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Tefilat Tal / Prayer for Dew

On the first day of Pesach we change one line in our daily prayers: instead of asking God for rain, we ask God for dew. It's also traditional to recite a prayer specifically for dew. A few years ago I wrote a d'var tefilah ("word about prayer") on the prayer for dew; in this post you'll find an English-language variation on that prayer, intended for community use as a responsive reading.


Give us dew to favor Your earth;
sweeten the land in which we live with dew.

Strengthen us with plenty, with grain and wine:
sheaves and vines sustained by dew.

Bring wholeness to the Holy City and to all who love her
as flowers are renewed by dew.

You have said "I will be like dew to Israel;"1
may Your mercy well up in us like the dew.

Let the proud and beautiful fruits of our harvest
be sustained and graced with dew.

Open our hearts; make us into open vessels
to receive the spiritual gifts of dew.

May a light shine forth from darkness to draw us to You,
as a root finds water from dew.

We are the people who followed You through the desert
as sheep follow a trusted shepherd; favor us with dew.

You are our God, Who causes the wind to blow and the dew to fall.2

For blessing and not for curse. Amen.
For life and not for death. Amen.
For plenty and not for lack. Amen.


1. Hosea 14:5

2. From the daily amidah.

#blogExodus 11: Celebrate

Blogexodus5775Spring is an easy time for me to celebrate. I love the longer days which are beginning to come. I love the promise of tender living green -- for now just a promise, since it's still too cold here anything to grow outside, but I know it's coming.

I love Pesach, with its reminder that liberation is here in every moment; its opportunity to gather with loved ones around a shared table; its instruction to share our bounty, both practical and spiritual, with those who hunger and thirst.

Seder is a celebration. A celebration that we're still here, still telling our ancestral story of freedom. A celebration of family and friendship and connection. (And I know that I'm blessed to have family and friends around my seder table.)

Seder is a celebration of the narrative that holds us together. Once we were slaves and now we are free. We cried out to God from the Narrow Place, and God responded to us with expansiveness. Seder is a celebration because the work of creating liberation is infinite, but that's no reason not to pause and give thanks for how far we've come before we rededicating ourselves to continuing.

One of my favorite teachings in my haggadah is that if we wait until we feel fully ready, we might never leap at all. But the same holds true for celebration. If we wait until the work is complete, until everyone is free both physically and spiritually, until creation is redeemed, we might never get to celebrate. The rhythm of our liturgical year teaches us to pause and celebrate -- every week; every month; at every festival. The soul needs to celebrate, to feel and articulate gratitude and joy.

"This is the day that God has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!" (That's Psalm 118:24.) This -- right here; right now -- is the day which God is making. God is telling every atom in the universe to exist, to be, right here, right now. This is the day -- not some other day you're looking forward to, not some other day you're dreading, but this day right now. God is making this day. It's our job to find a way to celebrate: not what was, not what we hope might someday be, but what is, right here, right now.

Sometimes we don't feel like celebrating. Sometimes our bodies aren't up to it. Sometimes our hearts or our spirits aren't up to it. Sometimes celebration seems impossible. But Pesach invites us to discern how we may come to feel liberated, even if we are still living within constraints. How we may feel released from slavery, even if we are still struggling with loss or with grief. How we may be able to celebrate what we have, even if it is not everything we might wish for.


This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.

#blogExodus 10: Join

Blogexodus5775One of my favorite teachings about the Exodus from Egypt is that we didn't leave Mitzrayim, that Narrow Place, by ourselves. A mixed multitude -- in Hebrew, an ערב רב –– came with us. (That's from Exodus 12:38.)

One interpretation holds that those who joined us in leaving the Narrow Place were Egyptians who had intermarried into the Jewish community and wanted to remain with us. They had chosen to connect themselves with our community.

It's also possible that others joined the throng for other reasons. Perhaps they had felt constrained in their existing lives, and needed change. Perhaps they had suffered oppression and resonated with God's call to freedom.

One story holds that Pharaoh's daughter came along, too -- and in so doing changed her name from bat Pharaoh, the (otherwise nameless) "daughter of Pharaoh," to Batya," daughter of God." Perhaps everyone who joins in the walk toward liberation is a child of God.

One way or another, I love that here in our most central story -- the story which we remember in daily prayer and in the Friday night kiddush and at the Pesach seder table -- liberation is not for us alone. This is not an insular experience, open only to those with the right credentials. Freedom is here for anyone who wishes to join us. Join the mixed multitude, the motley crew, in hoping for a better world.

Of course, you have to be willing to join not only in the fun parts, but also in the difficult ones. The joyous march toward freedom leads us inexorably to Sinai, to covenant with God and to the system of mitzvot which guide our lives. You have to be willing to join us in heeding Torah's imperative to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to care for the powerless, to love the stranger.

