.

Every year I remind myself that a good cold snowy winter, followed by late-winter days where the temperatures skate above freezing and dip again at nightfall, ensures a good maple syrup harvest. I await the days when steam will rise from sugar shacks across the region -- a kind of secular Tu BiShvat, celebrating the trees and the gifts they bring.

I didn't grow up celebrating Tu BiShvat, but it has become one of my favorite holidays, perhaps in part because of where and when it falls in the cycle of our festival year. It begins a series of months during which we celebrate something wonderful at every full moon: first Tu BiShvat, then Purim, then Pesach. (Except during leap years, when there's an extra month of Adar -- but this isn't a leap year.) These festivals are stepping-stones across the season's frozen expanse.

Living in New England where the trees are leafless and seem dormant at this season, I love Tu BiShvat's reminder to celebrate the glory of nature even at this moment in the year. I love taking time, in deep winter, to thank God for the abundance we receive from the trees of our world. And I love thinking about how human beings too are like trees. Just as trees need sun and water and earth in order to flourish, so too we need light and fluidity and rootedness in our own lives.

At Tu BiShvat many of us read an excerpt from the Talmudic story of Honi the Circle-Drawer, who mocked a man for planting a carob tree which takes seventy years to bear fruit. "Just as my grandparents planted trees for me," the man replies, "so do I plant for my grandchildren." It's a fine environmental sentiment: we must care for our earth so that the planet will be here for our children's children.

But the continuation of the story -- not usually read at Tu BiShvat seders -- is equally compelling to me. Honi falls asleep for 70 years, a kind of Jewish Rip Van Winkle. When he wakes, he sees the grandson of the man who planted, now harvesting the carob.

Then he visits the house of study where he once learned. He finds students lamenting the fact that they no longer understand Torah as clearly as did (the now legendary) Honi the Circle-Drawer. "That's me," he exclaims, but no one believes him. He dies, whereupon the Talmudic sage Rava says, "Hence the saying 'Either companionship or death.'"

What can we make of the latter part of this tale? For me, the first part of the story is about the vertical connections of one generation to the next; the second part of the story is about the horizontal connections of one friend to another. Honi becomes uprooted in time. And without being known for who he is, he can no longer thrive.

We all derive sustenance from being part of a communal context. We all yearn to be known and recognized and cherished for who we are.

As we approach Tu BiShvat this year, may we experience rootedness in our own generation, our own communities, our own context -- even as we reflect back with gratitude on generations before us, and hope for sweetness for generations to come.



Tu BiShvat, the full moon of the month of Shvat, falls on Feb. 4 on the Gregorian calendar this year. (If you're in western Mass, you're welcome to join us at my shul on the following Shabbat morning, Feb. 7, for a vegetarian / dairy potluck lunchtime seder. RSVPs are requested; here's more information about that.)


...Not off to Gambier

Today I was supposed to be heading to Gambier, Ohio for a very quick visit. Gambier is a town of about 2300 people and is home to Kenyon College. Kenyon College, in turn, hosts the Kenyon Institute where I will be teaching next summer. I was meant to go there for a night and a morning to engage in a brief but intensive process of planning for the Beyond Walls Spiritual Writing Institute.


This is what I expected to see in Gambier.

(It's also more or less what I'd be leaving back home: snow and college buildings.)

I was looking forward to getting an advance glimpse of Gambier (though surely its January face is different from the face it wears in July!) and to spending a night and part of a day with the rest of the faculty planning our workshops and sessions and brainstorming about how we want the week to unfold.  We were going to plan curricula, plenary sessions, and opportunities for spiritual practice.

Then a nor'easter made itself known. (See Potentially Historic Blizzard Taking Aim On New England.) The storm has a few repercussions for me. Ethan's having a tougher-than-expected time getting home from Cebu, where he's been for the Global Voices Summit on Protecting the Open Internet. Our son's preschool is likely to close. And there is absolutely no way I'm flying to Ohio today. 


That said, so far I've been really impressed with how this program is coming together. The organizers are thoughtful, engaged, and genuinely passionate about providing an amazing week of spiritual writing instruction to clergy and spiritual directors of all stripes. Based on our emails and phone conversations thus far, I'm expecting our time in Ohio in July to be thought-provoking and rich.

Need a refresher on the Beyond Walls Spiritual Writing Institute? Here you go:

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. If you are a spiritual director or clergyperson (of whatever stripe), I hope you'll consider joining us. Enrollment is limited and I know we're already getting some terrific applicants, so if this sounds up your alley, please apply soon.

And if you're in the path of this potentially-historic nor'easter, stay warm and dry, y'all.

Deep winter

Winter in the city is unlovely, all slush and grit. But even here in the country it's not always a picture postcard. Snow which was soft and fluffy when it fell has thawed and refrozen. Driveways are uneven hockey rinks of lumpy ice. Hillsides which had been white are scraped with grey and brown. The small river which runs through Williamstown is jumbled with ice. Cars are gritty and crusted with dirty slush and rock salt. On cloudy days, everything feels frozen and grey.

