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The ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour

AlephOne of the first ideas which came to David and me as we began preparing to take on the role of co-chairs of ALEPH (see A new chapter in my life with Jewish Renewal) was a listening tour.

We want to spend our first year as co-chairs doing a lot of listening: to people who are a part of ALEPH now; to people who have been part of ALEPH far longer than we have; to people who were part of ALEPH but have moved into other circles; to people who are not yet part of ALEPH but are nevertheless doing the work of renewing Judaism and who might become part of our extended hevre (fellowship) in time.

We've developed some big questions which we hope will guide and inform the coming year. Among them are: What do you most cherish about Renewal that you hope the future will carry forward?  What would you jettison or change?  What new focus would you recommend in coming years? How can we cultivate a shared pan-Renewal "ecosystem" for continued spiritual and organizational innovation? 

We're going to be listening, and cultivating responses, in a variety of ways: collecting stories and hopes asynchronously (which is to say: you can send us your reflections and your answers to our big questions in your own time, in written form), scheduling video chats with people who want to talk about Jewish Renewal's history and its future, and meeting with people around the country at a variety of different gatherings over the year to come.

We just shared a long post -- containing information about the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour, our list of Big Questions, and three ways that You (Yes, You!) Can Participate -- here: A Listening Tour, Big Questions, and the Next Turning of Jewish Renewal. I hope you'll go and read... and if you have thoughts in response to our questions, I hope you'll share those with us too.


Attuned to the rhythm

SpaceThere's a rhythm to the Jewish year. Our major seasons of spiritual work and celebration come in the fall and in the spring, and after each of those seasons comes a lull. It's as though the year were set up to give us spiritual downtime, an opportunity to integrate whatever learning or insight the festivals enabled us to attain. Was that the intention of our sages? Who knows -- but it works well for me.

In late winter I begin counting down the time until Pesach. I love Pesach; I love the coming spring; I love the story of liberation. Then there are the seven weeks of the Omer, a journey of cultivating different qualities within myself as I prepare to open my eyes and my heart to Torah anew at Shavuot. Shavuot will come whether or not I am ready, but I want to feel ready! Then comes Shavuot...

...and after Shavuot comes the downtime. (Thank God!) I'm grateful for this lull. I don't know that I could sustain the pace of the last few months, not just in terms of holiday practices but in terms of spiritual work, too. Fortunately, the summer is relatively quiet on the Jewish calendar. Sure, there are a few things here and there, but nothing of the magnitude of the spiritual journey we've just taken.

In late summer I'll begin counting down the time until the Days of Awe. I love the Days of Awe; I love the coming fall; I love the chance to begin again. There are seven weeks between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah, a journey of repentance and return. Or: there are 40 days between the start of Elul and Yom Kippur, an intense corridor of teshuvah. What needs repair? Who is God calling me to be?...

...and after Sukkot comes the downtime. (Thank God!) I know I will be grateful for that lull when it comes, too. Fortunately, the winter is relatively quiet on the Jewish calendar. Sure, there are a few things here and there, but nothing of the magnitude of the spiritual journey of the High Holidays and Sukkot. The calendar provides time to be "on" and time to be "off." There is an ebb and flow.

Every year is a slow and stately dance. We turn inward and focus on improving ourselves; we turn outward and focus on improving the world. We plant, and we harvest, and we lie fallow, and we prepare to plant again -- if not literal seeds, then metaphysical ones in the soil of the heart. One season leads to the next, one holiday leads to the next, and every period of activity is balanced by stillness.

And the stillness is part of the pattern. The stillness, too, is holy. There are beautiful Hasidic teachings about how the stillness which follows an intensive holiday season is itself part of the season. It's the white space which cradles and contains the letters of the Torah. Without that white space, there would be no Torah. Without these seasons of quiet, we would be unable to experience the holiday cycle.

Whenever I am blessed to visit the ocean I am soothed by the endless rhythms of the waves. Each wave rolls in and flows out. The tides rise and then recede. Those who are attuned to the rhythms and patterns of the sea know when the tides will be high and when they will be low. I want to be as attuned to the rhythms of the Jewish year as sailors and fishermen are attuned to the rhythms of the sea.

 

 

If you enjoyed this post, you might also dig my 2009 post The year as spiritual practice.