But freedom isn't ours alone. God isn't ours alone. Even revelation isn't ours alone -- my teacher Reb Zalman z"l taught that God broadcasts on all channels and each religious tradition hears the revelation to which it is attuned. If you want to join us in seeking to heal the world, pull up a chair and join the table, and let our story be your story too. "Let all who are hungry, come and eat."

Every year we pray that next year we may merit to celebrate Pesach in a world redeemed. And the only way to get it together, as Reb Zalman famously taught, is together. The only way we're going to repair the world is if we collaborate: each tradition bringing its unique gifts to the table; each person lifting up the holy sparks which only she can lift, teaching the Torah which is uniquely his to share.


This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.

If the idea of collaborating with other religious traditions to repair the world speaks to you, consider joining ALEPH for this summer's "Getting It... Together" weekend, July 3-5, which will feature a variety of amazing people and experiences. Click the link to read all about it.

#blogExodus 9: Bitter

Blogexodus5775Bitter as in bitter herbs: the beet-stained horseradish of my childhood, magenta and pungent, dotting globes of gefilte fish.

Bitter herbs as in horseradish root, and the way that nibbling its slices can make the sinuses and the back of the throat burn.

Bitter herbs, maror, which we eat on matzah -- combining the taste of slavery with the humble traveling-bread of our freedom.

Bitter like the hardships of slavery. Bitter enough that we cried out from the depths of our hearts, and those cries aroused divine mercy for us.

Bitter like fears of loss, like fears of rejection. Bitter like the fear that I could've done more, should've done more, and didn't, and now I can't. Bitter because sometimes it's too late to change the story we've already written.

Bitter because even in our moments of greatest joy, somewhere in the world there is sorrow. Sometimes in our moments of joy there's sorrow in our midst, too. It's a bitter pill to swallow, remembering that even at seder, some of us, somewhere, are grieving.

Bitterness is part of the journey. But thank God, it's not the whole journey. May there always be sweetness to balance the bitter. May the maror in our lives be startling but not painful. May it be bitter like arugula, like dark leafy greens, like bitter melon. Noticeable, but never the only flavor.

The taste of maror can wake us up. It's the springtime analogue to the sound of the shofar which awakens our souls as Rosh Hashanah approaches. Sleepers, awake, wake from your slumber! The time of our freedom is at hand. Take stock of who you are, prepare yourself for change and for rebirth.

When we leave the constriction of this Narrow Place, when we enter the wide-open spaciousness of freedom, we'll move to a diet of manna and gratitude. But we'll keep the hint of bitter in our story, in our seder, in our remembrance. Like the bitters in a cocktail, bringing life's sweetness into fuller form.




This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.

#blogExodus 8: Rise

Blogexodus5775Years ago I attended an Easter morning service at my friend Peter's church in Williamstown. I went with our friend Bernard, visiting from Ghana. (I wrote an essay about it: A field trip into Easter.)

One of the moments which has stayed with me is Reverend Peter asking, at the end of his sermon, "Will you rise?" -- and the pregnant pause during which we all realized that it wasn't "just" a spiritual question but was also a literal one.

"Everything that rises must converge," wrote Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He believed that all creation was rising toward the Omega Point, the highest possible level of consciousness toward which the universe continues to evolve.

I don't think the rising he's describing happens automatically; I think that there is spiritual work involved. But I like the idea that ultimately there is convergence. That in the end we all come together. As a Jewish Renewal chant has it, echad yachid u'm'uchad -- "one, singular, united" -- or, in singable English, "The One, every single one, each one joined and united in the One." We come from unity and we return to unity.

As Pesach approaches, of course, the kind of rising most of us are thinking about is a literal rising -- the uplift in fermenting bread dough caused by yeast. Some of us cleanse our homes of hametz, leaven; some of us cleanse our hearts of spiritual hametz, the puffery of ego. For a week we will eat only matzah, eschewing foods which are risen. And yet Pesach is a time of great spiritual ascent. Our bread may be flat, but our souls are invited to soar. Time for our spirits to rise.


This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.

#blogExodus 7: Ask

Blogexodus5775Every night before bed I sit with our son and we say our prayers (asking God to bless everyone we know and love, "and everybody else, amen" and the shema) and then we sing a handful of songs.

There's a lullaby we've been singing to him all his life which is still part of our bedtime routine (though just this week he's beginning to insist that he's outgrown it, which feels bittersweet.) Usually one of us also sings "I Love You, A Bushel And A Peck."

About a month ago, around Purim-time, I started adding the first question of the Four Questions to our bedtime routine. Within a couple of weeks, he was singing along. Now he sings the whole first question by himself proudly, and sings along with most of the words of the other questions too.