The twinkling lights of December are well behind us, and the first glimmers of the coming spring are too far ahead to anticipate. The new moon of the lunar month of Shvat has just begun to wax; we're almost two weeks away from the full moon which will herald Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees. And besides, here in the Berkshires Tu BiShvat is still deep winter. The almond trees may be preparing to bloom in the Middle East, but God knows nothing is blooming here.

Winter's novelty has worn off, well before winter itself is even thinking about unclenching. For a lot of us, this can be a difficult season. I'm not talking about seasonal affective disorder per se, though I know plenty of people who struggle with that to one degree or another. But there's a general sense of malaise which can set in during late January and into February, especially in places like New England where the days are still short and our movements are circumscribed by ice and snow.

Over the years I've tried a lot of different remedies. Eating clementines by the box, as though warding off scurvy with their bright sweetness. Hot baths. Endless pots of tea. Making the effort to light a fire in the fireplace, because even though it takes some time to get it going, there's a kind of primal comfort in sitting beside a warm, bright blaze. These days I try to retrain my eye to see the beauty even in the low grey skies and the dirt-streaked ice. To notice subtle gradations of winter light.

 The work of hashpa'ah, spiritual direction, teaches me to ask the question "where is God in this?" So where can I find God in this wintery world leached of color? Where can I find God in my reaction to the low-ceilinged clouds and the early sundown? Where is God for me in ice and snow, dirt and road salt, the work of mitigating winter's isolation? Where is God for me in the work of maintaining my own even keel at this season? And where is God for you, in whatever your struggles may be?

Gratitude for my body

I sat down this morning wanting to do some writing, and when I let my mind clear, what emerged was this subject. Even as I was writing this post, I had the sneaking feeling I had written something similar before -- but I intentionally didn't seek out that older post until I had finished drafting this one. It turns out that I've written almost this exact post before -- two years ago in deep midwinter, just like now. Apparently this is stuff I think about a lot, maybe especially at this time of year.


13058I don't manage to say 100 blessings every day. Actually, I'm not certain of that; it's not as though I'm keeping score, making a note on my phone every time I remember to bless. There may in fact be days when I organically offer a hundred moments of gratitude to God. But I suspect that most days my count is lower than that. Still, one blessing I offer every day is the asher yatzar. Here's how it goes:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being; You formed the human body with wisdom, and placed within it many openings and closings. It is known before Your throne of glory that if one of these were to be opened where it should be closed, or closed where it should be opened, we would not be able to stand before You and offer praise. Blessed are You, Adonai, healer of all flesh and worker of miracles!

I first became conscious of this blessing as a practice because it was printed on laminated posters which hung just outside the bathrooms at the old Elat Chayyim in Accord, New York. The words were there as a reminder to us that in Jewish tradition, even the act of elimination can be sanctified with words of blessing. I'm pretty certain that when I first encountered it I was charmed by the fact that we have blessings for pretty much everything. But I know it didn't really hit home for me then.

The blessing made a whole new kind of sense to me once I landed in the hospital with that second stroke. It is known that if one of these were to be closed where it should be opened... if a blood clot, for instance, should travel to the brain and block the flow of blood where it is needed... I would be unable to stand before You, indeed. My own brushes with illness have brought this truth home for me in a new way. And although I am (thank God) healthy and hearty now, the blessing's truth remains.

The truth is, having a body which more or less works most of the time is a flat-out miracle. Most of us don't tend to think of it that way, because it's incredibly difficult to live in the world while also feeling genuine wonder at every single miracle which occurs. My heart is beating: that's amazing! Hey, it's still beating: amazing! My kidneys are filtering my blood without my conscious control: amazing! No one can live with that awareness all the time. But our lack of awareness doesn't negate the miracle.

When I became pregnant I started experiencing the blessing in yet another way. Because I was a stroke survivor, and pregnancy increases the risk of stroke, I needed to inject myself with blood thinner every day. I am one of those people who shies away from needles even at the safe distance of seeing them on tv, so I was anxious about having to begin every day with an injection. So I developed the practice of reciting the asher yatzar while administering the blood thinner each morning.

Pregnancy also offered me new opportunities to marvel at the things my body does without my conscious intervention. Not only does my heart continue to beat, not only do my organs continue to do all of the things they're meant to do, but somehow my body knew how to grow a human being. I certainly wasn't driving that bus. My body knew what it was doing without me needing to be in charge. My body knew how to grow and change in ways I couldn't possibly have imagined.

And then our son was born, and the injections ended, and my relationship with my body went through a rollercoaster of changes: wonder that I had grown a human being from component cells, amazement that my body could produce the nourishment he needed, and then exhaustion and postpartum depression which deadened me to the wonder of my body (and of anything else.) I think there was a period of time when I wasn't saying many blessings for anything at all, my body included.