The image illustrating this post comes from a multilingual journal called מרחב الفضاء space, published in Tel Aviv.


i carry it in my heart

B9646da06dccdd354b36623ee8b98897You've probably heard the aphorism that being a parent is like having a piece of one's heart walking around outside of one's chest. Being a parent means being vulnerable to everything that can go wrong in the world. It means (or should mean) being intimately attuned to someone else's physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual wellbeing; feeling their sorrows and their joys.

This is not only true of being a parent. It is the complicated blessing of being a person who loves any other person deeply. When someone is beloved to me, and I to them, our hearts become permeable. I open myself to feeling some of what my beloveds feel. I yearn for my beloveds to be blessed with joy, and I accept that when they feel grief my own heart will ache along with theirs.

In this place and time the language of love and beloved is presumed to be romantic, having to do with two people "falling in love." But I think that if that's all the word "beloved" means to us, then we're shrinking the capacity of our language. A sibling can be beloved. A friend can be beloved. We don't just "fall" in love; if we're blessed to have relationships which deepen over time, we grow in love.

Every intimate relationship comes with the price tag of having a piece of one's heart walking around outside of one's chest, vulnerable to harm. If I give a piece of my heart to everyone who is beloved to me, then my heart is always expanding. A little piece of me travels with each of my beloveds wherever they go. An invisible thread connects my heart to theirs, always. They are never alone. Neither am I.

This is an incalculable gift. It is beyond words, and I don't say that lightly -- God knows I have plenty of words for most occasions! But emotional and spiritual intimacy beggars my language. We don't have good words for it, and the words we do have are too-easily written-off as overblown or corny. To love and to be loved -- to be beloved...! The connection is more than I know how to describe.

And sometimes the heartache is, too. I don't mean the heartache you hear about in pop songs, one lover leaving another behind. I mean the heartache of precisely the opposite: of being connected, heart to heart, feeling a loved one's happiness with them -- and also their sorrow or their grief. Have you ever felt so much love for someone that your heart threatens to burst out of your chest?

I've been thinking lately about what it means to seek to live with an open heart -- even when that also means that my heart is vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, not only my own but also the fortunes of those whom I love. How can I live that truth with integrity? How can I express my love in a way which will help to sustain my beloveds, and how can I receive their caring in return?

I'm using the term "beloved" to mean someone dear to my heart. But Beloved, with a capital B, is one of our tradition's ways of imagining God. God is the ultimate Beloved, and to God, we are all beloved. God has compassion for us, which is to say, God feels with us, because we are beloved of God. When we feel sorrow, God's heart breaks along with ours... and when we feel joy, we illuminate the heavens.

Our liturgy teaches that we are loved by an unending love -- a love transcending all space and time. A forever love. An infinite love. Sometimes I catch glimmers of how the love I feel for my beloveds is an infinitesimal fragment of that ahavat olam. Sometimes my love threatens to overflow my chest, and I think: I'm just one. If we could put together the love of all humanity, we could move mountains.

To borrow a term from Thich Nhat Hanh, when we love each other we inter-are. I become a part of you, and you become a part of me. This is one of the places where I experience God: in the connection between your heart and mine. God is in the space between us which is charged with concern and with caring and with love. And that's true whether we are physically side by side, or a thousand miles apart.

"When you love one another, then God is within you," as the Shaker hymn has it. Maybe that's why my heart feels too expansive for my chest. What human ribcage could contain that luminous Presence which is made manifest within us when we open our hearts in loving connection? As e. e. cummings wrotei carry your heart(i carry it in my heart) -- and in the link between our hearts, there is God.


A love poem to Torah - for Shavuot

 

MY TORAH


is a tall drink of water
on a thirsty day

the longer I know him
the more beautiful he becomes

I want to hold him close
and press my lips to his shoulder

to unfasten his gartel
with unsteady hands

to trace every letter
I find on his skin

He is milk and honey
on my tongue

anointing oil
on my hands

voice like flowing water
inscribing my heart

 


Many Jewish mystical texts hint that the relationship of the scholar with Torah is like romance. The Torah is the (feminine) Beloved, and the reader (presumed, of course, to be male) is the one who seeks Her beauty. Sometimes she is described as the beloved daughter of the King -- which is to say, God -- given to Israel in marriage.

I've never seen a poem which takes the opposite tack, anthropomorphizing Torah as beloved and male. If you know of others, please let me know.

