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Returning to Rabbis Without Borders

Rwb_logoI'm heading south today for the annual gathering of Rabbis Without Borders fellows at Pearlstone, a Jewish retreat center outside of Baltimore. This will be my third annual retreat. It's always fun to reconnect with this group of colleagues in person.

Like my ALEPH community, RWB spans denominational boundaries. Rabbis Without Borders fellows come from backgrounds ranging from Reform to Orthodox and everything in between. And like my ALEPH community, we're consciously pluralistic, and deeply invested in the work of co-creating a Judaism which will serve the future's needs. 

This year I'm giving back to the community a bit more than in years past. With Rabbi David Markus, I'll be co-leading a Renewal-style weekday morning service on Monday. We're planning a mixture of weekday nusach, beloved melodies, and new uses for Nava Tehila's Livnat HaSapir.  We'll also be offering a session with Rabbi Evan Krame of The Jewish Studio, themed around a four-worlds look at the ecosystem of Jewish innovation. (That ecosystem is being talked about a lot on our Listening Tour.)

Speaking of which, we'll also be holding informal Listening Tour conversations with groups of RWB colleagues over the course of the retreat. We already have hundreds of pages of notes from the stops we've already made, and every time we sit down with people to talk about Jewish Renewal's past, present, and future, I come away more energized about the work we're doing in ALEPH. (So RWB colleagues, if y'all want to share your perspectives on the renewing of Judaism, come and find us.)

If past years' experiences are anything to go by, those of you who follow me on Twitter are likely to see an upsurge in my posting there over the next several days. (This year's retreat is themed around Exploring Rabbinic Risk-Taking -- if that interests you, keep an eye on @rwbclal and #rwbclal.) I expect that when I get home late on Wednesday night I'll be physically tired, but the tiredness will be balanced by the energizing experience of learning, talking, and davening with this great group of hevre.

Teaching in Tikshoret

This winter, ALEPH is launching a new adult education program called Tikshoret: Contemporary Connections in Jewish Learning. (The name tikshoret comes from the Hebrew root which means connection -- the idea is that these classes will connect participants with our tradition's many riches.) The classes will be offered online via zoom videoconferencing, will be relatively brief (a few sessions, rather than a full semester), will be affordable (an accessible taste of Jewish Renewal Torah), and should be a lot of fun. And fortunately, our first Tikshoret class is being taught by someone who won't mind if we're still working the bugs out of the system as we go -- me. 

Feb 17, 24, March 2 & 9 – 8-9:30pm Eastern (US) Time

Writing the Psalms of Our Hearts
Instructor: Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Rachel-squareThe psalms are a deep repository of praise, thanksgiving, grief, and exaltation, one of our communal tools for connecting with God. In this class, each of us will become a psalmist. We’ll awaken our spirits and hearts by praying select psalms together, warm up our intellectual muscles with 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 by davening together once more.

Learn more about Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Cost: $125


All are welcome. If you would enjoy writing a handful of psalms, I'd love to have you in the class!

Upcoming classes will be taught by Shoshanna Shechter-Shaffin ("Eve and Lilith: Secrets of the Creation of the Divine Feminine"), Hazzan-Magid Steve Klaper, Rabbinic Pastor Dr. Simcha Raphael, and Rabbi David Zaslow -- more information about each of those classes will appear on the Tikshoret page on the ALEPH website, so check that out (and when you go there, a window will pop up inviting you to join the ALEPH mailing list -- that's the easiest way to ensure that you'll get updates on forthcoming programs and events.)

Jewish Renewal in Tablet

Tablet-orangeTablet magazine ran an article last week about Jewish Renewal.  I'm honored to be quoted in that article along with several other people whose voices and perspectives I respect. Some of the material from our interview about which I was personally most excited (talking about Jewish Renewal's "spiritual technologies" e.g. chant, davenology, sage-ing, hashpa'ah / spiritual direction) didn't make it into the piece, but it's a good article and well worth reading. Here's a taste:

While Renewal insiders are proud of the numbers of communities that affiliate with Aleph and with the growing number of students at their rabbinical school, which admitted 25 students in the last year, they also argue that Renewal’s influence can’t be counted in numbers of bodies alone.

Schachter-Shalomi hoped that Renewal would “be a virus.” According to Ingber, he hoped it would “infiltrate and infect as it were as many places as possible.” His legacy, Ingber said, “is that much to the chagrin of his students, he didn’t care about trademarking stuff. Reb Zalman was not a copyright, trademark kind of person,” even if it meant Renewal would not receive due credit.