These days I silently recite the blessing every morning while I'm doing the incredibly mundane task of moisturizing my skin. This is a kind of routine wintertime maintenance for me. Between the cold dry air outside and the heated air indoors my skin gets dry and itchy at this time of year. It's a minor affliction, and it can be averted with a little bit of lotion. I try to use the moisturizing time to cultivate gratitude for my body. And as soon as I reach for the lotion, the blessing pops into my head.

Along with the words comes a melody. I sing them silently to myself using the trope, the melody-system, for Song of Songs. In rabbinic school I learned to use that melody for the sheva brachot, the seven blessings at the heart of every Jewish wedding. (I think that's a beautiful tradition. It makes sense that we would sing wedding blessings using the melody-system designed for Tanakh's great love-text.) So if it's a melody I associate with wedding blessings, why am I humming it to myself?

Because one of those seven blessings begins with the same words as the asher yatzar blessing -- "Blessed are You Adonai our God, Source of all being, Who creates the human being..." The wedding blessing goes on from there in a different direction, but because I have sung those words so frequently to this melody, the melody and the words have become intertwined. So when I am reciting the asher yatzar blessing to myself in the morning, that's the melody which arises.

I love praying the asher yatzar blessing to this melody because it makes the prayer feel like a love song both to my body, flawed and imperfect as it is, and to the One Who creates me anew in every moment. Singing a love song to my body isn't always easy. I know I'm not alone in looking in the mirror and seeing everything I like least about this physical form. But this blessing reminds me to look beyond those things to the miracle which underlies them. My heart is beating: that's amazing!

I can't live in constant awareness of these miracles. But if saying the blessing every day offers me an opportunity to glimpse the wonder again for a moment, that feels like enough.



Sanctifying the body, 2005

Morning blessings for body and soul, 2007

Every body is a reflection of God, 2013

A daily love song to my body, 2013


Legends of the Talmud: fantastical stories, in fantastic art

Donating to Kickstarter campaigns is like giving a gift to one's future self. I didn't come up with that idea myself -- it's Ethan's -- but I thought of it a few days ago when I received a copy of a book I had helped to fund, but had forgotten would be arriving eventually in my mailbox: Legends of the Talmud: A Collection of Ancient Magical Jewish Tales, by Leah Vincent and Samuel Katz, illustrated by Aya Rosen. (I reviewed Leah Vincent's memoir Cut me loose a bit less than a year ago.)

Here's how the project was described on its Kickstarter page:

ImagesLegends of the Talmud will introduce readers aged 6+ to one of the oldest and most influential texts of Judaism: the Talmud. Although often viewed as a collection of religious laws, the Talmud is also a cultural legacy filled with foundational Jewish ideas and magical tales.

The five stories curated in Legends of the Talmud are presented without doctrinal overlay. They are recounted exactly as they are in the original text: cultural treasures that depict earthy and frank experiences of love, suffering, hope and persistence that all humans grapple with as we move through life. 

Written by Leah Vincent and Samuel Katz and illustrated by Aya Rosen, this revolutionary book will introduce children of all backgrounds to the Talmud and allow Jewish legends to proudly take their place in the global library of ancient magical stories.

The book does what the Kickstarter promised and then some. It is stunning.


A two-page spread from one of the book's stories, "The Matron and Reb Yose."

This is a richly-illustrated collection of short stories. (I can't exactly call it a graphic novel, because it isn't a novel, but it's very much in that vein -- beautiful illustrations which are themselves the story, not just accompaniments to the story.) It contains five vignettes from the Talmud: For the Love of Chanina, Hillel the Sage, the Test of the Bitter Waters, It is Not in Heaven, and the Matron and Reb Yose.

In these tales we read about how the sage Chanina loved learning more than he loved the law (and what the consequences of that love turned out to be). How the sage Hillel allowed himself to freeze overnight on the skylight of the house of study (and his famous on-one-foot encapsulation of Torah). How the sotah ritual, the "test of the bitter waters," allowed a woman who knew she had not sinned to prove her innocence. How the rabbis reminded God that interpretation of Torah is not in heaven, but here on earth, which means that it is in our hands. And how God spends God's spare time making love matches here on earth, which is a more difficult task than we tend to think.


A two-page spread from the tale of Hillel the Sage.

These are all stories that I know, and if you have spent any time studying Talmud, you know them too. But even if they are familiar to you, this volume's sparse retelling (and especially Aya Rosen's gorgeous artwork) will bring them to life for you in a new way. And if you know someone who doesn't know these tales from the Talmud, oh, is that person in for a treat!

I want to give this book to everyone I know who loves graphic novels, because it's a beautiful introduction to some foundational Jewish stories. (I give the authors particular props for including the whole "It is not in heaven" story -- not ending with God's joyful shout of "my children have defeated me," but going all the way to the story's conclusion, which is considerably more emotionally complicated.) And I want to give it to everyone I know who loves Talmud, because it's such a lovely addition to the corpus of Talmudic lore.

Leah Vincent's website says the books will be available at our favorite booksellers in spring of 2015, and a Twitter conversation with her confirms that. Follow the book's Facebook page to get an update when the book is available to the general public. Ass soon as that happens, I'm buying a pile of these -- to give to my b'nei mitzvah students and to share with comics-loving friends, and especially one to give to our son.