Gartel is Yiddish for "belt;" in this context it alludes to the belt which in standard Ashkenazic practice goes around the Torah scroll, beneath the velvet mantle.

Chag sameach -- wishing you a joyous Shavuot!


Day 49 of the Omer


DAY 49: BACK TO THE SUMMIT


The first seder, he said, is like
an airlift to the top of the mountain.
The matzah, the singing, the egg
dipped in salt water—all mnemonics
for the journey you haven't yet taken.

When you wake the next morning
you're miles away, cloud-shrouded peak
barely visible in the distance.
Remember the psalms of praise we sang
like angelic choirs? It's enough

to get you moving. First week's travel
is fueled by the hardtack of slavery
which doubles as waybread of freedom.
As the feast recedes in memory—was
that oasis a mirage?—the song

that we prayed at the sea spurs you forward.
One morning shards of robin's eggshell
dot the stones outside your door
and you remember the sign of new life
dipped in salt tears. The path

grows steeper but now you're in shape
for the discernment work.
This is our last night camping
beneath the splash of Milky Way.
Tomorrow: the summit. Will you hear

the fire, the thunder, the still small voice?
Will you decode the Name
emblazoned on every human face?
This is the end of the journey.
Make every minute count.

 


 

Today is the 49th day of the Omer, making seven weeks of the Omer. This is the final day of our 49-day journey between Pesach and Shavuot, liberation and revelation!

Today's poem was inspired by one of my favorite Hasidic teachings, from the Slonimer rebbe. The Slonimer taught that at the first seder we are lifted up to great spiritual heights, and then the next morning we wake and we're at the bottom of the valley again, and we spend the 49 days of the Omer climbing back up to get back to the high spiritual place where we were on the first night of Pesach.

I share this poem in honor of my friend and teacher Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg, who first introduced me to that teaching when I was in rabbinic school (as part of his fantastic class Moadim l'Simcha, in which we spent two semesters translating and studying Hasidic texts relating to the round of the festival year.)

I wish you blessings as we approach Shavuot. I hope that this Omer journey has brought some meaning to these recent weeks.


Day 48 of the Omer

 

DAY 48: THE WEDDING


The wedding's in two days
and all the guests are arriving. Look,
there's your best friend
and your great-aunt
and the grandparent you haven't seen
in half of your lifetime.
If you squint
you might catch a glimpse
of your descendants.
Everyone is here.
Whatever work you meant to do
before now, let it go.
Do you know your Partner
one hundred percent? Probably not;
but if you wait until you feel fully ready
you might never act at all.
There's a time for waiting
and a time for leaping
and the salt sea is warm
and the waters will part for you.
There's no telling
where this honeymoon will take you.
If you didn't pack
everything you intended, don't fret:
the hotel gift shop has necessities.
What do you really need, anyway?
Your Intended brought
the ketubah, all six hundred
and thirteen detailed instructions, and
the chuppah is ready
to be lifted over your heads
like a canopy of flowers
or an inverted barrel
or a hovering mountain.
Your Beloved
is in the next room
so close you can almost touch.
Whisper sweet nothings
through the air vent.
Send giddy texts: can you believe
we're really doing this?
But it feels right.
Do, and understanding will come.
Say I do, and trust
that the One Who loves you
won't do you wrong.

 


 

Today is the 48th day of the Omer, making six weeks and six days of the Omer. Today is the 48th day of our 49-day journey from Pesach to Shavuot, liberation to revelation.

Shavuot can be understood as the wedding anniversary of God and Israel. In that metaphor, the Torah is our ketubah (wedding contract); God is the "groom" and we are the "bride" (at least in the most traditional gendered understanding); and Mount Sinai itself -- which one midrash says was lifted into the sky and held over our heads -- becomes our wedding canopy.

There's also a midrash which says that every Jewish soul -- past, present, and future -- was there when Torah was given at Sinai.


Day 47 of the Omer

On the third new moon after leaving Egypt
    we entered the wilderness at Sinai and camped
        by the mountain. God called us a holy nation

and claimed us for Her own. Enraptured
    we promised we'd do anything, as lovers do.
        And God said: stay pure. Wash your clothes.

Get ready: something big is coming.
    And Moshe said: don't go near a woman—and zzzt!
        skips the record with an awful scratch, the song

marred now for all generations. I beg
    your pardon? Was Moshe so afraid of our bodies?
        Is that why he shunned his own wife, to keep himself

at the ready for God? Stay off the mountain,
    God said, and we understood that: the very air
        crackled with electricity, scaring the goats.