As a movement centered around one man’s persona and charisma, Renewal is now at a critical juncture in a post-Reb Zalman era. “Everything that happens now in Renewal on some level was generated by Reb Zalman,” Magid explained. The consensus is that there is nobody who could or should take this place. “His whole upbringing was prewar Europe,” Magid added. “I think that that makes it impossible” for anyone to replace him. Like Carlebach and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, so, too, Schachter-Shalomi: These men bridged old Europe and new America, and nobody can do that anymore.

But if Schachter-Shalomi is irreplaceable, what’s in store for the movement?

Read the whole thing here: Can Jewish Renewal Keep Its Groove On? (I expect you will not be surprised to hear that my answer to that question is a resounding "yes!")

What's rising

Tap_300Maybe you've noticed the full moon recently. (Where I live, it's been shining brilliantly the last few nights on a light layer of snow.) The full moon of this month is the holiday of Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees.

Other people have written smart things about Tu BiShvat and environmentalism, among them Jay Michaelson. This year I find myself focusing most on the internal and spiritual dynamics of Tu BiShvat.

Tradition teaches that this is the moment when the sap begins to rise in the trees to nourish the fruits of the coming year. What spiritual or emotional sap might be rising in you at this moment of this year?

What are the fruits you hope that internal sap might nourish: are they creative, interpersonal, emotional, spiritual? Do you have reservoirs to draw on which will help those things flower forth in coming months?

Do you feel sufficiently rooted this winter -- either in the place where you are, or in your spiritual practices, or in your relationship with God -- to stand firm even in emotionally stormy weather? 

What holds you back from the flowering and fruiting for which you were made? Are you afraid of an emotional, interpersonal, or spiritual hard freeze which will nip your self-expression in the bud?

What do you most hope is beginning to rise in you this Tu BiShvat? Maybe you want to cultivate compassion, or kindness, for others or for yourself. Or maybe hope itself is what is rising in you.

What would it feel like to know, in your bones, that even in the deep freeze of midwinter -- even in the deep freeze of whatever might be challenging in your life -- sap is rising and sweetness will come?



The devoted ones of old
     would spend a whole hour
        preparing to meet the Beloved 

(a timeless time in union
    rocking back and forth
        crooning words of love)

then an hour savoring
    the encounter now over,
         slowly letting afterglow fade.

As I get ready to greet you
    my soul, like theirs, sings
        in anticipation of being seen.

Our time together
    is always too short, though
         once gone I prolong it in memory.

I carry you with me.
    You fill the holy of holies
        in my innermost heart.



The devoted ones of old. Talmud teaches that the Hasidim rishonim, the original "pious ones" or "devoted ones," would spend an hour in meditation and contemplation before prayer -- and, some say, would do the same after prayer, too. Rocking back and forth. This is the subtle dance of traditional Jewish prayer, sometimes called "shuckling" (from the Yiddish word meaning "to shake.") It can be traced back to the 8th century C.E., and possibly to Talmudic times. The movement of the body both stirs, and expresses, internal fervor. You fill the holy of holies. In the Temple in Jerusalem, some two thousand years ago, the inner sanctum was called the Holy of Holies -- and was empty of any furnishings or decoration, in order that it be filled wholly with divine presence.

This is another one of the poems of yearning in my "Texts to the Holy" series, though I don't think it will wind up in the chapbook. Still, it arises out of that impulse and out of that love.

Moving into late January

Late January can be a difficult time. It's cold outside: this morning my car's thermometer registered seven degrees. The world is mostly monochrome: white snow, brown and grey tree trunks, sky which is often clouded in shades of pearl and grey. Midwinter's excitement (whether that means Christmas, or New Year's, or the OHALAH conference of Jewish Renewal clergy) is over and gone, but winter's not going anywhere. Whether or not you put stock in the idea of Blue Monday, this time of year is tough.

I've learned over the years that this is a good time of year for small pleasures. A glass of vibrant, tart, bright-red hibiscus tea. Luxuriating beneath soft blankets. Making the effort to bring in wood and light a fire, even if it's just me in the house, because it feels good -- both the warmth from the burning wood, and the emotional warmth evoked by the crackling flames. This is a good time of year to paint my nails some outrageous bright color, and to wear my insulated purple gloves: anything to gladden the eye.