A Year of Deep Ecumenism - including a Jew in the Lotus 25th Anniversary weekend


The very first class I took, when I was in the process of preparing to apply to the ALEPH rabbinic ordination program, was Deep Ecumenism. (It's a required class for all students in the ALEPH ordination programs.) Deep Ecumenism was one of the pillars of Reb Zalman's thinking. It's a way of relating to other faith-traditions which goes beyond the shallow waters of "interfaith dialogue," and which eschews the old-paradigm triumphalism which held that there's only one path to God.

The idea of Deep Ecumenism wasn't Reb Zalman's alone. Centuries ago, Meister Eckhart wrote that "Divinity is an underground river that no one can stop and no one can dam up." Following on Meister Eckhart's teaching, Reverend Matthew Fox wrote "we would make a grave mistake if we confused [any one well] with the flowing waters of the underground river. Many wells, one river. That is Deep Ecumenism." Deep Ecumenism teaches that no single religious tradition is "The" way to reach God.

Reb Zalman built on that thinking when he wrote (and taught and spoke, time and again) that each religious tradition is an organ in the body of humanity. Our differences are meaningful, and our commonality is significant. No single tradition is the whole of what humanity needs; no single tradition contains all the answers. And that's great! Because it means that we can learn from and with each other across our different traditions. "The only way to get it together, is together."

Deep Ecumenism teaches us that we can best serve the needs of all humanity when we not only respect other religious paths, but collaborate with them in our shared work of healing creation. No one tradition contains all the answers, but every tradition can be (in the Buddha's words) "a finger pointing at the moon," directing our hearts toward our Source.

Reb Zalman z"l taught that we can and should find nourishment in traditions other than our own. No single spiritual path contains all of the "vitamins" that are needed. He wrote that we must undertake "the more intrepid exploration of deep ecumenism in which one learns about oneself through participatory engagement with another religion or tradition."

In engaging with the other, we learn about ourselves. When we learn from and collaborate with fellow-travelers on other spiritual paths, our own practices are enriched — and we come one step closer to a world without religious prejudice or fear.

(That's from the Deep Ecumenism page on the new ALEPH website.) This is one of the things I've always loved about Jewish Renewal. Reb Zalman's teaching that each religious tradition is an organ in the body of humanity -- each necessary; each individual and different; and each needing to be in communication with the others because we're all part of the same great whole -- speaks to me. And I think that this kind of shift, in interreligious relations, is something that humanity needs.

Over the course of 2015, ALEPH will be presenting a variety of programs relating to Deep Ecumenism. One will be a weekend gathering over the 4th of July in Philadelphia, titled GETTING IT TOGETHER:  Reb Zalman’s Legacy and The Jew in the Lotus 25th Year Retrospective. (I'm incredibly excited about that; longtime readers may recall that Rodger Kamenetz's The Jew in The Lotus is the book which introduced me to Reb Zalman and to Jewish Renewal in the first place!)

Another will be a week-long retreat at Ruach Ha'Aretz (ALEPH's mobile summer retreat program) focusing on Deep Ecumenism. I know that some terrific Jewish Renewal teachers will be there, and the organizers are also exploring having teachers from other religious traditions as well. A third will be an interfaith pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine [pdf], to be co-led by Rabbis Victor and Nadya Gross, among others. And there are other projects in the works -- literary, liturgical, and so on.

When I think about why I'm glad to be on the ALEPH board of directors; when I think about the kinds of things ALEPH is doing which feed my spirit, and which I think have the capacity to be world-changing; this Deep Ecumenism work is one of top things on my list. This is one of the reasons I came to ALEPH in the first place -- because I found Reb Zalman's mode of interacting with, relating to, and learning from other traditions (as described in The Jew in the Lotus) to be so meaningful.

I'll post more about that 25th anniversary gathering as more information becomes available, but for now -- save the date, and consider joining us that weekend? I know that many of the original participants in that journey will be joining us, among them Rabbi Yitz and Blu Greenberg, Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, and of course Rodger Kamenetz himself. And it will take place on the Gregorian anniversary of Reb Zalman's leaving this life -- a sweet time to remember his work, and to rededicate ourselves to carrying that work forward in the world.


Va'era, freedom, and Reverend Martin Luther King

Martin-Luther-King-I-have-a-dream_0Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul for parashat Va'era. (At least, this is the script from which I spoke. Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

God spoke to Moshe saying: go and tell Pharaoh, King of Egypt, to let the Israelites depart from his land. (Exodus 6:10)

This week we move deeper into our people's central story: we were enslaved to a Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. This year, our reading of this holy story falls on the weekend when we prepare to observe Martin Luther King Day.

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr -- alav hashalom / peace be upon him -- was a man in the mold of Moses. He worked tirelessly to end the injustice of segregation. He led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. He organized nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Alabama, which attracted national attention because television crews captured the brutal police response. He dared to dream of a world redeemed in which the evils of racism would be a thing of the past.