When the shofar sounds, then approach,
    God said, and we understood that: we knew
        the triumphant song of the ram's horn.

But when Moshe said avoid women, we cried out
    to his sister Miriam, and her voice reached us
        saying he can't help his limitations, but

between you and me, the only way Torah comes
    is to everyone together. To all of us,
        all in one place, all hearing the Voice

which contains all voices.
    Don't hold yourself apart from anyone.
        The only way to get it together is together.

Wash away your jealousies
    and garb yourself in righteousness.
        Get ready to listen up. Torah is coming.

 


 

Today is the 47th day of the Omer. Today is the 47th day of our 49-day journey between Pesach and Shavuot, liberation and revelation.

Today's poem arises out of the Torah reading for the first day of Shavuot. I couldn't resist responding to Moshe's instruction.

The lines about Moshe shunning his wife come out of midrash which says that even after the giving of the Torah, he stayed away from his wife in order to be more available to God.

"The only way to get it together is together" is a quote from Reb Zalman (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) z"l.


Day 46 of the Omer


DAY 46: FOUR DAYS


Imagine a four-day calendar.
Four empty rectangles waiting.
Now add an overlay blazoned
with the four letters of the Name

we never pronounce, or maybe
we whisper it with every breath.
Make the letters bold, great
calligraphc slashes of ink.

Today is the י, the seed
from which the rest of the Name
grows, the still point
before breath, the pregnant pause.

Tomorrow the first ה, inbreath
filling the lungs with spirit
which hovered once over the face
of the waters at the beginning

of time. Then the ו, lungs full,
divine flow down the straight chute
into creation. Finally another ה,
breathing out, returning spirit

to the One from Whom it came.
The head, the two arms, the spine,
the two legs: that Name fits
on the human body as though

we were made for it -- or from it.
Four letters hinting at the whole
of space and time, Was-Is-Will-Be.
Four days to embody those letters

before the download
before the fire and the thunder
before the still small voice
before we're opened up to receive.

 


 

Today is the 46th day of the Omer, making six weeks and four days of the Omer. Today is the 46th day of our 49-day journey between Pesach and Shavuot, liberation and revelation.

When I thought about the fact that there are four more days of the Omer, I immediately thought of one of Judaism's most prominent fours, the Four-Letter Name (sometimes called in English the Tetragrammaton; called in Hebrew the Shem Meforash.) That's what sparked today's poem.

The idea that we speak this Name with every breath comes from Rabbi Arthur Waskow. (See his Why YAH/YHWH.)


New prayers for b'nai mitzvah at Ritualwell

LogoI have long been a fan of Ritualwell, an online resource center where one can learn about Jewish rituals and practice, browse a large bank of new and innovative Jewish prayers and rituals, and find resources and materials to enhance one's own spiritual practice.

This spring they've launched a series they're calling #ReimagineRitual, and the first ritual they wanted to explore is b'nai mitzvah, our coming-of-age ceremony for thirteen-year-olds. First they shared some blog posts about new ways of thinking about b'nai mitzvah (don't miss Renewing the Bar/Bat Mitzvah One Student At A Time). Then there was a #ReimagineBnaiMitzvah chat on Twitter. And then they commissioned me to create something new.

My offering is now live on the Ritualwell site. Here's the introduction I wrote to contextualize the prayers I shared:

After the #ReimagineBnaiMitzvah chat, what emerged for me most strongly were not answers but questions. People tweeted a lot of questions: how can we encourage students to take ownership of their own b'nai mitzvah journey? Is there a way to do b'nai mitzvah which doesn't reinforce binary notions of gender? How can we tend to the unique soul of every child, regardless of where they are on the spectrum of gender and sexuality? Is there a core body of material which we expect our b'nai mitzvah students to master? What kind of role does (or should) social justice play in their learning?

These prayers arose in response to the chat. I hope that they will speak to our b'nai mitzvah students,  to those who are entrusted with their care—and also to people in "traditional" congregational contexts, and people whose Jewish lives unfold outside of congregational walls.

I wrote a pair of prayers to use as the b'nai mitzvah ties tzitzit onto their tallit before the celebration, and a trio of prayers (one for parent or caregiver, one for the student who is coming of age, and one for the rabbi or spiritual leader) to be used at the celebration itself.

You can find my offering here at Ritualwell: Blessings for a B'nai Mitzvah. Feedback welcome, here or there!


Day 45 of the Omer


DAY 45: INTERCESSION


Today's a good day to intercede with God.
Don't let sheepishness hold you back.
When the Holy One grew furious
that we'd dallied with idols, Rachel
put her hands on her hips, pointed out
that when Jacob married Leah
(whose veil hid her true face from view)
Rachel hid beneath their marriage bed
and responded to his every caress
in her own voice, so that Leah
would not be discovered and shamed
on her first wedded night. If Rachel
could overcome her jealousy, shouldn't
God do the same as well? And God relented,
and forgave our imperfections. Rachel
represents Shekhinah, the divine feminine
exiled in creation and yearning upward.
Put on your Shekhinah face and say:
God, I'm part of You and I'm asking
for compassion. I can balance mercy
with judgement. Let me be an instrument
of Your kindness. Amen, amen, selah.

 


 

Today is the 45th day of the Omer, making six weeks and three days of the Omer. Today is the 45th day of our 49-day journey between Pesach and Shavuot, liberation and revelation.

Today's poem was inspired by Rabbi Jill Hammer's Omer Calendar of Biblical Women. In her book, today is the day for thinking about the foremother Rachel. Many of the details in this poem come from that book (and from classical midrash.)

The name "Rachel" means "ewe," so the line about sheepishness is a bit of a Hebrew pun.


Day 44 of the Omer


DAY 44: SONG OF THE WETLAND


Don't bend down like the willow
trailing her fingertips in the pool.

Cup your hands, gather the waters
that flow around the reeds.

Rejoice in the sedge and bulrush,
the pussywillows and red-winged blackbirds:

small precious things in God's sight.
You don't have to live in exile.

It's all right if you tremble.
You can be both mighty and afraid.

The weeks of waiting are almost done.
Wear patience like a garment, measured.

Carve letters of gratitude
on the clay tablet of your heart.

 


 

Today is the 44th day of the Omer, making six weeks and two days of the Omer. Today is the 44th day of our 49-day journey between Pesach and Shavuot, liberation and revelation.

I looked up the gematria of the number 44. (Remember that in Hebrew, letters double as numbers, so every word has a numerical value -- and every number can be correlated with the words whose letters add up to that value.) This poem arose out of this list of the words with a gematria of 44.


God, too, is lonely: a d'var Torah for Behar-Bechukotai

Lonely-loneliness-21529870-329-328Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

This week's Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, teaches that every seventh year we must give the land a rest. Every seventh day we get Shabbat, a time to rest and be renewed; every seventh year the earth deserves the same thing.

This is called the shmita year -- in English, "Sabbatical." And this year right now -- 5775 -- is a shmita year, which means that all over the world people have been talking and thinking and praying about how we can best care for our earth.

This week's portion also teaches us about the yovel, or Jubilee. After seven sevens of years, we reach the 50th year, a Jubilee year, during which all debts are canceled and all property is returned to its original owner. Or, I should say, its original Owner-with-a-capital-O, because one of the themes of this Torah portion is that the earth belongs to God and we are merely resident on it. As God says in this week's portion, גרים ותושבים אתם עמדי –– "Y'all are resident-strangers with Me."

This is a familiar category. Torah frequently speaks in terms of Israelites, outsiders, and the גר תושב (ger toshav), or resident alien -- someone who is not originally of our community but is resident with us and among us. It's a lovely inversion of the norm to say that even we "insiders" in the community are ultimately resident strangers, because when it comes to the planet, the planet belongs to God and we're merely borrowing space on it for the short spans of our lives.

Earlier this week I studied a beautiful Hasidic teaching about the verse "Y'all are resident-strangers with Me." Usually we understand it to mean what I just said -- that we are גרים ותושבים, resident strangers, on the earth which belongs to God. But the Hasidic master known as the Degel Machaneh Efraim offers a poignant alternative reading.

He cites a verse from psalms: "I am a stranger in the land; do not hide Your mitzvot from me." (Psalm 119:19) Someone who is a stranger, he points out, has no one close to them with whom they can connect and tell the happenings of their day. A גר תושב / ger toshav is inevitably lonely. When such a person does find a friend, he writes, then they can joyously pour out everything which has been in their heart.

Here's where he makes a radical move. He says that the Holy One of Blessing is a lonely stranger in this world, because there is no one with whom God can connect wholly.

Let me say that again. God is a גר תושב / ger toshav.

God is a resident alien, a lonely stranger, existentially alone. This insight really moved me. I know that we all have times of feeling alone, and the insight that God too feels this way -- that our loneliness is a reflection of the Divine loneliness -- changes how I relate to those feelings of loneliness.

The Degel finds a hint of this in the psalm he cited. "I am a stranger in the land," said the psalmist -- as if to say, 'God, like You I am a stranger in this world, so don't hide Your connective-commandments from me!' The psalmist is saying: God, like You I am essentially alone. I yearn for Your mitzvot, Your connective-commandments, to alleviate my loneliness. And God yearns for us in return.

God is the lonely stranger, all alone in the world. We are the friend God finds, and when God finds us, God can pour out all of what is on God's heart -- in the form of Torah and mitzvot, our stories and our opportunities for connection with God.

"Y'all are resident-strangers with Me" can mean: y'all are strangers just as I, God, am a stranger. Y'all feel loneliness just as I, God, feel loneliness. And because we are together with God in this condition of loneliness and yearning for connection, we are never truly alone.

 

My thanks are due to my hevruta partners Rabbi David Markus and Rabbi Cynthia Hoffman who studied this text from the Degel with me.

 


Day 43 of the Omer


DAY 43: BEYOND NUMBER


Thank God for the gift of another day.
Check the mile marker: what's the number?
We're almost there. One more week
of sifting days like grains to measure
how they fall, and then -- Torah
pouring in like raindrops, too many to count.

The challenge is making each moment count --
sussing out subtle differences in each day.
Through forty-eight qualities we acquire Torah
(according to the sages, who liked to number
everything) -- that's wisdom beyond measure.
Time to manifest Shechina this final week.

What we were withholding made us weak
until we found it was ourselves that count:
not salary or 401K, nothing you can measure
but who we are in the world every day.
Focusing on accomplishments just made us numb(er),
and you need an open heart to receive Torah.

It wasn't just once upon a time that Torah
streamed into creation. It's coming this week.
God broadcasts constantly at every number
on the radio dial, in too many languages to count.
We accept the covenant anew each day
in how we act, how we speak, how we take the measure

of who we want to be. Can you measure
up to the version of yourself who merits Torah?
What would it look like to live each day
with nobility? Everything you do this week
can wake the part of you that's out for the count.
If I ask "how is your soul," could you number

on a scale of one to ten? Number
the qualities you share with God. You measure
up. You matter. Stand up for the count --
you were there at Sinai when we received Torah.
And you'll be there again in one short week.
Torah comes to us on the fiftieth day.

Treasure the numbers that make up Torah.
Take the measure of your heart this final week.
Count reasons for gratitude, every day.

 


 

Today is the forty-third day of the Omer, making six weeks and one day of the Omer. Today is the 43rd day of our 49-day journey between Pesach and Shavuot, liberation and revelation.

In the kabbalistic framework, today we begin the week of malchut, sovereignty / nobility / Shechina. Shechina is the Jewish mystics' term for the immanent, indwelling, feminine presence of the Divine.

The lines "What we were withholding made us weak / until we found it was ourselves that count" are a nod to Robert Frost's The Gift Outright.

We're entering the final week of our journey. What is that like for you?


Childhood cancer: I have no words.

A few years ago I posted about two little boys who were fighting cancer, named Gus and Sam. At the time, Gus was four and had recently undergone brain surgery to remove a tumor; Sam was six and was undergoing treatment for leukemia. Sam -- a.k.a. Superman Sam -- died of his cancer. Gus went into remission.

Until now. Gus' mom Sasha recently posted that the doctors have found more tumors in Gus's brain. They are going to operate again, a few days after he finishes kindergarten.

I have no words to offer in response to the horror which is pediatric cancer. I am holding Gus and his family in my heart and in my prayers. Jewish tradition teaches that prayers are uplifted by our tzedakah, our righteous giving. Perhaps my prayers for Gus will have more "oomph," as it were, because I am accompanying them with a gift of money in his honor / toward his treatment or care.

