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March 2015

More light


I snapped this photograph out of our bedroom window yesterday morning. The giant mass of ice at the right of the frame is a series of icicles -- some of which are far taller than I am! -- which have begun to merge into a rippling wall of ice since we've had a few slightly warmer days. I love the delicate pink of the icicles washed by the first rays of morning sun. That color only lasts for a moment.

One of my strategies for surviving a long (and this year, both very-cold and very-snowy) winter is trying to find the beauty in the world around me. At this time of year, that might mean admiring the sweep of bare tree branches, or the way those branches are limned with freshly-fallen snow. On clear days, it definitely means admiring the pinks and golds of early morning daylight.

One day recently I picked our son up at preschool to take him to an after-school activity which we hadn't done in a few weeks. "But Mom," he said, "you usually pick me up when it's getting dark!" I explained to him that 4:30 is dark in December and January, but by late February, 4:30 is still daylight. To my great delight, it was still light at 5:30 when his afterschool activity ended, too.

Our son keeps talking about how March will be spring. (I think there is a calendar at his school which features a picture of flowers and green grass, and I keep trying to explain to him that all of this snow is not magically going to disappear on Sunday -- and that it can snow here all the way through March!) But March will feel more like spring, even with the snow. Because in March we get more light.

Next week will bring Purim, which is definitely a sign of spring. And with Purim comes the knowledge that Pesach is only one month away, and that's one of the sweetest signs of spring I know. Someday the snow will melt and the robins will return. For now, I'll keep looking for glimpses of beauty in the wintery world around us, and thanking God for more light -- more light -- more light.



Preparing for a funeral in all four worlds

TubcardsmallWhen I hear news of a death, I feel as though I'm clicking into a higher gear. Life gets faster, details sharper. Everything extraneous falls away. On a practical level (in the world of assiyah) there are so many things which need to be decided: when will the funeral be held? How many nights of shiva does the family wish to observe? Is the obituary drafted, have family members been notified...?

On an emotional level (in the world of yetzirah) there's a heightened sense of awareness. It's as though a sense-organ which usually lies dormant has been wakened. How do the family members seem to be feeling? What does this seem to be like for them, what do they need from me, how can I be there for them? And then there's my own emotional landscape: what is this awakening in me? I file that away to be considered at a later time.

Intellectually (in the world of briyah) there's the task of writing the hesped, the eulogy. The goal is to write something meaningful, something which gives a sense for the life which has now ended. The hesped needs to tell stories. It needs to feel real. And it needs to be utterly transparent: this isn't about me as a writer, not about my oratory skills or turns of phrase. It's about the life I'm trying to honor as best I can. My job is to get out of the way.

Spiritually (in the world of atzilut), all of those things intermingle. Death is a doorway into the unknown, a brush with Mystery. I think of it as returning to the Cosmic Source from which we came, like drops of water -- having spent a lifetime falling in slow motion over the waterfall as individual droplets -- rejoining the mighty rush of the river. But it's one thing to say that, and another thing to really face the fact that a life has come to its end, that a soul has gone beyond where we can reach.

The physical world, the emotional world, the intellectual world, the spiritual world. These four worlds are hinted-at, say the kabbalists, in the four letters of God's holiest Name. Those same letters can be mapped on to the human form. Each of us is an expression of that Name. Each of us contains worlds within us. When someone dies, their unique manifestation of those worlds returns to its Source. We are all reflections of that Name; in that sense we are all the same. And we're also all different.

One of my favorite text from Talmud speaks about how God is greater than Caesar. Because when Caesar puts his image, his likeness, on every coin in the realm they all look identical. But when God puts God's image, God's likeness, on every human being we are all different. (Rabbi Arthur Waskow has written beautifully about this: God & Caesar - the Image on the Coin.) We are each a facet of God's image; all alike, because we all contain a holy spark -- and all different, because God is infinite.

When the body's life has ended, the soul returns to the One from Whom it came. From the finitude of a single human body and a single human consciousness, to the infinity of our Source. I believe that there is no suffering on the "other side." I believe that all of our human hurts and fears melt away as we rejoin Infinity. And I know that no matter what I believe about what happens after death, right now my faith isn't as important as my obligation to try to tend to and care for those who grieve.



(Image source: Kol ALEPH.)

Terumah: the Torah of 40

Here's the d'var Torah I had intended to offer yesterday at my shul. As it turned out, I touched on a few of these ideas and then went in a different direction, as we were davening at the local nursing home, but I hope you'll read the prepared text anyway.

God spoke to Moshe saying: tell the children of Israel that they should bring Me gifts...from every person whose heart is so moved.


This week's Torah portion, Terumah, begins with this instruction to bring gifts for use in the construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary intended to be a dwelling-place for God. Terumah, the name of the Torah portion, is usually translated as "gifts."

Earlier this week I studied a Hasidic text written by the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov. In his book the Degel Machaneh Efraim, he offered a fascinating interpretation of the word terumah.

Terumah, he said, can mean more than simply gifts. The word terumah can be deconstructed, the letters rearranged, into תורה מ / "Torah Mem" -- the Torah of forty. (Remember, Hebrew letters double as numbers.)

מWhat is the Torah of forty?

Torah was revealed atop Sinai over 40 days, he writes -- just as a human being, in ancient rabbinic thought, achieved its form in the womb over a period of 40 days. He's drawing on a longstanding rabbinic interpretation which connects the number 40 with the time it takes for something to go from beginning to fruition. The rabbis also taught that 40 are the days between planting and harvest, and 40 are the weeks between conception and birth.