As Jews, we twice a year recount the story of how we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt -- during the weekly round of Torah readings, and at the Passover seder. We also thank God for our liberation from slavery in daily prayer and in the Friday night kiddush.

Our liberation is spiritual, not literal. None of us here today were actually slaves in Egypt. And many of you have heard me say before that it doesn't matter to me whether or not that story is historically true. What matters is that it's the story we tell about who we are.

But for Martin Luther King, the story of liberation wasn't about freedom from internal constriction, the "narrow places" in our lives or in our hearts. His ancestors were slaves to plantation owners and overseers in the American South. Not in the mythic mysts of ancient history, but a short few hundred years ago. And the unthinkable injustices of that system which treated Black human beings as subhuman chattel have not yet been wholly rooted-out.

Continue reading "Va'era, freedom, and Reverend Martin Luther King" »

Channeling smicha for the first time

I wrote recently about three ineffable moments from late last week -- visiting the prayer space where Reb Zalman z"l used to daven, leading prayer with my friend Rabbi Evan Krame, and savoring the davenen on Shabbat morning at the Shabbaton (Shabbat retreat) preceding the ALEPH ordination programs' smicha (ordination) ceremony and the OHALAH conference. But Sunday was ordination day, and it was more intense, more powerful, and more beyond-words than any of those.

On Sunday I got to do something which brought me more joy than I know how to describe. On that day, my beloved friend David became Rabbi David Markus. And at the moment of the rabbinic smicha -- the laying-on of hands and the speaking of the holy words which transform a student into a rabbi forevermore -- because I had been one of his teachers, I was privileged and honored to be able to be one of the people who stood behind him, through whom the words and the transmission flowed.

Along with others among our teachers and colleagues, I placed my hands on his shoulders. He closed his eyes and leaned back into our hands. And we called forth the words which created the change. In English, some of them are these:

Herewith we ordain you
To officiate as rabbis in Israel,
To publicly teach Torah,
And to clarify and pronounce truth in ways
that make a tikkun for the Shekhinah.

We hereby appoint you as delegates and emissaries
just as those who appointed us
delegated us and sent us to be rabbis...

May your hands be like ours
Your decree like our decree
Your rabbinic acts, valid like ours...

They are awesome words. Awesome in the original sense of that word; they awaken awe in me. Ever since the first smicha I ever attended, every time I hear them they go straight to my core.

It was only four years ago that I stood in front of my community, leaned back into the loving hands of my teachers, and took in the transmission of their blessing and their energy. I remember how it felt to receive that. I remember how it felt to walk around afterwards, my spirit buzzing and tingling, my heart as wide-open as the Colorado skies, feeling as though my spiritual DNA were being rewritten. And this time I got to be one of the channels for that transmission, that blessing, that change.

And then I got to look into the eyes of one of my dearest friends, who has been an integral part of my life for well more than twenty years -- who in college gave me the Rodger Kamenetz book which set me on the path to finding Jewish Renewal; who gave me my tefillin when I turned thirty; who took my advice and enrolled in a Jewish Renewal training program even though he wasn't certain where the path would lead; who has been my hevruta and my brother and my friend -- and call him Rabbi.

Naming him Rabbi felt as though something fundamental were snapping into place. Of course, it's transformative speech, like saying "I do" -- the words create change in the world. But it wasn't just the words. It was also the touch, the press of hands, the honored teachers clustered behind and around, their love and intention flowing through me along with my own. Serving as a channel for the transmission of smicha reminded me spiritually of birthing: something coming through me.

ALEPH's smicha ceremony always brings me joy. And every smicha I've attended since my own has reminded me of my own, and has strengthened my sense of smicha. (It's perhaps like -- as I've heard my Christian colleagues say -- how every baptism invites the adults present to renew their own baptismal covenant.) But this year was different. This year the joy was multiplied: a hundredfold, a thousandfold, I can't quantify it.

This year, when I helped to confer smicha on my dearest friend, I also changed myself. I became not only a recipient of this incalculable gift, but also a transmitter. Not only someone who has received, but also someone who's opened a space so the gift can flow through me into others. And then there are the particularities of the two of us. He led me here, I led him here in return. I had the indescribable privilege of channeling smicha for him, and in return he enabled me to grow even deeper into my own.

I can't quite grasp words to explain how that felt, how it still feels. Can you imagine hearing music -- maybe the songs of the angels on high -- which, once heard, leaves you forever changed? Can you imagine the upwelling joy of the harmonies, soaring and uplifting, the way your heart would brim over with gratitude and surrender? Can you imagine how you might feel in the silence after the song, the harmonies lingering long after the melody has faded from the air?

Ruth Messinger on tikkun olam at OHALAH 2015

The theme of this year's OHALAH conference is "Integral Tikkun Olam." One of the keynote speakers is Ruth Messinger, the head of the American Jewish World Service. Here are some glimpses of the latter part of her Monday morning keynote.