If you would like to help defray the expenses of Gus's treatment, his family has established a dedicated PayPal account at 10b[email protected] -- but they request especially that we donate to the Tanner Seebaum Foundation. His mom writes, "It's run by friends of ours and directly supports research into Gus' cancer, most of which is done by his oncologists. Right now, that research is going to save his life."

If you can spare a few dollars, the Tanner Seebaum foundation is a good place to give them. Give in honor of Gus; give in hopes that the research that foundation is doing will find better ways to help kids like Gus and their families who are dealing with tumors of the brain and spine.

In memory of Sam, donations are also welcomed at the Sam Sommer Fund, established by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer and Rabbi Michael Sommer, Sam's parents. That fund supports pediatric cancer research and pediatric cancer patients and their families. The Sommer family has also supported the St. Baldrick's Shave for the Brave campaign.

On a related note: those who follow me on Facebook may have seen recently that I posted a link to Rabbi Phyllis Sommer's TEDx talk Dead is Dead: Euphemisms and the Power of Words. It's about fifteen minutes long and it is incredibly powerful. (It has also shaped my willingness, in this post, to use real words like "Sam died" instead of euphemisms like "Phyllis and Michael lost their son.") I recommend the video highly.

Please join me in praying for Gus and his family.

May the One who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless those in need of healing of body, mind and spirit.  May the compassion of the Holy One be upon them and watch over them.  Strengthen them with courage in each day, along with all who are ill, now and swiftly.  And let us say: Amen.


 


Day 42 of the Omer


DAY 42: TORAH IS HER NAME


Torah quenches thirst on a hot day.
In space there's no oxygen, but there is Torah.
Remember hearing lightning, seeing thunder?
God invited Moshe ben Amram to climb Horeb
to taste and see that Torah is good, sweet
as honey smeared on parchment. Wait, I misspoke:
at Sinai we heard nothing. All God spoke
was the silent aleph at the very beginning.
Because every soul was at Sinai, we all know
the secrets of creation. There's no before
or after in Torah: it's a Name of God
no matter how the letters are arranged.
Moshe ascended to heaven, watched
as the Holy One handwrote a Torah scroll
painstakingly adorning the letters with crowns.
Adoring the letters is our job—isn't that
what the rabbi would say? Torah is Her name
and if we can't touch the thing itself,
we can sing to the signifier as we waltz.
Yisrael v'oraita v'kudsha brich hu chad hu
we and Torah and the Holy One of Blessing
are one. God's own letters, building blocks
of creation, are encoded in our DNA.
Take Torah in—spicy as horseradish, crumbly
as a meal offering drenched in fine oil—
and exhale the Name on every breath.

 


 

Today is the 42nd day of the Omer, making six weeks of the Omer. Today is the 42nd day of our 49-day journey from Pesach to Shavuot, liberation to revelation.

Today's poem was inspired by one of last year's NaPoWriMo prompts, which invites the use of twenty little poetry projects.

Horeb is another name for Sinai.

The idea that the only thing God spoke at Sinai was a silent aleph comes from a beautiful teaching of the Ropcyzer rebbe.

Yisrael v'oraita v'kudsha brich hu chad hu is from the Zohar, and is the assertion that we, and the Torah, and God, are all one.


Day 41 of the Omer


DAY 41: FOUNDATION


Whether slab or basement
or crawlspace's neither/nor

in-between, fit intention
to where you'll be rooted.

Know how deep
you need to sink your pilings

how broad a base will hold
what you yearn for.

Imagine the gilded spans,
the dazzling skyscrapers,

the homey octagon
constructed from driftwood...

From this footprint
where will you go?

 


 

Today is the 41st day of the Omer, making five weeks and six days of the Omer. This is the 41st day of our 49-day journey from Pesach to Shavuot, liberation to revelation.

In the kabbalistic paradigm, today is the day of yesod she'b'yesod, the day of foundation within the week of foundation. That's what sparked today's poem.


Day 40 of the Omer


DAY 40: TERUMAH

after the Degel Machaneh Efraim

When Torah says
tell the Israelites to bring Me
gifts for cobbling together
My patchwork residence

(gold, silver, and copper
crimson and cerulean yarns
acacia wood, bolts of linen
tanned leather and dolphin skins)

read instead
tell the Israelites to bring Me wisdom
which takes as long to gestate
as Moshe spent atop the mountain

I want you to bring Me
your wholeness, your completion
the quality of ripeness which accrues
after forty days of growth

each of you is a Torah,
a transcription of My holy name
other names merely reference,
sign pointing to signifier

but I and My Name are One
which means you are too:
you're part of Me
always cherished

even when you wander
in the wilderness
even when Sinai feels
impossible to reach

 


 

Today is the 40th day of the Omer, making five weeks and five days of the Omer. It is the 40th day of our 49-day journey between Pesach and Shavuot, liberation and revelation.

Today's poem is inspired by a teaching from the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the Degel Machaneh Efraim, about the Torah portion Terumah. (See Terumah: The Torah of 40.) I am grateful to my hevruta partners Rabbi Cynthia Hoffman and Rabbi David Markus for studying the Degel with me. They keep me learning, and that is a gift beyond words.


Day 39 of the Omer

 

DAY 39: REOPENING THE WELL


The well won't run dry.
You might have to scoop chalky dust
with your hands, remove
the rock that's wedged in the channel

but the water is there.
The water wants to flow.
Can you feel it beating
against your breastbone, urging

you to let it surge free?
Dig the channel again
and drop the plumb line
as far as the string will go.

These are things which have no limit:
the reservoir of blessing
the ocean of Torah
the depths of your human heart.

 


 

Today is the 39th day of the Omer, making five days and four weeks of the Omer. Today is the 39th day of our 49-day journey between Pesach and Shavuot, liberation and revelation.

According to one Mussar paradigm, today's middah or quality to cultivate is "leading others to truth." That made me think of leading others to water, and to the connections between water and Torah. That's what sparked today's poem.


Day 38 of the Omer


DAY 38: BURDEN

a psalm of comfort

Set down your pack.
Wrap your arms around your chest.
Let your shoulderblades unfurl like wings.

Let me rub the knots from your palms,
smooth the shadows from under your eyes.
Lean back: my hands are here.

Your fragile glass heart is safe.
The light that shines through you --
I don't want you to hide it away.

The stones you're lugging, both whole
and broken: they're mine too.
You're mine too. Let me carry you.

 


 

Today is the 38th day of the Omer, which makes five weeks and three days of the Omer. Today is the 38th day of our 49-day journey between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation.

Today's poem was inspired by one of the qualities Pirkei Avot says is required for acquiring Torah -- carrying the burden of one's fellow. (It's actually mapped to the 37th day, not the 38th, but yesterday's poem took me in a different direction, so I wrote about it today.)

Can you think of a time when you took on, or wanted, to take on a loved one's burden? What gifts did you find in that act?


Berkshire Jewish Voice: Bringing the Joy

Many thanks to the editors at the Berkshire Jewish Voice  for running such a lovely article! You can read the May 1 to May 31 2015 edition of the Berkshire Jewish Voice at their website [pdf], or -- for those who have difficulty accessing the pdf file -- the text of the interview is included below.

BJV

 

Bringing the Joy

Local Rabbi Rachel Barenblat Appointed Co-Chair of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal

If Didi Gregorius somehow finds himself in need of empathetic pastoral counseling in this his first season stepping in for Derek Jeter as the New York Yankees’ shortstop, he might consider reaching out to Rabbi Rachel Barenblat of Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams. She probably has some idea of what he is going through.

This April, Rabbi Barenblat took on the position of co-chair of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the umbrella organization for the Jewish Renewal movement inspired and led by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who passed in 2014. A larger-than-life figure, Reb Zalman’s long career was marked by many of the major milestones of 20th century Jewish history. A refugee from Eastern Europe, he was ordained by and then broke with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, was a friend of Shlomo Carelbach, Timothy Leary, Thomas Merton, and Ram Dass, and participated in the countercultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s, psychedelic drugs and all.

Barenblat says Reb Zalman developed a “deep ecumenism that was different from we think of as interfaith dialogue.” While retaining a connection to Judaism informed by his core experiences in the Hasidic world, Reb Zalman recognized “that others were also on a spiritual path,” says Barenblat, “and that Jews can learn from them and even pray with them.”

She shared a quote from Reb Zalman: “If I want to appreciate a stained glass window I don’t look at it from outside into a dark space, then I can’t see what’s going on. A stained glass window is meant to be seen from the inside. If I want to understand what it’s like for a person standing in front of a crucifix, to address God through that image, I have to at least temporarily set aside my own point of view so I can see it from inside that person: what does that person see?”

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