I love hearing him sing the Four Questions. My heart swells every time I hear it. One of my strongest memories of my own childhood seders is of singing the Four Questions proudly in front of my aunts and uncles and cousins. It was my job, and I loved that moment in the spotlight. That our son is now growing into that role brings me tremendous joy.

Asking the questions is central to the seder. Why is this night different from all other nights? Why are we doing these unusual things? Why are we putting pillows on all the chairs, why are you roasting an egg, why are we reading a storybook during dinnertime, why do you have your guitar at the dinner table, why are we hitting each other with scallions? According to one theory, all of the rigamarole of the seder evolved precisely in order to spur kids to ask the question "why."

Because when the kids ask, then we can answer. We do this because of what God did for us when God brought us forth from slavery to freedom, from constriction to expansiveness. We do this to remember that we are free and that with freedom comes responsibility. We do this because it connects us with the generations and with our community around the globe, through all space and time. We do this because it makes you want to ask, and when you ask, then we can tell you this story which we so love.


This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.

Last year I wrote a poem in response to this prompt. It's here: Daily April poem for #blogExodus: Ask.

Beyond Walls faculty spotlight

BarenblatSpotlightI'm honored to be the subject of the Faculty Spotlight in the latest issue of Beyond Walls, the online journal dedicated to the program of the same name in which I'm teaching this summer. Here's a taste:

I think of Velveteen Rabbi as akin to an intimate coffee-table conversation, even though I know that my words are going out to thousands of readers. Through the blog I invite people in to my virtual home. Pull up a chair, pour yourself a cup, and listen to this beautiful Hasidic teaching I learned about the holiday cycle. Or here's a piece of Torah with which I'm struggling this week: how do you approach these verses? It's a back and forth, and I welcome conversation with my readers.

Read the whole thing here: Faculty Spotlight | Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. (I also really like the graphic they put together to accompany the piece -- now with the initial typo fixed!)

Beyond Walls: Spiritual Writing at Kenyon is a summer program at the Kenyon Institute designed to assist clergy in becoming more confident and expressive writers to both congregational and external audiences. Read about it and sign up now at their website.

#blogExodus 6: Tell

Blogexodus5775At the center of the seder experience is the step in the seder known as Maggid -- "telling the story." (The word maggid shares a root with haggadah; the Haggadah is the book which tells the tale.)

We are helped, in our storytelling, by the materials we have at hand -- both our printed haggadot, and the stirrings of our hearts. Not surprisingly, my family uses the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach to guide us along the way. But although it's the haggadah I've assembled, it's not the only one I love.

I love all kinds of haggadot. I love the classical text, and I love the many variations thereupon, and I love that a haggadah can still recognizably be a haggadah even when things change. Hebrew or vernacular (or both), prose or poetry (or both), minimalist or maximalist -- I love them all.

Right now I am enamored of the latest addition to my haggadah collection: The Asufa Haggadah, 2015 edition. Here's how the publisher describes it:

Hagaddah_Mockup-510x361It’s become a tradition: every year, a group of more than 40 Israeli artists comes together and creates a new haggadah. They follow only two rules:

  1. Each artist creates only a single page
  2. The artists must use the standard Haggadah text

Now, for the first time, that haggadah is available in North America, exclusively through Print-O-Craft.

The haggadah is stunning. Every page is different and every page is beautiful. The art brings the story to life. I'm a wordsmith; words have long been my trade. But this haggadah is as much about the visual storytelling as it is about the text, and I find myself lingering on every page. This is transformative work: the art changes my experience of the existing, and familiar, Hebrew text.

I love that this is how we both celebrate, and continue to create, our peoplehood: by telling a story. Once upon a time we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Holy One of Blessing brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.

There are so many ways to tell this central tale.

 Asufa_2015_6-e1423771013935-157x157 Asufa_2015_4-157x157 Asufa_2015_3-157x157

This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.

#blogExodus 5: Hide

Blogexodus5775At Purim, God hides. The Name of God appears nowhere in the Megillah -- though divine presence is woven through the story for those with eyes to see.

At Pesach, God is everywhere in the story. "And the Holy One of Blessing brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm..." There is nothing hidden about God during the Passover story.

In the shift between the two holidays I see a familiar oscillation. Sometimes God seems absent, or at the very least hidden. Hester panim, the mystics say -- "the Face is hidden."

Just as, at moon-dark, the moon's face is hidden from view though we know she still orbits our earth -- in that same way, sometimes God's face is hidden from view. Hidden from us.

Sometimes God is so present it seems there ought to be trumpets and fanfare. Beams of light stream through a break in the clouds -- a mighty waterfall thunders -- a baby is born and new life enters the world -- one comes face-to-face with another being, animal or human, and a spark of connection becomes manifest -- old bonds shatter and the heart becomes free...