As I enter the room -- having unfortunately missed the first hour of her address; apologies for not being able to blog her earlier remarks -- Ruth is talking about Burma. (Which is intriguing to me in part because Ethan was there relatively recently and it's a place in which I am personally interested, and also because I'm not sure I've ever heard Burma discussed in a Jewish communal setting.)

In Burma, she tells us, Muslims are in danger from fundamentalist Buddhists. (A ripple runs through the room when she says that. She notes tartly that Jewish groups often struggle with this one. Clearly our communities have some prejudices which we need to recognize and overcome.) While the current government is better than the previous, things are still not good for minorities in Burma.

The addition of a little bit of democracy, she says, can sometimes make it more possible for people to turn on each other. There are huge efforts to protect the Rohyinga Muslim population; there was a successful Twitter hashtag campaign called #justsaytheirname, designed to bring pressure on President Obama when he was there recently, to mention them and ask about their future.

(She also noted that oppression can take many forms; the Burmese government is taking a census, and has instructed their census-takers to ask what religion people are and if they say Muslim, not to count them.)

Continue reading "Ruth Messinger on tikkun olam at OHALAH 2015" »


1. Thursday


It is difficult to describe the experience of entering into Reb Zalman (z"l)'s prayer room. Parting the curtains, entering a little cave filled with prayer books and holy items and meaningful photographs. Sitting in one of the chairs facing his empty seat. Gazing at the items on the table -- the small keyboard, the little velvet pouch -- and feeling as though I had entered into a still life painting. Or as though I were in Pompeii, some vital and vibrant place where everything just stopped. Nothing has been moved. It feels as though he could have just been here, as though I just missed him. The room vibrates. The moment I sit down in the chair I burst into tears, so sudden and intense that I am surprised by their presence. I think: this is how a place becomes holy -- when someone sits here and prays, day after day after day; when visitors come seeking teaching and counsel, year after year; when hope and heart and tears and love are poured into a place so intensely that they leave an imprint.


2. Friday


It is difficult to describe the joy of leading davenen with a dear friend. Leading a community of a couple dozen ALEPH board members, all of whom we know well, all of whose voices are dear to us, all of whom know the flow of the prayers as intimately as we do. Beginning with the "Cowboy Modah Ani" (which has never felt so perfectly appropriate as it it does in Colorado.) Starting R' Hanna Tiferet's "Ashrei" round, and having everyone in the room not only sing along but also spontaneously take up the round, as R' Shefa Gold drums. Invoking (and imitating) the angelic choirs while singing "Holy, holy, holy." (Soon-to-be) Rabbi Evan Krame singing the Mi Chamocha prayer of redemption to the melody of a Zulu hymn, a test run for Shabbat. Me singing spontaneous prayers on the themes of the thirteen "request" blessings of the weekday Amidah. Closing with riotous laughter as we honor the snowy landscape outside by singing "Adon Olam" to the melody of "Winter Wonderland."


3. Saturday


It is difficult to describe the joy of Shabbat morning services with some two hundred people, many of whom are known and beloved to me. The service led by people I know and love. (Soon-to-be) Hazzan Daniel Kempin playing his guitar. Singing the hymn Siyahamba in Zulu, and then in Spanish, and then Hebrew, and then German, and then English -- "We are walking in the light of God!" -- which transitions seamlessly into into Mi Chamocha, the song of our redemption at the Sea of Reeds, when we walked in the light of God from slavery into freedom. Dancing in the aisles, feeling tears of joy prickle the back of my eyelids as we shift to "We are singing in the light of God" and finally "we are praying in the light of God." Hearing (soon to be) Rabbi David Markus' extraordinary d'var Torah about Moshe at the burning bush, and chaplaincy, and "rookie moves," and how our times of turning away can become inflection points in our spiritual paths. The harmonies. The heart. The joy.



Today is ordination day.

I'm remembering the first smicha ceremony I ever witnessed, nine years ago, when I was new to the ALEPH ordination programs.

And I'm especially remembering my own ordination, four years ago:

...And then the seven rabbinic candidates are called forth beneath the chuppah to stand in front of our teachers.

Someone murmurs "lean back," and I do. I can feel Reb Laura's hands on me, and Reb Sami's, and the weight of the va'ad and the other teachers standing with them all clustered together holding us up. Are they leaning on us, or are we leaning on them? I close my eyes; the world feels too luminous. It's like the period when I was birthing Drew; the doctor invited me to look in the mirror and see him emerging, but all I could do was close my eyes and go inside to be present to what was unfolding...

 I can't wait to hear the Torah which I know today's candidates for smicha will give over. I can't wait to celebrate my friends and beloveds as they take this leap and are transformed into something new.

ALEPH and OHALAH in Colorado: reuniting with my hevre again

ShvitiI'm on my way today to Colorado. I've been going there at this time of year since I started the ALEPH rabbinic program, which is when I became a student member of OHALAH (the association of Jewish Renewal clergy) and began attending the OHALAH conference and the Shabbaton which precedes it. (The ALEPH ordination programs hold our smicha ceremony on the Sunday afternoon in between that Shabbat retreat and the conference proper.)