So Torah comes to us through 40 (days), and a human being comes to us through 40 (either days or weeks.) What happens if we re-read the opening lines of this week's Torah portion through this lens?

God spoke to Moshe saying: tell the children of Israel that they should bring Me the Torah of completeness and fruition; the Torah of every human being.

Human beings and Torah both require 40 units of time to emerge into this world. Ergo, each person is a Torah! This is a radical teaching, because in Hasidic thought the Torah is the most valuable thing imaginable -- it's a direct transmission of God's essence.

Later in this week's Torah portion we read:

Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell within them.

What can it mean to say that God dwells within us? The Degel teaches that that we bring God into ourselves when we study Torah, because Torah is one long and complex Name of God.

"God and Torah are one," says the Zohar -- so if we study Torah, and bring Torah into ourselves, then we are also bringing God into our hearts. The Zohar also teaches that God, Torah, and Israel are one, which is to say: we, and God, and God's Name as expressed in Torah, are all part of the same unity. In the language of the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, we and Torah and God "inter-are."

The gifts we're called to bring before God are gifts of ourselves; gifts of our own completeness; gifts of new creation which only we can bring. The root of the word terumah is רם, which connotes raising something high. When we understand that we, and God, and Torah "inter-are," then we can bring our most unique personal gifts, and in so doing be elevated to the highest of spiritual planes. May it be so!



My infinite thanks are due to my hevruta partners Rabbi David Markus and Rabbi Cynthia Hoffman for translating this text with me, and especially to R' David for helping me tease out its deeper spiritual implications. 

If the idea of "inter-being" is new to you, read this tiny excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh -- from his book The Heart of Understanding, which R' David and I also studied together some 25 years ago!

Praying in the nursing home

NursinghomeWhen I arrived at the nursing home with my guitar and a pile of prayerbooks, they kindly gave me a bellhop's cart. Better yet, they provided a staff person who could lead me through the labyrinth to the right elevator which would take me to the hallway nearest to the private dining room. In that room there is a china closet with  wine glasses inside, and a window with a distant mountain view. Aside from the speaker mounted in the corner, periodically blaring announcements, it feels almost like a home.

We'd never done this before -- bringing the service in to the nursing home. I have one congregant there, and he used to be among our most faithful daveners. We've missed him, the last few years as he's been increasingly unable to come to shul. And then his daughters asked whether we could bring shul to him. So we put the word out, and we hung a sign on the door of the synagogue in case anyone dropped by this morning expecting our usual services, and we met in the nursing home instead.

I had brought ten copies of a handout I had prepared, containing a song and a tiny excerpt from this week's Torah portion. I had brought a pile of fifteen siddurim. At first it seemed as though that would be sufficient, but as more and more people arrived, we pulled extra chairs in from the dining hall next door. Eventually people shared prayerbooks and looked on with each other, which had not been intentional on my part, though I think it actually led to a deeper feeling of connection with each other.

We sang as many old melodies as I could come up with, from "Mah Tovu" to "Adon Olam." The music is a carrier wave for the meaning behind the prayers, and I wanted to reach the patriarch who sat with us, eyes closed, clenching his daughters' hands. We touched on every prayer in the morning service, but did some of them in abbreviated form; what I wanted most was for the rhythms and sounds to gently enter our elder's heart. I chanted a bit of Torah and offered a blessing for everyone present.

After the Torah reading I shared a glimpse of the ideas about which I had planned to speak, about the Torah of wholeness and how each of us is a Torah (stay tuned -- I'll post that tomorrow), and then I offered an impromptu teaching about how our ancestors carried in the ark both the second set of tablets and the shattered first set of tablets. From this we learn to cherish not only our wholeness, but also our brokenness. We are precious not only when vigorous, but also when broken by illness or age.

When it was time for the kiddush afterwards we stood in a circle around the refreshments which our patriarch's daughters had provided. We sang the borei pri hagafen blessing over bunches of grapes because we had gotten our wires crossed about who was bringing juice and wine; we sang the borei minei m'zonot blessing over coffee cake because the same miscommunication had meant there was no challah. It didn't matter. All around the room were smiles, and clasped hands, and open hearts.

I love leading services in the sanctuary at my shul. We have an extraordinarily beautiful space, with tall windows looking out over an amazing panorama of wetlands and mountains and meadow. And yet there's something special about bringing our community and our familiar prayers into a setting like this. As a friend noted to me afterwards, praying in this way helps one to realize that the words and the heart behind them are what connects us -- not the building, no matter how beautiful it may be. 


Spreading a little bit of hope

The world is full of terrible news, including news about inter-religious mistrust, hatred, and violence. And since it's Adar and we're supposed to be joyful, I thought I'd signal-boost a few hopeful things which have come across my transom recently. First is a small one -- a reminder that there are individuals out there who buck trends of mistrust between different religious communities:

I found this image beautiful -- the care with which he is tending to the Hebrew-inscribed headstone speaks to me of meaningful relationship. A bit of online digging reveals that there have been Jews in Morocco since Roman times, though today only about 2,500 remain. You can read a bit more about Lahcen and his spiritual generosity here: 8 touching stories of Jewish and Muslim friendship.

Next, here's one which involves a lot more people. You've probably read about the recent shootings outside a Copenhagen synagogue and free speech rally. 30,000 Danes marched peacefully in response to those shootings, and the Prime Minister of Denmark spoke in solidarity with Danish Jews. (Read all about it: 'Attack on Jews is an attack on all of us': Thousands of Danes Rally in Copenhagen.)