And maybe sometimes we hide ourselves from God. We turn away and hide our faces. When we've done something we regret, something which brings us shame. When we can't bear the luminous, the numinous, because we feel too fragile. When we can't imagine that we could be forgiven. Though as an old Sufi story has it, even when we think we're hiding, there is One Who always sees us.

And even when God seems to be hiding, that One is still present in our lives. Even when God is as hidden as the moon, as hidden as the Afikoman we'll wrap in a napkin and conceal. We hide the Afikoman so that it can be found. Maybe God, too, hides in order to be found. Hide and seek. Come and find Me. Yearn for me, and I will be revealed.



This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.

#blogExodus 4: Grow


These are hostia shoots, photographed outside our house one year in early May. I look forward to their return -- though I know it will be several weeks before I see any such thing. The snows fell high and thick this year. It's going to be a while before anything can safely poke above-ground and visibly grow.

But under the surface of the earth, new life is preparing itself to rise. There will be hostias again, and hydrangeas. There will be crocuses and tulips and daffodils. A whole verdant spring is waiting. Sometimes growth is almost imperceptible, but that doesn't mean it isn't happening all the same.

Pesach comes at this season of new growth. The karpas, the parsley we dip in salt water early in the order of the seder, represents the spring green of new life. And the Pesach story is also a story of our community's growth from a ragtag bunch of slaves to a people capable of striving toward covenant.

How have I grown since last year at this season? Am I wiser, kinder, more compassionate? Am I willing to poke my vulnerable shoots out of the safety of familiar earth, to reach out toward the air and the sun, to risk the dangers of letting myself grow?


This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.


Euphoria, Curiosity, Exile & the Ongoing Journey of a Hasidic Rebel: A Q & A with Shulem Deen in Zeek magazine

I am thoroughly delighted that Zeek just published my Q and A with Shulem Deen, the man who used to blog as Hasidic Rebel -- now author of All Who Go Do Not Return, new this week from Greywolf Press.

You can find my interview at Zeek:  Euphoria, Curiosity, Exile & the Ongoing Journey of a Hasidic Rebel: A Q & A with Shulem Deen. It's long, but I think it's worth reading; I hope you'll agree. You can read the beginning here, and I hope you'll click through to read the whole thing at Zeek. Deep thanks to Zeek for giving me the opportunity to connect with Shulem, and to Shulem for a terrific conversation -- hopefully the first of many over years to come.




When I began blogging as Velveteen Rabbi in 2003, I spent a lot of time building my blogroll — the list of links to other bloggers with whom I felt some kinship or whose work I felt was interesting and worth reading. One of the first blogs I started reading, back in those early days of the Jewish blogosphere, was Hasidic Rebel — written by a Hasid who sought an outlet for opinions and ideas that would have been considered heretical in his community. His blog, named for his persistent pseudonym, was also thoughtful, witty, and insightful — some of the best writing in the J-blogosphere.

In 2010 Hasidic Rebel came out and acknowledged his name. I remember feeling happy for him that he felt able to publish online under his “real name.” But I had little idea at the time what he’d gone through in order to get there — or what kind of struggles still lay ahead.

This week, Graywolf Press is releasing All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen, the man once known as Hasidic Rebel who went on to become the founder/editor of the website Unpious: Voices on the Hasidic Fringe.

All Who Go Do Not Return is an extraordinary memoir. The writing is beautiful. The journey it chronicles is poignant, relatable — and also unlike anything most readers will ever have experienced. As a young man, Shulem Deen chose to join the Skverers, one of the world’s most intense and insular Hasidic communities. He married, and became a father to five beloved children. And then his natural inclination to learn and to question drove a wedge between him and the Skverer world.

This isn’t the first time we’ve featured his words here in ZEEK — don’t miss his 2013 essay Why I Am Not Modern Orthodox. But it’s the first time we’ve interviewed him. I’m humbled by his bravery and his openness.

His voice is an important one in our generation.

— Rachel Barenblat


ZEEK: Many of the people reading this piece won’t know about your background (and may not know of New Square). So for their sakes: tell us, in brief, about where you come from?

Deen-shulem-pearl-gabel-55104dedI was raised within New York’s broader, ultra-Hasidic (i.e. non-Chabad) community, which is composed of many sects, some stricter than others but all more or less of the same cloth: Yiddish-speaking, shtreimel-wearing, rebbe-centered, with strong emphasis on Hasidic custom and practice, and a near-fanatical insistence on remaining separate and apart from the outside world — geographically, intellectually, and culturally.

My childhood was mostly spent among the Satmars, in Borough Park, Brooklyn. As a young teenager, however, I grew close to the Skverers and found that it suited me more. I eventually went to study at the Skverer yeshiva in New Square, where I later married and lived for a dozen years with my wife and five children.