Some days I manage to pause and sing the the evening service. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of all being, Who with Your word bring on the evening...  The Hebrew suggests that evening is a mixture, a blending of day and night. It's the cusp, and as evening transitions toward night the sky's palette shifts and deepens. One evening last week I sat outside with a friend and as chevrons of geese flew overhead we caught sight of streaky pink clouds of winter sunset -- there and then gone. 

I am a creature of summertime. I love the long days, the warmth, the light, the effusion of greenery, the gloaming of a long summer twilight. I'm happiest in sandals and something sleeveless. At this season I have to work harder to notice what's beautiful: the sparkle of sunlight on crisp snow, or the late afternoons where moon and stars illuminate the sky. My gratitude practices remind me to seek something every day for which I can be thankful. I'm thankful for those practices, at this time of year.

Shoes on, shoes off: spiritual journey and Shabbat consciousness

6976129727_b7fef43397_mThis is the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. 

In this week's Torah portion, we read the instructions which came before the Exodus from Egypt. Slaughter a lamb, the people are told, and mark the doorposts of your house with its blood as a gesture of protection against the tenth plague. Roast it, and eat it in haste, with your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand.

I'm always struck by that injunction. Today's equivalent might be eating the feast with our suitcases packed and our car keys in our pockets. The spiritual meta-message is: have what you need with you, because at any moment it might be time to go.

Just a few weeks ago we read God's instruction to Moshe to remove the sandals from his feet -- or, in my favorite Hasidic interpretation from the Baal Shem Tov, relinquish his habitual way of doing things -- because the place where he stood was holy ground. We removed our shoes and made ourselves vulnerable. Today we're being told to put our shoes back on. To get ourselves ready to go. What can we make of these two sets of instructions? Maybe they can speak to us about two qualities of life.

Put on your shoes and be ready to go: that's weekday consciousness. We have to close ourselves up a little bit, protect our tender places, in order to function in the world. Like the children of Israel getting ready to leave Egypt, we need to have our act together and be ready for whatever journey lies ahead. Sometimes it's a physical journey. And even when we're not going anywhere, we're on an emotional and spiritual journey of learning, and growth, and change. Weekday consciousness says: put on your shoes and be ready to hit the road. 

Take off your shoes, remove your habitual ways of seeing and being, because the place where you stand is holy ground: that's Shabbat consciousness. Shabbat is a time when we don't do work, we don't try to change things, we just sit with what is and find joy therein. In weekday consciousness we work, we strive, we travel, we change. In Shabbat consciousness we sit still and experience the Oneness behind all multplicity, the connection which underlies every separation, the togetherness with God which is manifest even when we are seemingly alone.

Shifting from one of these states to the other isn't always easy. I remember the very first time I went on retreat at the Jewish Renewal retreat center Elat Chayyim, some fourteen years ago. I spent a week there in community, davening three times a day, meditating, learning, praying, singing, opening my heart in ways it had never been opened before. It was an amazing experience, and a transformative one. And then I left the retreat center and went to drive home, and the first thing I did was stop to gas up my car.

I walked into the convenience store with my heart wide open, beaming, because that was the way I had grown accustomed to being over my week on retreat. I don't remember what the clerk said, but he was curt, and I felt like I had fallen from heaven down to earth with a thud. I hadn't put my emotional "shoes" back on. I didn't yet know that after every retreat, there is a period of re-entry during which I have to re-learn how to wear the emotional armor which usually protects my spirit and my heart.

Whole-hearted encounter (with God, with holiness, with something beyond ourselves) requires us to take off our shoes. It requires us to remove our habits and the protective coverings which usually separate us from the world. And by the same token, being in the world may require us to put our shoes back on. To not let our most tender emotions be on display. To keep the world a bit at arm's-length, in order that its routine slings and arrows not be completely devastating to our hearts and our souls.

During the week, we need to put on our shoes and be ready to go. On Shabbat -- and at times when one is fortunate enough to be on retreat in spiritual community, if that's something you ever get to do* -- we can take off our shoes and just be. Take off the protective calluses which usually separate us from the world. Take off the habits which keep us from living in the moment. How does that feel for you?

And tonight we'll make havdalah, and the scent of the spices will be like smelling salts for the soul, energizing us to return to the weekday journey of making, doing, becoming. When you put your shoes back on and pick up the yoke of the new week, what journey will you undertake -- and how will it be informed by the spaciousness of the pause which Shabbat brings?