Here's another response to the violence in Copenhagen, and to the bigger picture of how members of different minority religious traditions relate to each other in Europe: Muslims plan 'peace ring' around Oslo synagogue. That was the first (brief) article I read about the intention of one Muslim community to make a statement about caring for local Jews. Here's a longer one, from the Washington Post:

The headlines have been grim...But the future of tolerance and multiculturalism in Europe is far from bleak. The bigotry on view has been carried out by a fringe minority, cast all the more in the shade by the huge peace marches and vigils that followed the deadly attacks. And some communities are trying to build solidarity in their home towns and cities...

Ervin Kohn, a leader of Oslo's small Jewish community, had agreed to allowing the event on the condition that more than 30 people show up — a small gathering would make the effort look "counter-productive," Kohn said. Close to 1,000 people have indicated on Facebook that they will attend.

(Read the whole thing: Norwegian Muslims Will Form a Human Shield Around Oslo Synagogue.) Obviously something like forming a "human shield" or "peace ring" is a onetime happening, but to me the fact that so many people are interested in participating says to me that this is a meaningful expression of support which will, God willing, last beyond the day of the peace ring's formation.

On a related note, I've been watching the #IGoToSynagogue hashtag on Twitter. The hashtag began as a Jewish initiative, a way for Jews to proudly assert that despite violence at one of our houses of worship, we will still continue to gather, live, pray, mourn, and celebrate as holy community. Dayenu, that would have been enough. But the hashtag is also being used in an unexpected way.

Here's the image which I'm seeing all over my Twitter and Facebook feeds -- Muslims Ayse Cindilkaya and Bacem Dziri at a synagogue, holding a sign bearing that hashtag and declaring that they stand for the safety and sanctity of all houses of worship, not only their own. The photo bears the logo of the European Muslim Jewish Dialogue group, and it's a lovely show of solidarity with Jews:

(If the above image doesn't appear, you can go directly to it by clicking on this link.) And last but not least, speaking of solidarity with one another: here's an article in the Times of Israel which I found worth reading -- London's Faithful Walk Together in Show of Solidarity.


[A]s they walked, wide-eyed, into the airy piazza of the mosque, to greet and meet people of all faiths and none, there was a palpable relaxing of shoulders and a cheerful atmosphere.

The mosque was the first stage in a simple but charming initiative, called the Coexist Pilgrimage, devised by faith leaders in response to the attacks in Paris in January. The alumni of the Cambridge Coexist Leadership Program already knew each other. So when a rabbi – Masorti Senior Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg — and a Christian minister, the Rev Margaret Cave, put their heads together with the assistant secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, Sheikh Ibrahim Mograbi, it wasn’t hard to come up with the idea of the faith walk...

At a moment in time when we're hearing a lot about the awful ways that human beings can treat one another, here are some glimmers of common ground and of hope. Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.

It's Adar! Let's be happy!

Chodesh tov -- happy new month of Adar!

This is the month of which our sages said, "When Adar enters, joy increases." In light of that, here's a setting of the c. 11th century hymn "Adon Olam," which is part of traditional daily prayer and which we sing at my shul every single Shabbat, set to the melody of Pharrell Williams' 2014 hit "Happy." 

(Speaking of which -- if you missed Ethan's piece in The Atlantic last year, YouTube Parody as Politics: How The World Made Pharrell Cry, it's worth reading. And there are some amazing international "Happy" videos at We Are Happy From -- the one I remember from Madagascar seems to have been taken down, but there's a lovely one from Namibia...)

Here's to Adar and to being happy!


Celebration and change in deep winter

I wonder sometimes how it came to pass that so many cultures have celebrations / carnivals / festivals around this time of year. Christians have Mardi Gras, the "Fat Tuesday" carnival which precedes the Lenten season; Hindus have Holi, the festival of colors celebrated at the full moon nearest to the spring equinox; Jews have Purim, our festival of costumes and disguises and topsy-turviness, also at full moon, also near the spring equinox. Maybe there's something about deep winter which awakens a cross-cultural human yearning for bright colors, merriment, and change.


Giant painted wooden gragger, showing a scene from the Megillah of Esther.

The shortest days of the year are well behind us. (And I am grateful for that. I thrive on longer light.) But just as summer's strongest heat comes well after the longest day of the year, winter's deepest cold comes well after the shortest day. The thermometer in my car this morning registered -5 as I drove our son to preschool. He is fascinated by the fact of negative numbers, and we talk about them often. I'm not sure I knew what negative numbers were when I was his age. Then again, I didn't grow up in a place where negative numbers routinely register on the thermometer as winter unfolds.

By mid-morning the mercury had risen some 25 degrees, and by comparison the air feels -- well, balmy would be an overstatement, but certainly more comfortable! The sun on the snow is so bright that it creates the illusion of warmth; I opened the windows in my car to let in some crisp fresh air. And today is a bright, cloudless, blue-sky day. Sunshine sparkles on the dry dunes of snow. But even with the sun, this is a time of year when winter seems to be lingering. February may be the shortest month on the Gregorian calendar, but experientially, it can drag longer than any of the others.

Intellectually I know that winter will end. But the deep freeze feels as though it couldn't possibly budge. Like one of the doors of our house which keeps freezing shut -- it feels as though winter has frozen into place and will never melt. This is exactly when I need Purim most: the raucous cry of the graggers drowning out the name of wicked Haman, the over-the-top soap opera qualities of the Megillah of Esther, the costumes, the nip of celebratory schnapps. Purim comes to remind us that things aren't always what they seem and that God -- while sometimes hidden -- is always present.