ZEEK: What was sweet, for a time, about life as part of the Skverer community?

The Skverers are more provincial than most other sects, due to the relative isolation of the New Square shtetl, so there is a degree of old-world simplicity that really appealed to me as a 13 year old. As a community, the Skverers are warm, hospitable, openhearted, and, on the whole, appear to be less preoccupied with materialism than some of the more “urbane” Hasidic groups. (Key words: “appear to be” — as appearances can be deceiving.) The shtetl is in fact a real shtetl (albeit American and suburban), and when I first encountered it back in the late ’80s, it had all the charms of a storybook setting...


Continue reading at Zeek: Euphoria, Curiosity, Exile & the Ongoing Journey of a Hasidic Rebel: A Q & A with Shulem Deen.

#blogExodus 3: Cleanse

Blogexodus5775A few weeks ago Ethan misplaced his wedding ring. We realized on a Monday morning, and searched all week with increasing urgency.

We hunted everywhere in the kitchen, even moving the stove to make sure it hadn't fallen behind. We opened up the baseboard heater and shone a flashlight inside.

Eventually we picked up all of the dining room furniture, put it atop the table, and scoured every corner. We were just about to give up...

...when Ethan found the ring -- in our coin jar. It had apparently slipped off his finger on a cold day as he was divesting himself of a pocket full of change.

We felt pretty sheepish when the ring was found. It had been hiding in plain sight the whole time. But we agreed that it was surprisingly nice to have such a clean dining room! Now that our child is years beyond the crawling stage, we don't spend a lot of time paying quite that much attention to the floor.

It felt like a prelude to Pesach, since one of the traditional ways of getting ready for the holiday is engaging in massive spring cleaning. The traditional reason, of course, is to rid one's house of even the tiniest crumb of hametz, leaven, before the holiday begins and we spend a week eschewing bread.

But I find that there's a spiritual component to it entirely separate from the intention of getting rid of leaven -- whether literal crumbs between the sofa cushions, or the metaphorical puffery of ego. Cleaning house, getting rid of things we don't need, always leaves me feeling lighter.

Nigel Savage is right -- getting rid of the "leaven" of old things -- piles of accumulated preschool art, sweaters which are no longer flattering, toys our son has long outgrown -- actually leaves my heart and soul lighter. It feels like throwing ballast off of a hot air balloon.  The lighter I get, the more I can soar.


This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.

#blogExodus 2: Bless

Blogexodus5775The seder unfolds over the course of fifteen steps. The Hebrew word סדר / seder means "order," and this is a ritual with a distinct order. In our house, we sing the fifteen steps in the order of the seder every time we come to a new step, a new stop, a new pause along the journey.

The first step is kadesh, which means "make holy" or "sanctify." We sanctify the sacred space of the seder meal by lighting candles and blessing juice or wine -- just as we do every Shabbat. (This year the first seder falls on a Friday night, so we'll bless candles for Shabbat and yom tov / holiday, and bless matzah a bit later in the meal.)

Creating sacred space is something we do together with God. The evening of the seder may have some intrinsic holiness, because for so many centuries we have observed the full moon of Nisan as the night when we commemorate the Exodus from Egypt, but most of its holiness (I think) arises in our partnership with God. We work with God to make it holy, using the tools of candles and wine and haggadah, scents and stories and song.

When we speak our ancient words of blessing, we usually begin ברוך אתה / baruch atah, "Blessed are You..." (Or, in Rabbi Marcia Prager's beautiful translation, "A fountain of blessings are You...") We assert that God is blessed. This may seem a chutzpahdik assertion, but we bless God. The power of that blessing lies in our hearts. And as we reach out to God and offer our blessing, God reaches back to us with shefa, divine abundance, streaming into creation. We bless God, and in return God blesses us.

Several years ago at the old Elat Chayyim I took a week-long workshop in the art of offering spontaneous blessings. I remember finding it strange at first. Turning to someone and saying, "May I offer you a blessing?" and then, at their nod, continuing with words customized to their situation -- that was difficult for me. (I think it became smoother, or at least more familiar, during my nine months of Clinical Pastoral Education. My Christian colleagues taught me a lot that year.)

Today I think of offering a spontaneous blessing in much the same way that I think about using the classical blessing formula (or its gender-switched or gender-neutral variations, which I also employ.) Making a blessing, whether traditional or ad hoc, is an act of reaching with my heart toward God and imploring God to open a channel so that shefa can flow through my words. As the moon waxes toward Pesach, what blessings do you most need to receive? What blessings are you most able to give?


This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.

Love, Leviticus, and embracing the middle

Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul for parashat Vayikra.

In cheder, the Hebrew elementary school of late 19th and early 20th-century eastern Europe, boys began learning Torah at the age of five. They began with Vayikra, which we call in English "Leviticus." (They'd go on to learn mishna at the age of seven, and Talmud once they had mastered the mishna.)