*allow me to recommend the ALEPH Kallah in July, for which preregistration has just opened!


A week in ALEPH-land

I've been away from home for a week, in the Brigadoon of ALEPH-land. First there was an ALEPH board meeting; then a glorious Shabbaton (Shabbat weekend retreat); then the smicha (ordination) of new clergy; then the OHALAH conference of Jewish Renewal clergy. Every single day was jam-packed, from early morning until I fell into bed at night. I can't recount the whole thing, but here are glimpses.

The board meeting opened with morning prayer and song, and we sang again every time we began a new session after a break. I love this about this board -- that we break for prayer; that we break into song. The song which became our refrain was "Ivdu Et Hashem b'Simcha" ("Serve God with joy!") What a perfect mantra for our board service, and for the work we try to do across ALEPH writ large. 

On Friday night I sat between two of my dearest friends, resplendent in our Shabbat whites to welcome the Shabbat bride, and we sang in harmony all the way through the service. Singing these beloved words, alongside beloved friends who care about the words as much as I do, with their beloved voices intertwining with mine, always feels like coming home. This time was no exception. I am so blessed.

Saturday afternoon began with mincha (the afternoon service), where the leaders read from Torah in a way I had never seen before (sharing only a verse or two at a time, in both languages, and then offering a related meditative question for us to sit with.) There were sensory delights: mint leaves for scent, dried fruits to eat, white Colorado stones to turn and hold in our hands. That service led seamlessly...

...into se'udah shlishit (Shabbat's ritual "third meal") which was a beautiful feast of niggun (wordless melody), story, and song...which in turn segued seamlessly into ma'ariv (the evening service) which we sang in the weekday melodic mode facing the windows where the darkening sky was visible, which in turn led right into havdalah. As always when I bid farewell to a Shabbat with these friends, I wept.

One morning's davenen was billed as a "barbershop quartet" service. Two women and two men sang in a cappella harmony, encouraging us to harmonize and to join in, blending weekday nusach, other melodies we know for our daily prayers, and secular doo-wop melodies in a fabulous tapestry of sound. Another morning we sat in a circle with a rabbi-drummer and sang liturgy and niggunim, interwoven. 

Somewhere in there were evenings with friends, a guitar or two, hours of singing, and laughing until my belly ached with happiness. One night in a hotel room (probably annoying the heck out of the other folks on our floor!), one night in the "firepit," the lounge adjacent to the lobby with the fireplace and cushy chairs. Prayers, folk songs, Hebrew songs, Yiddish songs -- so many melodies and harmonies!

One night there was a kirtan ma'ariv with Rabbi Andrew Hahn, the Kirtan Rabbi. We sang his gorgeous Shviti chant (a setting of one of my favorite lines from psalms, which I have written about before, and which has even sparked poetry). I had been blessed to hear his chant a few months ago before it was released into the world, and I loved hearing it (and singing it) in this context, with this community.

On my last morning in Colorado I went with David to the Reb Zalman Meditation Room. We met up with Hazzan Steve Klaper there, and together the three of us davened the morning service. We sang, and the room reverberated with our words and our intentions, and we ended with "Ana B'Choach," the prayer we learned from Reb Zalman which asks God to untie our tangled places and help us be whole.

There were countless meetings. Some formal, some informal. Some planned, some arising spontaneously as someone found me or us in the lobby and wanted to talk. There were Listening Tour sessions. There were meals with old friends and new. There was absolutely not enough time to connect with everyone! How I wish I had mastered the art of bilocation, so I could be in two places at once.

As always, I return home with a feeling of profound gratitude for having found this hevre, this community of beloved colleagues and friends. I wish we'd had more time. I'm already looking forward to this summer's ALEPH Kallah (July 11-17, Fort Collins Colorado, preregistration is now open!) when I will get to learn and teach and study and pray and dine and sing and rejoice with these friends again.


Tu BiShvat Resources for Our Living Planet

Cross-posted from Kol ALEPH, the blog of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.