One of Purim's themes is change. The wicked vizier winds up hoisted by his own petard; the hidden heroine shows her true colors; the Jews who were going to be victims of a massacre emerge victorious. (Okay, actually the violence at the end of the story is problematic for me, but that's another post.) If those things can change, surely something as simple as the season will change too, in the fullness of time. One of the names by which we know God is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, "I am becoming Who I am becoming." God is always-becoming, never-standing-still. We find God in the simple fact of change.

It's easy to slide into late-winter doldrums. And for those of us who live in snowy climes like this one, this is a time of year when the eye craves color. Everything around us is white and grey and brown, snow and slush and dirt. My bright purple coat and red hat feel necessary, as though their bright colors were actually nourishing. (They may not nourish my body, but surely they nourish my soul.) This is exactly when we need something to shake us up and remind us that there's more to life than slush and road salt. Enter these late-winter festivals, the first early harbingers of the coming spring.


In case you were wondering: Mardi Gras was yesterday; Purim will be two weeks from tonight; Holi will be two weeks from Friday.

Mindful speech

The Christian season of Lent is almost here. I know that many of the Christians I know online choose to use this season as a time to "fast" from particular qualities or forms of internet use -- fasting from Facebook or Twitter, for instance, and using the time they would otherwise have spent on social media in prayer or contemplation. Yesterday I saw a reference to such a practice online. In response I tweeted that even those of us who don't celebrate Lent might consider thinking twice before we type.

Rabbi Josh Yuter asked what I meant by moderating tone. I found myself quoting Rabbi Harry Brechner's threefold rule: "Is it true? Is it kind? Is it important?" (I wrote about that in my 2013 post To shame someone is to shed their blood, about the "emerging Gemara" of ethical internet behavior.) In turn, R' Yuter noted that outrage is rarely kind. He has a good point. Our broken world demands justice, and sometimes the need to pursue justice may trump my desire to cultivate kindness.

And, at the same time -- I've found that when I give too much energy to justice and not enough energy to kindness, my soul doesn't flourish. Kabbalah teaches us that God's qualities of chesed (lovingkindness) and gevurah (boundaries / strength) need to be kept in balance. Too much of either one isn't good for creation. I wonder whether each of us has a subtly different balance of healthy chesed and gevurah in our hearts and souls. My heart definitely calls for leaning toward kindness.

I read a powerful article in the New York Times recently -- How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco's Life. (If you haven't read it yet, I recommend it.) There are countless upsides of this interconnected world. One of those upsides is that we can use social media to create positive change. The shadow side is that sometimes we cause harm. We have new ways of hurting each other. Careless statements made online can be shared around the world in incredibly destructive ways.

Most religious traditions preach the importance of moderating one's speech, and Judaism is no exception. In Mishlei (Proverbs) 10:19 we read, "Where there is much talking, there is no lack of transgressing, but the one who curbs the tongue shows sense." And in Pirkei Avot 6:6, moderation in speech is listed as one of the 48 qualities through which one acquires Torah, which can mean something like accessing deep wisdom or accessing flow of blessing from the divine.

As a poet and a liturgist, I try to take language seriously. With our words we can create worlds -- and we can also shatter them. I can always use a reminder to pay attention to what I say and how I say it, both online and off. (And when we reach the period of the Omer, the 49 days we count between Pesach and Shavuot, I might follow Mussar practice and try to cultivate those qualities from Pirkei Avot 6:6 each day -- including moderation in speech, which for me includes what I signal-boost and retweet.)

One rubric I sometimes use is: whatever I'm about to say, would I be comfortable saying it where my teachers could hear me? I have a particular group of teachers in mind -- but it could be your parents, your children, your sensei: someone(s) in your life whose opinion you value. For those of us who cultivate a personal relationship with God, that's another way to make the decision: if you were called before God tomorrow, would you feel glad about this remark, or would you regret having said it?

I'm as prone as anyone to the Someone is wrong on the internet syndrome -- and sometimes my desire to correct all of those wrong people does me no favors. But I'm trying to train myself to pause and to be thoughtful. Over the years I've trained myself to click into the groove of the morning prayer of gratitude, as close to the moment of waking as I can manage. I'd like for kindness and thoughtfulness to be the same kind of reflexive acts, so innate that I don't even have to instigate them any more.


New moon is coming

Haluach-haivri3I awoke recently in the night and saw the enormous icicles hanging down from our bedroom windows limned by moonlight. All I could think in my sleep-muddled state was that we were surrounded by an icicle forest! But the moonlight shining on our icicles has been decreasing. Right now the moon is waning away to nothing. And once it reaches nothing, it will begin its monthly rebirth.

It's been too cold in New England for outdoor stargazing, but if I had been outdoors the last few nights I would have seen increasing numbers of stars. When the moon is big, she drowns out some of the complexity of the night sky. But when the moon wanes, more stars become visible to the naked eye -- tiny pinpricks of light which don't add up to the moon's brilliance, but they're beautiful nevertheless.

In Jewish tradition, every new moon heralds a new month. When the moon begins to grow again in a few days, we'll enter into the month of Adar. "When Adar enters, joy increases," goes the saying -- this is the month which contains Purim, our joyful festival in which we celebrate not only our people's survival in the face of a terrible tyrant (what else is new) but also life's topsy-turviness in general.