We have a five year old. And I cannot for the life of me imagine him reading Torah fluently at this age. But setting that aside, I am perennially fascinated by the fact that the cheders of old -- and contemporary schools which follow the cheder model, mostly in the Hareidi / ultra-Orthodox world -- begin their studies of Torah not with בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, "as God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth..."

They begin with  וַיִּקְרא אֶל-מֹשֶׁה , "and God called to Moses" -- which is to say, with Leviticus, the book of the Torah which I suspect most modern Jewish adults like the least. Sprinkled blood and burnt kidneys and laws about nakedness -- it couldn't be further from the post-sacrificial Judaism we know and cherish.

Many scholars and rabbis and literary critics make the case that Torah has a chiastic structure. In a book with a chiastic structure, the most important part is not the beginning or the end, but what's in the middle. Leviticus is in the middle of the Torah: ergo it's the most important part.

The scholar Mary Douglas argued that Leviticus too has a chiastic structure, which tells us that the most important material in Leviticus is in the middle: the holiness code, which exhorts us to be holy as Adonai our God is holy. Leviticus is the heart of Torah, and holiness is the heart of Leviticus.

And what is at the heart of the quest for holiness? וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ:  אֲנִי ה׳: "and you shall love your neighbor, your 'other,' as yourself: I am Adonai." (Leviticus 19:18.) It may not be exactly the verse in the dead-center middle of the Torah, but it's close.

Here's Martin Buber on that verse:

"Love your neighbor as yourself; I am Adonai" (Leviticus 19:18). There is a Chasidic interpretation of the last words of this verse: "I am Adonai." – "You think that I am far away from you, but in your love for your neighbor you will find Me; not in his love for you but in your love for him."

He who loves brings God and the world together. The meaning of this teaching is: You yourself must begin. Existence will remain meaningless for you if you yourself do not penetrate into it with active love and if you do not in this way discover its meaning for yourself. Everything is waiting to be hallowed by you; it is waiting to be disclosed and to be realized by you.

For the sake of this, your beginning, God created the world.

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Forty. New beginnings. Also, blogExodus!

Today I will have the inestimable joy of leading davenen at my shul alongside my friend (and ALEPH partner) Rabbi David Markus. I can't think of a sweeter way to begin my 40th birthday.

Perhaps this is a good day to reread the poem I wrote a few years ago -- Forty Lines About 40 -- which is full of rabbinic teachings about the deep symbolism of this number.

According to an oft-quoted (and rarely-sourced) teaching, being now 40 and married I am finally qualified to study kabbalah. I've been at it for more than 20 years, but I hope my studies will deepen.

I like to think of turning 40 as a time to pause and honor the harvest of these first four decades -- and perhaps also a launching pad for whatever the next four decades (God willing) might hold.

Of course, I also regard today as the first day of spring. (At least in this hemisphere.) Even if there's still snow on the ground (which there is, where I live), today marks a new season, a new beginning.

And we're also beginning the lunar month of Nisan. Pesach (Passover) begins at the full moon of Nisan. That's only two weeks away. Our people's central journey of liberation is about to begin.

New moon, new season -- both feel like seeds, packed with potential still curled tight. Where will that potential take us as the coming weeks unfold? Today is the start of a story. "In the beginning..."


Blogexodus5775This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.


Poetry of sacred time - a reading in Pittsfield on 3/26

At 1pm on Thursday, March 26, I'll be sharing some poetry at Knesset Israel synagogue (16 Colt Road) in Pittsfield. (Some of you may remember that I was supposed to give this reading back in the fall; it was postponed because I had to turn my attention instead to a funeral.) The reading is presented by Jewish Federation of the Berkshires:

The Jewish Federation of the Berkshires will present a reading of poetry by author Rabbi Rachel Barenblat of Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams.  The reading will dip into the wellsprings of Jewish sacred time.  Rabbi Barenblat will share Torah poems, motherhood poems, and poems which engage with Jewish liturgy and with the unfolding of our festival year.  Q & A and book signing to follow. Cost $3.

I will have copies of 70 faces and Waiting to Unfold (my two Phoenicia Publishing titles) available for sale, as well as a few copies of Keeping Faith in Rabbis (in which I have an essay) and perhaps a chapbook or two.

And for those who are interested in these kinds of things -- don't forget that my next book-length collection of poems, Open My Lips, is due from Ben Yehuda Press later this year. That whole collection is themed around Jewish sacred time.

All are welcome; I hope to see y'all there!

In the Begining Was the Word


I had a lovely time teaching psalm-writing a few days ago. Eight people participated in the class, including some of my former students from the Inkberry days!

Now I'm gearing up for the other Berkshire Festival of Women Writers event in which I'm participating -- In the Beginning Was the Word: Reading and Panel Discussion by Women Writers of Faith -- which will be tomorrow (Monday) evening at 7pm at the First Congregational Church in Stockbridge.

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 intertwining of their life in writing and their life in faith.

Rachel Barenblat holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and rabbinic ordination from ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. She was cofounder and executive director of Inkberry, a literary arts center that served the Berkshires from 2000 to 2009. She is author of three poetry collections: 70 faces: Torah poemsWaiting to Unfold, and the forthcoming Open My Lips. Since 2003 she has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi, and in 2008 her blog was named one of the top 25 on the Internet by Time. She serves Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams.

Hannah Fries is an editor at Storey Publishing in North Adams and assistant poetry editor at Her writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in American Poetry Review, the Massachusetts ReviewAlaska Quarterly Review, and other journals. She holds an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson College.

Liz Goodman is the pastor of the UCC congregation in Monterey. She has a M.Div. from Harvard and a B.A. in creative writing from Colby College. Her publishing has mainly been professional, and her writing projects are most often in service of her ministry, but the short story still haunts her and is something she gets to from time to time.

Sokunthary Svay is a writer and musician from New York City. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, her family fled Cambodia to a Thai refugee camp, where she was born. Her writing has been anthologized in Homelands: Women’s Journeys Across Race, Place and Time, and she has also contributed articles to Hyphen, a San Francisco–based Asian American arts and culture magazine.

For a map and venue contact information, you can click through to the event description on the BFWW website. I hope to see some of y'all there!

The seder as time machine


The Passover Haggadah -- with which I have spent a fair amount of time, in its variety of forms -- teaches us that the Exodus from Egypt is not something which happened "once upon a time" to "them" back "then," but something which continues to happen right now for us.

עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְריִם -- "We were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt," the Haggadah teaches. Not "Our ancestors were slaves." Not "maybe our ancestors might have been slaves, though we're not sure, because the historical record doesn't entirely support the claim..." We were slaves. We ourselves.

In the text which describes the Four Children (one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple, and one who does not know enough to ask), we are instructed to tell our children that we do this because of what God did for us when God brought us out of Egypt. Not for our ancestors. For us.

The seder is a time machine. It moves us through time and space (both of which, intriguingly, can be described with the Hebrew word עולם.) As we enter into the ritual of the seder, we re-experience that journey from constriction to liberation which is core to our sense of ourselves as the Jewish people.

As the traditional text teaches:

בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ, כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרָיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר: בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יְיָ לִי, בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם. לֹא אֶת־אֲבוֹתֵינוּ בִּלְבָד, גָּאַל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, אֶלָּא אַף אוֹתָנוּ גָּאַל עִמָּהֶם...

In every generation one must see oneself as if one had personally experienced the Exodus from Egypt. As it is written: "You shall speak to your children on that day, saying, this is how the Holy Blessed One redeemed me from Egypt. It wasn't merely my ancestors who were redeemed, but the Holy Blessed One also redeemed us with them..."

It was not merely my ancestors who were redeemed, but the Holy One of Blessing also redeemed us. The Exodus isn't something that happened (or didn't happen) there-and-then: it's something which we can experience now in our own spiritual lives as we move from constriction toward freedom.

In Rabbi Dan Fink's words, "Pesach is not about remembering the distant past; it is about re-experiencing that past in the present time. It is not the story of our ancestors long ago; it is our story." We don't just retell; we re-experience. We make the experience present for ourselves again.

When we celebrate the seder together, we're connecting ourselves with everyone who has ever celebrated seder and everyone who will ever celebrate seder. Our ancestors and our descendants, and our fellow-travelers around the globe at this holy moment of interconnection. Seder links us all.

Sitting down at the seder table is a little bit like stepping into the TARDIS. (Keen eyes will have spotted the familiar blue box among the haggadot depicted at the top of this page.) If we throw ourselves into the experience, it will whisk us away into mythic time. It places us right in the story.

Liberation is still happening. Our hearts are still crying out from our narrow places, and God still hears those cries and answers them with expansiveness. We are always setting forth on a journey with an unknown destination. We are always being called to trust; to step into the waters before they part.

Where will the TARDIS take you this year? How will it feel to re-live the Exodus now, as the person you are becoming, with the experiences the last year have brought you? The haggadah may look like a plain bound book, but it's bigger on the inside -- and if you let it, it will carry you somewhere amazing.


Step into the TARDIS three weeks from tonight -- the first seder this year falls on the evening of Friday, April 3.

Praise psalm for spring sunrise



For the sunrise at seven this morning
for our son bounding into the bedroom

for Mommy look at the sunrise
come see the beautiful sunrise

for the sleep I rubbed from my eyes
and the slumber from my eyelids

for my dry throat croaking of course I do
for the pastel sweep of pink and orange

every bougainvillea bloom in the world
piled up across the horizon

for it's pink! it's orange and pink!
although a few minutes later

he said aww, now the orange is all gone
and I said that's why I'm so glad

you woke me at exactly this moment --


Earlier this week I taught a short psalm-writing workshop at Congregation Beth Israel as part of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. One of the things we did during that workshop was cultivate material we could use in writing our own psalms of gratitude and thanksgiving. Then we took some time to write together. Here's what I wrote.

A new chapter in my life with Jewish Renewal

In some ways I first encountered Jewish Renewal in 1994, when I read Rodger Kamenetz's The Jew in the Lotus. In other ways, my first encounter with Jewish Renewal came in 2002 when I gathered up my courage and went to my first week-long retreat at Elat Chayyim to learn with Jewish Renewal teachers. That was the year before I started blogging, so those of you who've been following this blog since 2003 have followed my Jewish Renewal journey through a lot of twists and turns.

I wrote here about my first week-long learning adventure with Reb Zalman of blessed memory. I wrote here when I interviewed for the rabbinic program on a Pesach retreat at the old Elat Chayyim with Rabbi Marcia Prager, the dean of the ALEPH rabbinic program (and her husband Hazzan Jack Kessler, head of the ALEPH cantorial program). I wrote here when I mailed in my application and was accepted into the program -- and when I took my last class -- and when I received smicha.

A new chapter in my life with Jewish Renewal is beginning. Some of you may remember that I spent a week in Colorado in January. I was there for an ALEPH Board meeting and for the OHALAH conference (the annual gathering of Jewish Renewal clergy.) It was a marvelous week, for so many reasons. There were also interesting things happening that week about which I didn't write at the time -- including some big-picture conversations about the future of ALEPH and of Jewish Renewal.

The big question was how ALEPH and Jewish Renewal should move through and beyond this first year after the death of Reb Zalman (z"l).  Whom could we ask to steward the ALEPH Board and Jewish Renewal through these transitions, deeper into a future in which Renewal's unique gifts can be better-shared with the world? This would be an organizational transition, in a sense, from first generation to second generation. Both our choice, and our process, needed to reflect our values. The ALEPH Board wanted to select its next leadership thoughtfully and with intention.

The idea arose that ALEPH should have two co-chairs. Two people could bring different strengths to the work at hand, and different skillsets, and different energies. Just as Torah study unfolds best in hevruta, not alone but between a pair of study-partners, the work of leading ALEPH forward could also benefit from two perspectives. Two can be wiser together -- more than the sum of their parts. The co-chairs would need to be not only passionate about Jewish Renewal, but also able to work well together. To my great delight, everyone seemed to agree on who the two co-chairs should be.


With Rabbi David Markus in Boulder, August 2014.

I am humbled, honored, and overjoyed to be able to tell y'all that starting later this year, I will become one of the co-chairs of ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, along with my longtime hevruta partner Rabbi David Markus.

Jewish Renewal has changed my life. I know that sounds corny, but it's true. This is where I've found spiritual sustenance. This is where I've found community. This is where I've found teachers who opened up for me the incredible well of Jewish text and tradition. This is where I've found models who show me how to live with prayerful consciousness; who teach me how to balance a love of what came before with a fearless embrace of how Judaism continues to evolve and unfold in today's world.

Jewish Renewal gave me a way of thinking about how different religious traditions relate to one another and to ultimate truth. Jewish Renewal gave me access to the many meditative practices which had been relegated to the dusty attic of Jewish tradition, returning them to their rightful place as central Jewish spiritual technologies. It's thanks to Jewish Renewal that I know how to pray -- not just how to fluently navigate the words of our classical prayers, but to actually inhabit them.

It's also thanks to ALEPH that I have my rabbinate. In that sense, ALEPH is responsible for every moment in the life of my community over which I've been blessed to preside, from ordinary Shabbat mornings to extraordinary Yom Kippurim, from babynamings to funerals and everything in between.

Pesach is just over the horizon. One of the things I love about Pesach is the call "let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are needy come and celebrate the Passover with us." I think a lot of people are spiritually hungry, and may have grown so accustomed to that hunger that they don't even notice it's there anymore. I think Jewish Renewal has sustenance to offer. And I am incredibly excited about getting to help share those gifts with the world. Let all who are hungry come and eat, indeed.

Better yet, I get to do that hand-in-hand with my hevruta partner of the last 20 years. What could possibly be sweeter?


 You can read the official release about this news here on Kol ALEPH: ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal Names New Leadership. (There are some lovely quotes of acclaim for the two of us; many thanks to the rabbis and scholars who expressed those votes of confidence!)