Usually I head out in time for Shabbat, or in time for the ordination. This year I'm going a few days earlier than in years past, because now I serve on the board of directors of ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, and the ALEPH board meets in person before the OHALAH conference every year. We meet via teleconferencing every month, but I was only able to be tele-present for our summer retreat in Oregon, so I'm looking especially forward to being part of this board gathering in person.

I'm especially excited about davening with everyone (we'll begin our board meeting days with shacharit, morning services, co-led by different board members each day) -- meeting our new Executive Director Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin in person for the first time --  conversations about the Deep Ecumenism programming we'll be sharing over the course of 2015 -- and to the rejuvenation of my Jewishness which always happens after sustained time with my Jewish Renewal hevre.

Of course, this will be our first winter gathering without Reb Zalman z"l. Many of us came together in August for the Remembering Reb Zalman Shabbaton and memorial, but I know that it will still be strange to be there without him. Like a giant family reunion without our beloved grandparent. Even though he had been stepping back in recent years, he's the one who brought us all together in the first place. I'm not yet used to the reality that he's no longer here, that his legacy rests in our hands.

I dreamed a few nights ago that I was at a summer camp, and it was Friday night, and I went to the theater and found that there was davenen there. I slid into the back row because I was running a bit late, and saw that Reb Zalman z"l was sitting in the row in front of me, merrily singing along. I knew, in the dream, that he was sitting in the back (instead of in his customary front-row seat) because he didn't have the energy to be his usual front-row presence, but he was happy to be with us.

Wishful thinking? Sure, maybe. But to me it felt like a clear sign that his presence will be with us when we gather this week for Shabbat and for the smicha ritual on Sunday. From the back row, as it were, because he's left the role of the rebbe's chair behind -- but I think we'll feel his loving presence with us as we sing and celebrate, and especially as ordain the next links in the chain of our lineage which connects us back with him and with generations of sages and teachers in our tradition.

To all who are joining me in Colorado today, or Friday, or Sunday -- I wish you smooth travels and a gentle landing!


Image: license plate which reads "Sh'viti," a reference to a line from psalms ("I have placed God before me always") -- photograph taken at last year's OHALAH conference.

Shabbat, technology, and tube socks

It really wasn't my intention to base multiple Hebrew school lessons this year around repurposed undergarments. But sometimes this rabbinic life takes me into places I didn't exactly expect to go. Case in point: yesterday I found myself preparing for my fifth-through-seventh-grade class by standing in line at the local Dollar Store (not my favorite shopping destination, but this time it was suitably affordable for my needs) with a double armful of cheap white tube socks.

I wanted to teach my students about Shabbat. I knew I wanted to begin with a short conversation about who creates holiness, God or us. (Psst: both, together.) I knew I wanted to convey that Shabbat is the holiest day of the year and it happens each week; that on Shabbat, we who are made in God's image rest as Torah teaches that God rested on the seventh day of creation; that Shabbat is a day to stop doing and to just be, to be "human beings" instead of "human do-ings."

In years past, I haven't been wholly satisfied with our conversations about different Jewish ways of understanding the commandment to rest and not do work. One year I taught a lesson about the 39 forms of labor which are traditionally understood to be prohibited on Shabbat, but it was hard to connect those to my students' lived experiences. It's too easy for them to start seeing Shabbat practices as deprivations, instead of as opportunities for connection, holiness, a different state of mind.

I know that most of my students have cellphones. And I'm pretty sure that if I suggested to them that they turn off their phones every Shabbat, they would balk. (As might their parents.) What I wanted instead was to get them thinking not about whether they use technology on Shabbat, but how they use it. For instance: is there a difference between using one's phone to call a friend and connect, vs. using one's phone to play a solitary game which keeps one disconnected from the world?

If nothing else, I thought there might be some interesting fodder for conversation. 

So I decided to make and decorate cellphone bags. Not with an eye toward shaming my kids for using their phones on Saturdays, but with an eye toward shifting how they use those phones on that special day. (And even if they don't actually use the bags most of the time, maybe the act of making them would be a consciousness-raiser.) The challenge was, I don't have a very large education budget, and I didn't want to spend money on fancy cellphone cases which I wasn't even sure the kids would use.

Enter the tube socks.

Continue reading "Shabbat, technology, and tube socks" »

Vayechi: a blessing at bedtime

Angel-grassHere's the d'var Torah I offered at my shul yesterday.

Jacob, on his deathbed, places his hands on his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe. And he says:

The angel who rescued me from all harm -- bless these boys! May they carry on my name and thus name of my ancestors, Abraham and Isaac. May they spread far and wide upon the earth.

Jacob seems to be referring to a specific angel here. The only angel we know of, in his story, is the angel with whom he wrestled on the eve of reuniting with his brother. He wrestled with that angel until dawn and then said "I will not let you go until you bless me!" In return, the angel gave him a new name, Yisrael, One Who Wrestles With God. That's who he's asking to bless his descendants: not a "guardian angel" as pop culture defines the term, but the angel who redeemed him with an all-night struggle.