I've been thinking about what kind of joy I'd like to see increase as Adar rolls in. I have friends and loved ones who've undergone surgery recently; I hope that Adar will bring them healing. I know that people are grieving recent terror attacks (on Jews in Copenhagen; on Muslims in Chapel Hill); I hope that  Adar will bring them comfort. For me -- I'm hoping that Adar will bring early stirrings of spring.

I'm not expecting warmth, not here -- right now this is a land of giant snowdrifts and six-foot icicles. But every day there is just a little bit more daylight. And in two more weeks when we reach Purim, the secular calendar will flip over to March, and that always feels good too. Meanwhile, the best joy instructor I know is our five-year-old son. Maybe this is a good time of year for me to learn from him.


Rosh Chodesh Adar will arrive on Thursday. For more on the meanings of Adar, try my 2013 post Happy Adar!

Mishpatim: the angry ox and the Chapel Hill shooting

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

Raging-bull-attacking-charging-woodcut-illustration-angry-facing-front-snorting-done-retro-style-32193042In this week's Torah portion we receive a wealth of ethical commandments.

For instance: When an ox gores someone to death, kill the ox, but don't punish its owner. But, if the ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner knows that but fails to guard it, and it gores someone to death -- then punish its owner, because the person who had responsibility failed to act.

I've read this verse many times before. But this year I couldn't help reading it through the lens of the news story I've been following this week.

A few days ago in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a man entered the apartment of two neighbors and shot the couple and the woman's younger sister in the head, execution-style. He later turned himself in and claimed that he killed them over a parking dispute.

The three young people who were murdered were Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, aged 23, 21, and 19. Deah and Yusor were newlyweds, married in December. They were dentistry students who donated their dental expertise to the local homeless community, taught kids about dental hygiene at the local library in their spare time, and raised money and dental supplies to take to Turkey so they could help Syrian regufees. Razan was a college kid, a student of architecture and environmental design. All three of them were pillars of their community. Deah, Yusor, and Razan were Muslim.

This act would be atrocious no matter who the victims were. But it is extra-heartbreaking to me because they were so young, and so idealistic, and so full of life.

The man who killed them was a known anti-theist -- not merely an atheist, but someone who loathed religion. He had posted nasty anti-Muslim language on Facebook. He had harassed these victims before. The young married woman had told her father, "He hates us because of who we are."

What he did was beastly. And when I read the verses about the ox who gores someone to death, I think of this man who killed three innocent souls for reasons I cannot begin to fathom.

And then I wonder: who is responsible for the behavior of the ox? In the Torah, the answer is clear: its owner, if that owner had any suspicion that the ox would behave in such a way.

Continue reading "Mishpatim: the angry ox and the Chapel Hill shooting" »


CandlesThis has been a week with more than its share of heartache. And I know that every week fits that bill for someone, somewhere.

Shabbat is supposed to offer us a taste of the world to come. A drink from the fountain of eternity. A stroll through the orchard of Eden where we can linger with the Beloved to our hearts' content.

I wonder how many of us will struggle to shed the week now ending when sundown falls tonight. Will we have a hard(er than usual) time setting workday, weekday, worldly worries aside?

Weeks like this one, I realize how truly radical the idea of Shabbat is. That no matter how broken the world, no matter how important the work, we are called to set it all aside tonight and be with our loved ones and with God.

No one can struggle all the time. Whether it's an external struggle against hatred and intolerance, or an internal struggle with burnout or depression -- we all need to be able to set our burdens down.

When I light candles tonight I will pray with all my heart for more light.

When I bless wine tonight I will pray with all my heart for the joy it represents.

When I bless our son I will pray with all my heart that every parent who grieves tonight be comforted.

May this Shabbat bring joy to our homes and balm to our hearts.


On the Chapel Hill shootings


The most heartfelt -- and heartbreaking -- piece I've read about the Chapel Hill shootings is this one: My best friend was killed and I don't know why. I commend it to you, along with this NPR piece -- 'We're All One,' Chapel Hill Shooting Victim Said in StoryCorps Talk:

"Growing up in America has been such a blessing," Yusor Abu-Salha said in a conversation with a former teacher that was recorded by the StoryCorps project last summer...

"There's so many different people from so many different places and backgrounds and religions — but here we're all one, one culture."

What a terrible shame it is that we are only getting to know these luminous young people on the national stage because they were shot in the forehead, execution-style, in Deah and Yusor's own home.

For my response to the killings of 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat, 21-year-old Yusor Mohammad, and 19-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, click through to The Wisdom Daily:

My first response to this news is grief. I imagine myself in the position of the parents of the victims, and my heart aches. I can only imagine what their families are going through. (Yusor and Razan were sisters - grief compounded.) Their deaths are atrocious. That would be true no matter who they were. But somehow, their murder is all the more horrifying because the victims were young, and idealistic, and by all accounts were trying to make the world a better place...

...[H]ad the shooter been Muslim, surely the headlines would have been emblazoned with "terrorism." But because the shooter was White and the victims were Muslim, this story gets reported as a "fatal shooting" or a "possible hate crime." Those covering the crime use softer words, as though they could make the reality any less terrible, and as though they could remove our own sense of guilt for living in a society where Islamophobia may lead to senseless violence...

Read the whole thing here: Shock in Chapel Hill - Should We Call It Terrorism?

I'm grateful to the editors of The Wisdom Daily for including me among their roster of contributors, and hope you'll click through and read. (Also, if you're on Twitter, consider following them - @WisdomDailyNews.)

Natural history of a world that never was

Anhod-coverOne of the things I frequently love about science fiction and fantasy is that it opens up the possibilities of worlds other than our own. In that sense it's a very redemptive genre, because it holds out hope that the way things are is not necessarily the only way they could possibly be.

The most recent SF/F book I've devoured does this -- with a twist. The setting isn't futuristic, but the past, in a world which is clearly not this one but has enough in common with our own that the changes are striking. The book in question is Marie Brennan's A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, which purports to be the illustrated memoir written by the woman who pioneered the study of those magnificent beings.

All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world's preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.

(That's how the book is described on the author's website.) It's a pitch-perfect rendering of a Victorian memoir, with the most delightfully plucky and well-rounded heroine one could ask for. And -- you will probably not be surprised to discover that this is a part I thought was neat -- the book hints at a kind of alternate version of Judaism in this unfamiliar world. Or, actually, two versions. My first clue was the passing reference to Lady Trent having published her memoirs in 5658. That sounds like the Jewish way of counting time, not the Christian one. But that one detail wasn't enough to convince me that this world's alternate Judaism was intentional.

My second glimpse was when Lady Trent, offhandedly, mentions that the Vystrani pray and study scripture in Lashon, whereas in Scirland they use the vernacular. "Hm," thought I. "Lashon means 'The Language' in Hebrew. I wonder whether that's an intentional shout-out, or whether she just chose the syllables because they sounded nice." I shouldn't have doubted; everything else about the book is so thoughtful, of course Brennan made her imaginary linguistic choices intentionally. Sure enough, immediately after the reference to Lashon vs. vernacular, we learn that both variations of this world's dominant religious tradition make use of a "blessing at the end, with fingers divided," and that the blessings final words are "and bring you peace." If that's not the Priestly blessing, I'll eat my kippah.

Religious practice in Scirland and in Vystrana are not the book's primary theme. We catch glimpses of this world's religious life only insofar as it's relevant to the unfolding plot. There are two primary forms of the dominant religious tradition, one Temple / sacrifice-based and the other centered around study. In Vystrana the locals are highly concerned with purity, and require immersion in "living waters" when the visitors encounter a potential spiritual contamination. (Hello, mikvah immersion! That, in turn, reminded me of one time when I followed ancestral practice and immersed in an outdoor source of living waters before Yom Kippur...which was awfully cold, though not nearly as bad as what Isabella expriences.)

Also when the visitors encounter that contamination, the townspeople rush them with graggers, which Isabella notes she's only ever encountered before at a particular religious festival when the noisemakers are used to drown out the name of the villain, wicked Khumban. That festival will be Purim, in our world, which is coming up in just a few weeks, so that reference made me grin.

Part of what's delightful for me about this is that Brennan doesn't make any kind of big deal about Judaism (or variations thereupon) being central to the book. It's just part of the background, part of how Isabella processes the world around her.  Brennan's written about her decisions to work with Judaism in these ways in a guest post at AlmaNews -- Marie Brennan on 'Natural History of Dragons.' See also Prodding the Defaults, episode 316. One of the things which can be frustrating about being part of a minority religious tradition, in our world, is that the imagery, iconography, and assumptions of the dominant tradition are everywhere, and no one questions that default setting. I enjoyed reading about a world in which traditions and practices are intriguing variations on my own, rather than variations on Christianity.

Anyway, it's a lovely book, and I'm already looking forward to the sequel.


The Zohar and the Force


"Its energy surrounds us and binds us," says Yoda to Luke Skywalker, describing the Force. "Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter!"

We've had a lot of snow days recently in New England. Snow days mean playing outside, sledding, hot cocoa, building things with LEGO -- and also cuddling on the couch and watching movies. We've been showing our son the early Star Wars movies -- the ones which came out when we were kids. Recently that's meant The Empire Strikes Back.

George Lucas is on record as saying that Joseph Campbell's writings about the hero's journey were a major influence on these films. And a quick internet search reveals a lot of essays about the theology implicit in the films, from Star Wars Spirituality in Christianity Today to Monomaniacal in Tablet. What strikes me, watching the movies again now with our son, is how Star Wars makes me think of the germinal work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar.

We read in the Zohar ממלא כל עלמין וסובב כל עלמין -- "You fill all worlds and surround all worlds." The Zohar also teaches that God clothed the first human beings not in garments of skins, but in garments of light. (The Hebrew word for light אור and the Hebrew word for skin עור are homonyms: they are both pronounced or.) In the world to come, teaches the Zohar, we will wear garments made of light, woven from the mitzvot we performed in this life.

Luminous beings are we. And the Force pervades all worlds. Sounds pretty Zoharic to me.

It turns out I'm not the first person to make that observation either -- Eliezer Segal's The Force is With Us notes a variety of places where Star Wars aligns with kabbalistic teachings: not only the binarism between darkness and light, but also the idea of descending into the darkness in order to defeat it. For that matter, the whole idea of the "Dark Side" is parallel to the kabbalistic idea of the sitra achra, the "other side" to which darkness cleaves.

(I'm ignoring altogether the nonsense about midichlorians which George Lucas inserted into the later films, which turned the Force into something which can be measured in the bloodstream. As far as I'm concerned, that was a retrofitting of the original mythology, and not an interesting one.)

I wonder what our son is taking away from these movies. He probably sees them as an epic battle between good guys and bad guys, which is simplistic but age-appropriate. Someday when he's old enough, I hope he'll be interested in learning some Zohar with me, or with another teacher who speaks to his heart. And maybe when he does, he'll remember these Star Wars movies and smile.

Morning. Prayer.

15656794548_c0c1a53ab5_zThis morning I sat in our sanctuary, put on my tallit and tefillin, and quietly played guitar for a while. This was one of those days when no one showed up for Friday morning meditation -- which was not a surprise to me; the thermometer in my car read -7 when I dropped our son off at preschool -- so I got to spend a quiet 20 minutes there by myself.

I played the cowboy Modah Ani, and sang the words into the silence of the room. It always makes me smile, not only because the "moo" is silly but also because it reminds me of the beloved rabbi friends from whom I learned the melody in the first place. I played Rabbi Shefa Gold's Elohai Neshama -- "my God, the soul which You have placed within me is pure..."

I sang some morning blessings. I sang part of a psalm of gratitude. I sang some of the words to the Yotzer Or blessing which praises God Who creates light -- not only the light of the sun and moon and stars, but also the light of wisdom and insight. I sang some of the words to the Ahavah Rabbah blessing which praises God Who loves us with an unending love.

I picked out the chords which accompany weekday nusach, the minor melodic scale which I have learned to use on weekdays for singing the prayers at the heart of our service. I sang the Shema, declaration of the Unity at the heart of all things. I sang words of gratitude for redemption. And then I sat in silence for a while, words and melodies swirling in my mind and heart.

A moment ago I typed "worlds and melodies" instead of "words and melodies." I think both are true. Daily we bless the One Who speaks the world into being -- and our words too contain worlds. Create worlds. Can destroy worlds. All of these whipped around in my mind like the dry sparkling snow forming dust devils on this morning's cold roads. I spoke silently about these things with God.

I have learned to integrate prayers (and prayer, not just the words of our liturgy but the intention) into my mornings -- to cultivate gratitude on waking with Modah Ani, to bless the One Who revives me with the bracha m'chayyei ha-meitim when I sip the day's first coffee or tea. But I'm also always grateful when I get the chance to sink deeper into prayer at the beginning of my day.

On these days surrounding Tu BiShvat I've been thinking of how each human being is like a tree. How I am like a tree. How much I need light. How much I need soil. How prayer is the water which feeds my roots. When I daven, I send rootlets down to find water. When I can draw it up into my whole being, that's when I am able to bring forth the gifts I want to give to the world.

Shabbat shalom, y'all.

Snowy Tu BiShvat

I've come to love celebrating Tu BiShvat in the snow. I know that in the Mediterranean, where this festival originates, this time of year means blooming fruit trees. In south Texas, which has a very Mediterranean-like climate, things are beginning to bloom at this season too. (Plenty of things which thrive around the Mediterranean -- oleander, bougainvillea, date palms -- are native flora where I grew up too.) In a climate like that, it makes sense to think of this as a season of new life.

But in New England -- maybe especially in the Berkhire hills which I call home -- this January-February corridor usually means snow. And this year we've got even more of it than usual. On our deck, the snow reaches almost to the tabletop of the glass-topped table, and then tops that table with a two-foot-tall white cap. Our barbecue grill: topped with a two-foot-tall white cap. Even the bird feeder is topped with a comical little cone of snow. The world around me is white on white on white.


This is our deck with table and chairs.

It's fortunate for me that I really like snow. It was so magical and unusual when and where I grew up that even after more than two decades living in the north, I'm still not tired of it. (Sleet and freezing rain, on the other hand, I could do entirely without.) And I've learned, over the years, that a snowy winter often presages a good sugaring season. When the mercury rises above freezing during the day and dips back down at night, those are the conditions which make for good sweet sap.

I love Tu BiShvat because it feels like the first step out of winter and toward spring. Even though everything around me is snow-covered, Tu BiShvat reminds me that there are stirrings of growth deep beneath the surface. The trees will awaken, and in time they'll unfurl leaves. And along with them, what in me is biding its time and preparing to blossom? What would it feel like to truly grow where I'm planted? What sweetness might rise in my heart and my spirit as these winter days unfold?


Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach, Version 8

The full moon of the month of Shvat was last night. (Happy Tu BiShvat!) A month from now, at the next full moon, we'll celebrate Purim. And a month after that, at the next full moon, we'll celebrate Pesach!

Okay, so most of you probably aren't thinking about Passover yet. But just in case you are...

If you're looking for a free downloadable haggadah which tells the story of the Exodus with traditional texts alongside creative interpretations; offers classical material alongside contemporary poetry; honors new traditions as well as old ones; and interweaves song, story, prayer, and opportunity for community participation; you might dig the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach.


The Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach, Version 8 (2015)


2020 Edited to add: you can always find the most up-to-date version of the VR Haggadah by going to and clicking through to the haggadah page.


It's four years since the last full version (7.1) came out, so I figured it was time for an update. New in this version:

  • a better Hebrew font, in which all of the vowels are clear (now matching the font in Days of Awe)
  • clearer page design (now matching the look and feel of Days of Awe), as well as more transliteration
  • many new poems, including (but not limited to) poetry by Linda Pastan, Primo Levi, Lisa Greene, Yehuda Amichai, Luisa A. Igloria
  • a rendering of the prayer "This is the bread of our affliction" not only in Aramaic (and English) but also in Ladino, courtesy of Rabba Emily Aviva Kapor, along with a teaching of hers
  • a new teaching from Rabbi Jill Hammer, from Pirkei Imahot / the Sayings of the Mothers
  • another alternative to the traditional Four Sons text by Tamara Cohen, Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, and Ronnie Horn (of course the classical text also still appears, as does Reb Zalman z"l's creative reinterpretation, as does Ben Aronin's singable English ballad along with Howard Cruse's fabulous illustration)
  • some poems about Miriam to balance the material about Moses
  • three different options for the classical prayer "Pour out Your wrath"
  • before Had Gadya, a poem ("Poem for the Kansas Shootings") by Rabbi Michael Rothbaum
  • ...and much more!