This year we (at ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal) rededicate ourselves to caring for our living planet as a place of holiness. Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees (coming up on January 25), is a natural opportunity to link our deep ecological values with the life of the spirit. Here are some resources which we hope will bring added meaning to your Tu BiShvat:

  • Rededication (pdf) - a new liturgical poem for Tu BiShvat by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
  • Blessing for Tu BiShvat (pdf) - a prayer from the original Tu BiShvat haggadah, offered by Rabbi David Seidenberg at
  • One page flowchart haggadah (pdf) - a one-page printable flowchart haggadah, offered by Rabbi David Seidenberg at
  • A digital haggadah for Tu BiShvat (slideshow / powerpoint) - a new digital haggadah for Tu BiShvat, intended for projection on a screen (to save trees!)  Liturgy, poems, prayers, video, and more. That same haggadah is available online via slideshare:

May our celebrations of Tu BiShvat bring us closer to healing our living planet and connecting us with the One Who enlivens and sustains us all.

A poem for the new ALEPH musmachim

On January 10, 2016, ALEPH ordains nine new Jewish clergy – five rabbis, two cantors, and two rabbinic pastors – after having welcomed 24 new students, the largest incoming class in ALEPH history.  This poetic charge is dedicated to our newest clergy, and their students, and the students of their students, as they take their place in the ancient flow of transmission.



Your Turn



You made a choice and took a turn
Long before you saw the flame

Was God's own angel dressed in drag,
Concealed within a bush so low

The last place one would think to look
To find an upward homing beacon.

You turned to face that glow: you couldn't see
The path ahead. For all you knew

You too might be consumed. God
Becomes What God Becomes, and so do you

Who in the end discovered that
Refiner's fire would yield not ash but gold.

At first they might not see or hear.
Some never will: it's less a risk

To keep the One they surely know,
The certain One they don't believe,

Than peel the habit from the feet
That seems most safe though shackling,

As you have done despite yourself
Because you dared to turn aside

And be rewritten from within, a scroll
Emblazoned on your skin for all to read.

They might read it wrong: we see things
Not as they are but as we are.

As you will know, and may your knowing
Light your way, as for your teachers

Behind you now, sending you
To prime the pump of heaven's flow.


God's own angel dressed in drag: Exodus 3:2. Refiner's fire: Malachi 3:3. At first they might not see or hear: Exodus 6:9. The certain One they don't believe: From Reb Zalman z"l, after Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. Peel the habit from the feet: Reb Zalman & Netanel Miles-Yepez, A Heart Afire 47, following Besht on Exodus 3:5. You dared to turn aside: Exodus 3:3. A scroll emblazoned on your skin: Psalm 40:8. Not as they are but as we are: B.T. Berakhot 55b. Your teachers behind you now: M. Avot 1:1.

14 stanzas – יד, the hand of smicha.


Written by Rabbi David Evan Markus and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, ALEPH co-chairs, for this year's class of ALEPH musmachim (ordinands). Cross-posted from Kol ALEPH.

Co-writing poems has turned out to be one of the unexpected joys of co-chairing ALEPH with David. We've written a few of these so far during our tenure, including The Angels of San Bernardino. I've written poems for ALEPH musmachim (ordinands) before -- including Becoming, 2009 -- but this is the first time I've co-written one.

This year marks five years since my own ordinationI offer my deepest congratulations to those who are becoming rabbis, hazzanim, and rabbinic pastors today.

Announcing Toward Sinai: Omer Poems

About a year ago, I had an audacious thought. I frequently aim to write daily poems during April, National Poetry Month in the United States. Over the last few years I've written daily poems during Elul (some of which are now collected as See Me: Elul Poems.) What if I could combine daily writing discipline with spiritual practice again and share 49 daily poems during the counting of the Omer?

As regular readers of this blog know (at least, those of you who were reading regularly last spring!), I came home from last year's OHALAH conference fired-up and inspired, and my level of poetic output surged. I did post 49 Omer poems here during the days between Pesach and Shavuot. I am delighted now to be able to share my collection of 49 Omer poems -- revised and improved for print -- with you.

TowardSinai-frontThe Omer is the period of 49 days between Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot. Through counting the Omer, we link liberation with revelation. Once we counted the days between the Pesach barley offering and the Shavuot wheat offering at the Temple in Jerusalem. Now as we count the days we prepare an internal harvest of reflection, discernment, and readiness. Kabbalistic (mystical) and Mussar (personal refinement) traditions offer lenses through which we can examine ourselves as we prepare ourselves to receive Torah anew at Shavuot. Here are 49 poems, one for each day of the Omer, accompanied by helpful Omer-counting materials. Use these poems to deepen your own practice as we move together through this seven-week corridor of holy time.