As the children of Israel, we inherited his wrestle. We're Godwrestlers. We give ourselves to the holy work of wrestling with God, wrestling with Torah, wrestling with the world's imperfections. And that wrestling is itself a kind of redemption. It lifts us out of a state of passive receptivity. When we wrestle with God and with Torah and with injustice in the world, we are transformed.

Jacob's request for blessing has become part of the traditional liturgy for the Bedtime Shema.1 There's also another piece of that liturgy which mentions angels: a song where we ask four angels, Wonder, Strength, Light, and Comfort -- or using their Hebrew names, Michael (Who is Like God), Gavriel (God's Strength), Uriel (God's Light), and Raphael (God's Healing) -- to bless us as we sleep. I sing this to our son every night at bedtime.

Some of you may be thinking: wait a second. It's one thing to say that Jacob encountered an angel. But us? In modern life today? Asking angels for blessings?

Bear in mind that "angels," in our tradition, doesn't mean winged cherubs with haloes. In Jewish tradition, an angel is a messenger from God, doing God's work in the world.

The people we meet may serve as angels for us. There's a teaching in Jewish tradition which holds that every blade of grass has an angel which sits over it and whispers "Grow, grow!" If every blade of grass is cheered on by an angel, surely we are too. Maybe when we offer praise and encouragement to each other, we embody those angels. In the Angel Song I referenced earlier, qualities like Wonder and Strength are called angels. Maybe when we cultivate our own wonder, we connect up with the Angel of Wonder.

Returning to Jacob's prayer, "May the angel who rescued me from all harm bless these boys:" traditional Jews recite it every night, and I think we can learn something from its placement in the bedtime ritual. Here's how that ritual goes:

1) The first step in getting ready for sleep is forgiveness. The liturgy for Kriat Shema al-ha-Mitah begins "I forgive anyone who has hurt me, through deeds or actions, in this lifetime or any other." This way, if I die in my sleep tonight, I won't be carrying the karmic baggage of grudges.

2) Then there's a prayer blessing God Who brings us to sleep. We ask God to let our sleep be peaceful until we wake in the morning to gratitude again. We ask God to shelter us beneath a shelter of peace all night. Once we've cultivated forgiveness, we're ready to be peaceful.

3) Then we recite the words from this Torah portion, asking the angel who blessed Jacob to bless us.

4) The traditional liturgy ends with Adon Olam, which closes with the verse "Into Your hands I place my spirit, when I sleep and when I rise; and with my spirit, my body too; God is mine, I will not fear!"

When we've offered forgiveness, and acknowledged the Oneness at the heart of all things, then we become ready to ask our very struggles to bless us as we surrender to the night. And when we can experience our struggles as angels bearing blessings, then we can know ourselves to be in God's loving hands when we sleep and when we wake.  Kein yehi ratzon: may it be so!



1.Maybe you didn't know there was a liturgy designed for reciting at bedtime. There is; it appears in most siddurim; you can find the Hebrew prayers here at Open Siddur, and here's a nice exploration of the bedtime shema liturgy and its themes.


Essay in Shma Koleinu

51qavIAkugLHappy Gregorian new year! I'm delighted to be able to begin the year with news that I have an essay in a new anthology of Jewish voices on prayer. It's called Shma Koleinu: A Jewish People's Commentary on the Siddur, edited by Rabbi Steven Schwarzman, and my essay is about one of my very favorite prayers, the modah ani prayer for gratitude.

Here's how the publisher describes the book:

Shma Koleinu: A Jewish People's Commentary on the Siddur will take you through deep reflections on prayers in the Jewish prayerbook, giving you new insights into the prayers and new courage to find your own.

Rabbi Steven Schwarzman and other writers, including rabbis, cantors, and "ordinary" people - people just like you - delve deeply into the prayers, their texts, their history, their melodies - and just as deeply into themselves.

As the Talmud says, come and hear. Come and hear these voices, and use them to strengthen your own voice in deeper Jewish prayer.

Advance reviews have been good, and I'm excited to see the whole book (my copy is on its way to me now.) Here's some of what people are saying:

"Shma Koleinu: A Jewish People's Commentary on the Siddur is just what the Jewish community needs: a commentary that consists of real and personal prayer experiences. This is not a removed, ivory-tower, collection of philosophical theories, but rather a collection of down-to-earth, engaged, deeply felt responses to the Jewish worship experience. That is why it is so powerfully inspiring!" - Rabbi Jeff Hoffman, D.H.L., Rabbi-in-Residence and Professor of Liturgy at The Academy for Jewish Religion, NY.

"Rabbi Steven Schwarzman has gathered a splendid collection of inspiring interpretations of many of the most important prayers in the Siddur. Reading these meaningful and personal readings on the Jewish treasure-house of petitions, supplications, and words of praise, will greatly enhance the spiritual experience of any worshiper." - Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, author of In the Spirit: Insights for Spiritual Renewal in the 21st Century

Order yourself a copy now! If you buy it via this Amazon link, a small donation will be made to ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.