As always, the haggadah is available to all -- download it, use it, share it. Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are needy have the resources they need to celebrate the Passover!




Those of you who subscribe to this blog via email received a draft post yesterday which was not at all intended to go live. The post contained a poem for the tenth day of the Omer, the journey of 49 days which we count between Pesach and Shavuot, between our festival of liberation and our festival of revelation.

The poem is a very early draft and was not intended for prime time. Also, of course, it is not the tenth day of the Omer! My apologies for the inadvertent spam email. And as for the final version of that Omer poem, you'll just have to wait until April...

Calling all psalmists! And, an event featuring women writers of faith.



On March 10 from 3-4:30pm I'm going to be teaching a workshop on writing one's own psalms. The workshop is being offered as part of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, and will be free and open to the public. Here's the official description of the class:

Writing Your Own Psalms

The psalms are a deep repository of praise, thanksgiving, grief, and exaltation, an ancient collection of poetry which also functions as prayer. In this class, each of us will become a psalmist. We'll explore what makes a psalm, read psalms both classical and contemporary, talk about the emotional tenor of the psalms and how they work both as poetry and as prayer, warm up our intellectual muscles with generative writing exercises, and enter into a safe space for creativity as we each write our own psalms. After sharing our psalms aloud and sharing our responses to each others' work, we'll close with a psalm of thanksgiving for our time together.

If you're interested in the intersection of poetry and psalms, and if you live in or near western Massachusetts, I hope you'll join us.  The workshop will take place at Congregation Beth Israel - 53 Lois Street in North Adams, MA. If you're interested in signing up, please leave a comment to let me know. Edited to add: if you're on Facebook, you can reply "yes" at the event's Facebook page.

I'm also participating in the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers in another way; I'm delighted to announce that I will be participating in a panel discussion / group reading, along with Sokunthary Svay, Liz Goodman, and Hannah Fries. Here's the description of that event:

In the Beginning Was the Word: A reading and panel of women writers of faith

In her book The Nakedness of the Fathers, poet Alicia Ostriker writes, "By the time the spiritual imagination of women has expressed itself as fully and variously as that of men, to be sure, whatever humanity means by God, religion, holiness, and truth will be completely transformed." This multigenre reading and panel discussion will feature four Berkshire women writers -- with backgrounds in Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism -- whose work is influenced by their faith, either overtly or just beneath the surface.  The participants will each give a short reading and speak about the intersection of their life in writing, their life in faith, and how the two intertwine.

The reading and panel discussion (also free and open to the public) will take place on Monday, March 16, at the First Congregational Church of Stockbridge, 4 Main Street, at 7pm. I hope to see you there!

Community without borders: gathering with RWB

Rabbis-without-bordersI'm returning today to the Pearlstone retreat center outside of Baltimore for the Rabbis Without Borders Fellows alumni retreat. This will be my second year attending the alumni fellows retreat (fellows alumni? alumni fellows?  people who've completed the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship) and based on my experience last year, I know I'm going to have a good time.

RWB Fellows are smart, thoughtful, interesting people. They approach spiritual life in meaningful ways. And because they come from across the Jewish denominations, they're all already ready and willing to learn and dine and daven and connect with people who "do Jewish" differently than they do.

Last year I wrote:

"What does it mean to be a rabbi without borders?" people ask. "Is it like Doctors Without Borders? Do you travel the world?" Not in the sense of accruing more stamps on my passport. The travel is between perspectives and viewpoints, not between nations.

Longtime readers know that I went to a transdenominational rabbinic school where students and faculty from all of the major streams or denominations of Judaism learned together. There are three such seminaries now, though I believe that ALEPH was the first, and ALEPH is unique in its explicitly Jewish Renewal orientation. Anyway: my whole adventure of rabbinic school learning was a transdenominational one. My primary context for rabbinic community has always involved people from different Jewish backgrounds with differing Jewish practices.

For that reason, although I knew I would enjoy the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship, I wasn't sure how groundbreaking or new it would feel to me. After all, sitting around a study table with Jews ranging from Reform to Orthodox was already a familiar part of my worldview, and so was the assumption that there is a multiplicity of valid paths toward truth.

So maybe it's not surprising that my experience of RWB/Clal has been in many ways parallel to my experience of ALEPH. It's not so much that the passionate pluralism of RWB feels new, as that it's a delight to discover another transdenominational rabbinic hevre (community of colleagues and friends) who share my ideals and my yearning to bring Judaism and God-connection to those who thirst.

(Here's the whole post from last year: On my two rabbinic communities, Rabbis Without Borders and ALEPH.) Everything I wrote then holds true now. I experience a lot of common ground between these two rabbinic communities... and both of them feel "borderless," in the sense that we transcend and include a variety of viewpoints and practices, and also in the sense that we are geographically dispersed; our community transcends borders because what connects us isn't geographic or doctrinal, it's heart and attitude and soul.

I'm looking really forward to reconnecting with this group, and to coming away with new ideas and new Torah percolating in my mind and my heart. The fellows alumni retreat is self-run; different fellows will offer sessions, text study, davenen, and so on. I don't know, going in, which sessions will resonate most with me -- but I know that the conversations will be grand, and I know that I'll come home enriched and ready to bring new wisdom to the community I'm blessed to serve.