Praise for Toward Sinai: Omer Poems

Rachel Barenblat has gifted her readers with a set of insightful poems to accompany our journey through the wilderness during the Counting of the Omer. Deft of image and reference, engaging and provocative, meditative and surprising, this collection is like a small purse of jewels. Each sparkling gem can support and enlighten readers on their paths toward psycho-spiritual Truth.

--Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, author of Counting the Omer: A Kabbalistic Meditation Guide


Rachel Barenblat comes bearing a rich harvest. In Toward Sinai, her series of poems to be read daily during the counting of the Omer, a poem chronicles every step between Exodus and Sinai. The poems exist in the voices of the ancient Hebrews measuring grain each day between Passover and Shavuot, and also in a contemporary voice that explores the meaning of the Omer in our own day. Together, the poems constitute a layered journey that integrates mysticism, nature, and personal growth. As Barenblat writes: “Gratitude, quantified.”

--Rabbi Jill Hammer, author of The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women


Your Torah is transcendent and hits home every time.

-- Rabbi Michael Bernstein, Rabbi Without Borders Fellow

Toward Sinai: Omer poems $12 on Amazon

Those who will be attending the OHALAH conference next week will have an opportunity to pick up copies of this new collection at the shuk -- and I'll gladly inscribe them for you or for the recipient of your choice! Deep thanks to all of my readers, especially to Rabbi Michael Bernstein, Rabbi Jill Hammer, and Rabbi Min Kantrowitz who graciously offered reflections on the book before print.

On peeling away what protects us from the world

I offered an extemporaneous d'var Torah at services yesterday. This is what I said, more or less. (Deep thanks to my hevruta partner, with whom I shared these thoughts afterwards, and who offered the insight about being unsteady on one's feet.)



וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל-תִּקְרַב הֲלֹם; שַׁל-נְעָלֶיךָ מֵעַל רַגְלֶיךָ--כִּי הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עוֹמֵד עָלָיו, אַדְמַת-קֹדֶשׁ הוּא.

And God said: do not come any closer. Take the shoes off of your feet, for the place where you're standing is holy ground. (Exodus 3:5)

The story begins when Moshe is herding his father-in-law's sheep. He sees an angel of God within a bush aflame. The bush burns but is not consumed. He says to himself, "I need to go see what's going on; how is this possible?" So he turns toward the bush to look. That's when God calls his name and tells him to take off his shoes, because the place where he is standing is holy. 

On a surface level, the instruction is simple: take off your shoes. So he does. Taking off our shoes makes us vulnerable to thorns or stones (or tiny lego bricks! yes, I am the mother of a six year old) which might be in our path. Doffing shoes opens us to the world. 

There's a teaching from the Baal Shem Tov -- which I first encountered via Reb Zalman z"l, in his book A Heart Afire -- which creatively rereads the phrase to argue that God was instructing Moshe to strip away his habits. (The interpretation relates the phrase מֵעַל רַגְלֶיךָ, "off of your feet," to the verb להרגיל, "to become accustomed" or "to practice" –– literally, to feel that one is standing firmly.) Our habits of inattention can protect our hearts from the world just as surely as solid shoe soles can protect our feet.

And that's exactly what this story mitigates against.  Authentic spiritual encounter requires us to remove our habitual ways of seeing. It calls us to remove the habits which allow us to keep our hearts safely locked-away. God calls us to remove the shoes from our feet and calluses from our hearts, to peel away the protective layer which allows us to keep the world at a distance, so that we can be real with what is.

When we remove our "shoes" -- when we peel away the calluses, the leather, the protective coverings which habitually occlude our hearts -- we open ourselves to the full range of human emotion and experience. We open to our sorrow and our anger and our grief... and also our delight, our exultation, and our joy. All of these are required in order for us to be present to the miracles hidden in plain sight. 

Following God's dispatch means precisely not feeling secure on our feet -- because otherwise we're making our spiritual practice about us (and about being in control), and not about God. So take off your shoes. Remove the calluses which protect your heart. Remove the habits which allow you to keep the world at arm's-length. Let yourself be vulnerable, even unsteady. Imagine what miracles you might see.


Image: Jackie Olenick's beautiful print Holy Ground, which hangs in my office.

Other divrei Torah on this parsha: