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After every funeral

Every time I am called to do a funeral for someone who had grown children, I notice my own emotions arising in response to what I witness in the emotional landscape of the mourners. I'm blessed that my parents are still alive... and when I preside over a funeral where adults mourn their parents, I can't help thinking about the day when I will be in the mourner's shoes instead of the rabbi's. I'll come to it with countless funerals under my belt, and surely they'll inform how I experience my own journey -- and yet I know as well as anyone that there's a vast chasm between experiencing someone else's grief from the rabbi's vantage, and experiencing one's own grief without the comfort of the rabbinic role. 

I often ride to the cemetery with one of the lovely gentlemen from the local funeral home with which we work. And every time, as we drive to my synagogue's cemetery in the hilltowns, as we chat about their kids and mine and what it's like to serve in their role and mine in a community of this size, some part of me is thinking: I should call my parents. Just to say I love you. Because I can. Often, afterwards, I do. And I wonder what goes through their minds when I mention that I've just done a funeral. Are they thinking of the friends they have buried? Are they thinking of their own mortality?

Across every axis of difference in the world, death is the thing we all have in common: every life ends. Everyone someday says goodbye to their parents or to those who reared them. Everyone someday says goodbye to loved ones and peers. Everyone someday says goodbye to this life and moves on to whatever it is that comes next. No two deaths are the same, no two griefs are the same. And yet every grief partakes of a sameness. Grief is like a hologram: every individual grief carries the imprint of the whole universe of grief within it. My prayer is that every grief carries the imprint of healing, too.

When there has been a profound loss, one can feel as though life will never be sweet again. As though the moment one wakes the grief will be crushing again, and it will be crushing until sleep, and then maybe also even in sleep. But it isn't perennial. The day will come when you wake and grief isn't the first thing to arise. The day will come when you wake with ease. With comfort. Even with joy. The crushing weight of grief will lift, and on the other side -- please, let there be gentleness. Let there be gratitude. Let there be the sense that (as our liturgy teaches) God every day renews the work of creation. Let all who grieve reach sweetness. Let all who grieve be renewed.



Good grief, fall 2014.

A Listening Tour weekend in Vancouver

26058278726_157e7bec26_zEvery stop on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour is different, and every one has been amazing in its own way. But I suspect that our weekend in Vancouver may stand out in memory as one of the most memorable experiences in a year-plus of remarkable experiences.

Maybe that's in part because we traveled such a very long way to be there. Maybe it's in part because we were visiting such a storied community, one of the largest and longest-standing Jewish Renewal communities in the world. Maybe that's in part because the people at Or Shalom welcomed us with such open hearts.

Our visit began with a dinner gathering with members of the host committee, and then after a too-short night of sleep continued with brunch with a group of Or Shalom millennials who spoke to us about their spiritual lives, their hopes, and what "doing Jewish" looks like for them. 

On Friday evening I led a sweet and intimate family Shabbat circle, a few prayers and a few songs and a meditation on the week which was then drawing to its close. Then we davened with the Or Shalom community, savoring a service co-led by Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan and Rabbi Hannah Dresner (along with musicians Charles Kaplan, Martin Gotfrit, Joe Markovitch, David Kauffman, and Nomi Fenson.) We danced around the room, we sang and prayed, and we marveled at the beauty of the clearing evening sky as we opened the door to welcome the Shabbat bride. (And Rabbi David gave a beautiful d'var Torah about keeping our spiritual fires burning.) After davening and dinner we heard origin stories and histories from Or Shalom's almost forty years of existence, starting with the early years as a havurah in Reb Daniel and Reb Hanna's living room.

25481624483_023d3430dd_zOn Shabbat morning, Rabbi David and I co-led p'sukei d'zimra, the first section of the morning service. (As it turned out, we chose melodies wisely, and the community sang along with spirit.) Then we enjoyed a Shabbat morning service led in turns by Rabbi Hillel Goelman and then by Rabbi Hannah. I was privileged to offer the d'var Torah that morning, on what it means to me to be a nation of priests and how that dovetails with the work we seek to do in ALEPH. After another festive meal we facilitated a community open mike session, harvesting ideas, yearnings, "ouches," dreams, and hopes from the community at large. 

On Sunday we breakfasted with ALEPH Canada colleagues at a vegetarian Vancouver institution, spent the morning with the Or Shalom board of directors, lunched with congregants and clergy, and spent the afternoon with a 2o+ person focus group of involved and invested Or Shalom folks. In between these meetings and meals and meetings-over-meals, we managed to walk a bit by the water; to marvel at the blooming trees and the view of Mount Baker in Queen Elizabeth Park; even, briefly, to see a harbor seal in its natural habitat! Our visit wound down with a final meal, and some debriefing and visioning for the future, with Rabbi Hannah before we regretfully made our way to the airport to begin the three thousand mile journey home.

We have hundreds of pages of notes from the Listening Tour so far -- from the nine stops we've made in person, and also from countless phone calls, zoom videoconference sessions, and emails. And we have many stops yet to go -- we're nowhere near done. We're beginning to see some common themes which are emerging (which are beginning to spark our conversations about what might be in the "Renewing Renewal" report we'll be putting forward before Rosh Hashanah). I'm fascinated by the things which are parallel or similar everywhere we go, and equally fascinated to see things which are different in each place we visit.  I continue to be endlessly grateful that we get to do this work. It's an honor and a privilege to get to sit with people and hear their yearnings and hopes for what ALEPH and Jewish Renewal might become.


Dave Kauffman took some terrific photos from the Listening Tour weekend. Thanks, Dave! And deep thanks to the organizing committee and to all of our Or Shalom hosts. 


A nation of priests

(A Listening Tour d'var Torah for Shabbat morning at Or Shalom)


This week's Torah portion includes a description of the smicha (ordination) of Aaron and his sons -- the first ancient Israelite priests. The word smicha comes from a root meaning "to lean," as in the laying-on of hands. Aaron and his sons place their hands on a ram, which is then slaughtered. Blood from the ram is painted along their ears, thumbs, and big toes, perhaps representing the charge to seek holiness in all that they hear, in all that their hands create, and in every place where they walk.

When I received smicha from ALEPH, my teachers placed their hands on me as they spoke the words which transformed me into a rabbi. I experienced the press of their hands as a conduit for the transmission of wisdom and blessing. Afterward the only thing I could compare it to was the birth of my son: a feeling of yielding to a great transformative process which was rewriting me from the inside out.

My ordination as a rabbi, the seal on years of study, happened on a single day -- but the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests lasted for seven. Seven is a meaningful number for us. Think of the six days of creation culminating in the seventh day which is Shabbat, or the seven colors of the rainbow, or the seven weeks of the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot. The Hebrew word for seven, שבע, contains the same root letters as the verb meaning to swear an oath or make a covenant. With seven days of ordination, Aaron and his sons entered into a covenant of service to the children of Israel and to God.

Here we are on Shabbat, the seventh day, reading about the ancient priests and their seven-day ritual. And maybe this ritual feels distant and foreign to us, as maybe the priesthood itself feels distant and foreign to us. But Torah also teaches (Exodus 19:6) that the hereditary priesthood of old isn't the only kind of priesthood. The whole community of Israel is instructed to be a ממלכת כהנים, a nation of priests. The priesthood wasn't just for them or for then. All of us are called into holy service. Shabbat, as the seventh day, is the day of smicha for everyone: the completion of readiness for holy service.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that access to God didn't depend on mastery of Talmud. He taught that God is available to all of us, no matter who we are or what we know. For the Baal Shem, connection with God was for everyone. Deep spirituality was for everyone. Jewish joy was for everyone. As the idea of being a nation of priests expands the hereditary priesthood to the whole community, the Baal Shem's teachings expanded God-connection to the community of all who yearn.

That democratizing impulse has always been part of Jewish Renewal, which Reb Zalman described as a new "turning" of Hasidism. Reb Zalman, z"l, reached deep into the treasure trove of our tradition. He translated prayers and teachings and experiences into a vernacular designed to reach people where they are. Today it is his students, and their students, who carry on that holy service of connecting seekers with our tradition and with God. 

Continue reading "A nation of priests" »

Poems for the Omer

The first seder is four weeks from tonight, which means that four weeks from tomorrow night we'll begin counting the Omer -- mindfully marking the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation. The Omer is one of my favorite seasons of the Jewish year. Counting the days (and spending some time each day focusing on teachings aimed at deepening my experience of the counting) has become something I look forward to each year.

There are a lot of excellent Omer books which offer teachings or meditations for each day of the seven weeks between these two festivals. I hope you'll consider picking up a copy of mine.


6a00d8341c019953ef01b7c7debf6a970bThe 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

(If you'd like to explore ordering copies in bulk for your synagogue or Omer group, let me know.)


VancouverWe're on the road again! The next stop on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour is the one for which we'll be traveling the furthest: Vancouver, British Columbia.

Our weekend in Vancouver will be hosted by Or Shalom, Canada's Jewish Renewal community of longest standing. As their history page on their website notes, they began in 1982 as a havurah, a group of friends meeting in people's homes. Or Shalom's first rabbinic leadership came from Rabbi Daniel and Hanna Tiferet Siegel, with whom I studied (halakha and spiritual direction, respectively) in rabbinic school.

More recently the congregation was led by Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, another dear rabbinic school teacher and friend. Today it is led by Rabbi Hannah Dresner, yet another dear friend from rabbinic school! I am delighted that all of these luminaries will be joining us for the weekend. This will be Reb Hanna's second stop on our Listening Tour, as she was with us in Boston last fall when we enjoyed beautiful morning davenen and our first open mike session at B'nai Or in Boston

As has become our custom, the Vancouver weekend will be chock-full of a variety of different kinds of encounters. We'll have opportunities to daven with the Or Shalom community (and we'll participate in leading the davenen, too.) We'll hold open mike sessions, offering members of the community the opportunity to share their stories, remembrances, frustrations, hopes, fears, and dreams. We'll meet with congregational leadership and with young people. We'll talk about big-picture questions of the ecosystem of innovation, and smaller-picture questions of what Or Shalom and Jewish Renewal in British Columbia need from ALEPH and what ALEPH needs from Or Shalom and from Jewish Renewal in BC in return. 

I imagine that some of our conversations in Vancouver will be parallel to the conversations we had in Montréal about the unique valances of Jewish Renewal in Canada. I imagine that some of our conversations will be unique to this place and this constellation of participants. And I imagine that some of our conversations will echo conversations we've had in other cities -- and also with other communities via videoconference when our lives, finances, and "day jobs" haven't permitted us to visit in person. (If you are in a place which is not on our itinerary, and would like to speak with us about your hopes and dreams for the future of ALEPH and Jewish Renewal, email [email protected] and we'll do our best to set up a videoconference!)

I know that our time in Vancouver will be too brief to adequately have all of the conversations we want and need to have. (And don't even ask me whether we're going to do any sightseeing. We're flying out today, and back via a redeye on Sunday night; this is the very definition of "short and sweet.") Our mantra has become "to be continued," because every conversation is inevitably only part of the story, and there is always more that we can learn. But even though it won't be "enough" time, I know it's going to be delightful. We can't wait to daven, listen, and learn at Or Shalom this weekend. To our hevre (friends) in Vancouver, we look forward to seeing you soon! And to everyone else, stay tuned; I'll aim to report back next week with notes from the road.

Haggadah for Pesach... as a slideshow

Earlier this year, ALEPH released a new digital haggadah for Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees. As a manifestation of our commitment to caring for our planet, we released it as a slideshow, designed to be projected on a screen rather than printed and stapled or bound. After that came out, a few people reached out to ask me whether I would make my haggadah for Pesach available the same way. 


it can be streamed from there, or downloaded (30 MB PDF file / 174 slides.) 
Alternatively, here's the haggadah as a slideshow on google drive

The text is the same as in the most recent version of the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach. Some of the images are the same; others are new, because a file designed to be projected on a screen can feature different kinds of images than a file designed to be copied and staple-bound.

Alternatively, pf course, if you want to print and bind a copy (formatted for vertical 8.5 x 11" pages, not for slide projection), you can find the latest edition of the interior text and the cover on the VR Haggadah page of my website.


Teaching at the ALEPH Kallah


I've just registered for this summer's ALEPH Kallah in Fort Collins, Colorado! 

Kallah is ALEPH's (usually) biennial week-long gathering. (Last year we held the Getting It... Together retreat instead, so it has now been three years since the last Kallah.) Reading about Jewish Renewal can be interesting and even compelling, but there's nothing like experiencing it for yourself. Kallah is an experiential deep dive into Jewish Renewal. It's an opportunity to spend a week in Jewish Renewal community, sharing learning, meals, heartfelt and innovative davenen (prayer), art and music, spiritual experience, and more.

The class and workshop guide is now online: Kallah 2016 Class and Workshop Guide. ("Class" means a four-day class -- every morning, or every afternoon; "workshop" means a one-day workshop. So you can sign up for a four-day morning class and a four-day afternoon class, or one four-day class plus four one-day workshops, or eight one-day workshops if you truly want the smorgasbord experience.) I highly recommend clicking on the interactive pdf file and reading through the whole catalogue. I'm excited about what I've signed up for, though I also wish I could clone myself so I could experience more!

I'm teaching at the Kallah this year -- or at least, I will be if enough people sign up for my class. For those who are interested, here's the description of what I'll be offering:


Midrash are interpretive stories (the name comes from the Hebrew לדרוש, to interpret). Midrash speak in a multiplicity of voices as they open new facets of Torah... and diving deep into Torah is one of the most perennial “Joys of Jewishing!” In this class we’ll begin by exploring classical midrash to examine how they work, then we’ll delve into contemporary midrash (in a variety of forms: poetry, music, film), then learn the midrashic process from the inside out as we write our own midrashic texts, embroidering our voices onto the ongoing tapestry of interpretation.

If writing your own midrash sounds like fun, I hope you'll join me. Enrollment in my class is limited, so sign up now!

I've also signed my son up for the Kids' Kallah -- a fabulous daycamp offered in conjunction with the Adventure Rabbi. I am so excited at the prospect of introducing him to my Jewish Renewal community, and introducing them to him in return. (I have fond memories of the Kallah seven years ago which I attended whie pregnant; I imagined, then, what it might be like to someday bring my kid to Kallah. And now I finally get to do so!)

Early-bird pricing is still in effect; if you register before April 14, you get 5% off. Read all about it and register now!


I've posted a fair amount over the years about different experiences with the ALEPH Kallah; if you're so inclined, you can read those old posts via my ALEPH Kallah tag.

Collaboration with God: on Torah and bread

If you pay attention to the emails you receive from the synagogue office, you may have noticed that this month some of us are engaging in an experiment with the mitzvah of blessing our food. We're making an extra effort, during this lunar month of Adar 2, to remember to say a blessing over the foods we eat. At the end of the month, we'll take stock of how the experiment felt. We'll examine whether, and how, practicing this mitzvah of expressing gratitude for our food may have helped us to flourish as human beings.

One of the core blessings over food is the blessing we'll recite over our challah when this morning's service is complete: the hamotzi.


At first blush it appears to be pretty similar to all of the other food blessings, right? We bless God Who creates the fruit of the vine, the fruit of the tree, the fruit of the earth. The hamotzi is just like those. Isn't it? Well -- not quite. We say borei pri hagafen over wine or grape juice or grapes. We say borei pri ha-etz over apple juice or over apples. But the hamotzi doesn't thank God for the grain of the field. The hamotzi blesses God Who brings forth bread from the earth.

Bread does not grow on wheat stalks. Bread requires human effort. God causes the grain to grow, but in order for there to be bread someone has to harvest the grain, mill the grain into flour, mix it with water and a leavening agent, shape it, proof it, and bake it. Without God, we wouldn't have the grain -- but without human beings, the grain couldn't become bread. God may indeed bring forth bread from the earth, as the poetic language of our blessing teaches, but the means through which God does that work is human hands.

Human hands are needed to turn wheat into bread... just as human hearts and minds are needed for the transformation of Torah into its most meaningful form. Sixteenth-century Rabbi Judah Loew, known as the Maharal of Prague, wrote, "Consider all of God's creations, and you will see that they are all in need of some finishing act. Wheat must be processed in order to be fit for human consumption; it was not created by God in finished form... [and just so], Sages finish and complete the Torah."

"The Torah of Adonai is perfect, restoring the soul," says the psalmist. But if the Torah is perfect, how can it need to be completed? Maybe the problem lies in what we think perfection means. Look out our beautiful sanctuary windows at the sky. Would you say that the sky right now is perfect? I would. Or at least, I aspire to be someone who can always see perfection in the sky. It's perfect whether it's blue or grey, clear or cloudy. It's perfect, and when it changes into something new, it will be perfect then too. Perfect doesn't have to mean unchanging. Perfection can lie in the very continuity of change.

And perfect doesn't have to mean finished. Maybe what makes Torah most perfect is precisely that it's not finished... until we read it and add our voices to the tapestry of interpretation. Maybe Torah in a vacuum isn't perfect. Maybe Torah becomes perfect precisely when we commit ourselves to engaging with it, to spinning its fibers into beautiful tapestries, to grinding and mixing and baking its grain into nourishing bread. Torah is the raw material given to us by God, the grain of the field awaiting our contributions of effort and heart. Our task is to engage with those materials and make them into something new.

This week we enter into the book of Vayikra, "And God Called" -- known in English as Leviticus. This section of Torah is filled with the details of the ancient sacrificial system. It details the offerings our ancestors made before God: offerings in search of atonement or forgiveness, offerings of gratitude, wholeness offerings, elevation offerings. It describes the offering-up of bulls and goats, sheep and pigeons, elaborate breads and dishes of oil and flour. For many moderns, these are the most challenging portions in Torah from which to wrest meaning. Who among us can imagine communicating with God through the ritual slaughter of cattle and pigeons, or the burning of incense and fine meal?

The word for the service the priests offered in the temple is avodah, from a root meaning "to serve."(The same idea is embedded in our English word for what we've come here for this morning: "services.") Today we seek to engage in avodah she-ba-lev, the "service of the heart" a.k.a. prayer. The sacrificial system worked for us two thousand years ago... and then when our circumstances changed, we found a new way to understand the meaning of avodah. Who knows how we'll connect with God in another two thousand years? The only thing I hope I can say with certainty is that we will still be wrestling with the question. We will still be figuring out how to transform the raw stuff of Torah into bread that gives us the spiritual nourishment we need. 

What happens if we approach these descriptions of ancient sacrifice in the spirit of collaborative inquiry, bringing to bear on this Torah the leavening of our curiosity and the heat of our impassioned hearts?


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

If I forget


How did I convince myself
that distance from you
didn't hurt?

That I didn't need
your song in my ear, melody
expanding my heart?

Worse: I told myself lies.
That my absence didn't pain you,
that I had nothing to give.

If I forget you, beloved --
let my fingers lose their grasp,
my throat unlearn how to sing.

Disconnecting from you
would mean shutting off
one of my senses, voluntarily

giving up breathing,
relinquishing a vitamin I need
in order to thrive.



This is another poem in my Texts to the Holy series.

That my absence didn't pain you.  There is a teaching (found in many places, including Chabad Hasidism) which holds that God created the world (e.g. us) in order to be in relationship -- that God was lonely and yearned (and still yearns) for connection with us.  If I forget you. See psalm 137: "If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth." 

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.

In three weeks: a Shabbaton in Las Vegas

VegasOver the weekend of April 8-9 -- three weeks from this coming weekend -- I'll be the scholar-in-residence for a Shabbaton (a Shabbat retreat) hosted by Congregation P'nei Tikvah in Las Vegas, Nevada. 

The weekend will feature a Friday night dinner as our kabbalat Shabbat experience; a Shabbat morning Torah study and brunch; and a Saturday evening poolside havdalah and dessert gathering -- complete with poetry reading!

I'm looking forward to meeting members of the P'nei Tikvah community, and to spending time with my host there, Rabbi Yocheved Mintz, who I have known for many years through OHALAH, the association of Jewish Renewal clergy.

This isn't officially part of the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour, but on Shabbat afternoon there will be some conversations about Jewish Renewal's past, present, and future even so.

If you are in or near Las Vegas, I hope you'll consider joining us for the Shabbaton! The organizers are asking people to sign up (and pay) by April 1, so -- please let them know if you're planning to join us.

(From Las Vegas I will be moving on to the California stops on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour, so if you're in southern or northern California, stay tuned for more information there.)

A Jewish Renewal Shabbaton in Montréal

25781973295_27746cd55c_zEvery stop on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour is different -- because every community we visit is unique. Every community has its own dynamics, its own history, its own needs and yearnings. And, of course, every stop on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour is similar -- because there is always common ground among and between the places we go, because we bring the same questions with us everywhere we go, and because as different as we all are, we're all part of the same greater whole. 

This past weekend I was blessed to travel, with Rabbi David Markus  and Rabbi Evan Krame and ALEPH's executive director Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin, for a Listening Tour Shabbaton in Montréal. Our gathering was co-sponsored by by B'nai Or Montreal Community Shul, Mile End Chavurah, and our colleagues at ALEPH Canada. Many of the participants came from the broad Montréal Jewish community. Others came from as far afield as Newfoundland, Ottawa, and Toronto. 

Our weekend began with Shabbat dinner, graciously hosted by R' Sherril Gilbert, director of ALEPH Canada. We sat around the table with friends and family and members of the organizing committee. We blessed candles and wine and bread. We dined, and talked about Jewish Renewal, and after dinner we lingered at the table and sang songs of Shabbat, passing the guitar around the table, sharing favorite melodies and harmonies. This is one of my favorite ways to end any week. What a joy!

On Shabbat morning, we met at the Jewish Community Centre for davenen. This was a morning service with a large number of moving parts: a collaboration between clergy and lay leaders, between folks from B'nai Or and from Mile End and from Dorshei Emet (the local Reconstructionist shul), between locals and we who were visiting from afar.


I was honored with the privilege of leading shacharit, the part of the service containing the shema. Rabbi David and Rabbi Shalom Shachter collaborated on the Torah service (and I got to hear Rabbi David chant his bar mitzvah Torah portion, which was a delight). Rabbi Evan gave a stunning d'var Torah about Judaism "on the move," in which he made the case that Jewish Renewal is quintessentially a recognition of the fact that Judaism has always been evolving. I was particularly delighted when he connected the עשן, the smoke rising from our offerings of old, with an acronym for עולם, שנה, נפש / space, time, and soul. 

After a lovely potluck lunch (during which I had the opportunity to meet soferet Jen Taylor Friedman, of whose work I have been a fan for many years) we moved into an open mike conversation. Rabbi David offered some framing remarks, noting that exactly 40 years ago this month Reb Zalman z"l came to Montréal for a Jewish Renewal Shabbaton! (Forty, of course, is a number with great spiritual significance in Judaism -- so this confluence felt especially sweet.) And then we entered into our spiritual practice of reflective listening.

Everywhere we go, it's our intention to take in what people have to offer -- hopes and fears, kvetches and joys, the one thing you never want us to change, the one thing you absolutely hope we will change, etc -- without reactivity, and without giving in to the temptation to offer our own response. The purpose of the listening tour isn't for y'all to hear from us: it's for us to hear from you. We heard some really valuable things about what members of this particular Jewish community value most about Jewish Renewal, about the unique challenges of life as a triple minority (Anglophone, Jewish, and Jewish Renewal), and about this community's hopes, dreams, and needs.


After the open mike, we settled in for a focus group conversation with Canadian Jewish community leaders. This too has become part of our practice everywhere we go. During the focus group we aim to shift to a meta-conversation about systemic questions, about how local or regional Jewish Renewal interfaces with the bigger picture of the renewal of Judaism, about networks and models of governance, and about the ecosystem of Jewish innovation and how we think all of these pieces do, or should, fit together.

On Sunday morning there was a more intimate conversation among leaders of ALEPH and ALEPH Canada. We talked about the internationalization of ALEPH, about the both common and uncommon challenges of the next generation finding (and, more importantly, helping to make) spiritual revitalization for itself, about the challenges of serving the scattered people of Canada. I was especially interested in our conversation about the dispersed who may feel disconnected from community -- whether in rural areas not unlike the one where I live, or in urban areas -- and who want and need an ALEPH that (re) connects them. (There was also a radio interview with Leslie Lutsky of Radio Centre Ville. Stay tuned, I'll post a link when that interview goes live.)

After a final meal in Montréal we regretfully bid adieu to the city -- and to Canada, though to the nation itself we were able to say à bientôt, since we'll be heading back across the border in a couple of weeks for our Listening Tour stop in Vancouver.

Many people have asked us how we're able to manage these intense Listening Tour weekends on top of our other obligations -- Rabbi David's congregation, my congregation, his fulltime job as a judicial official, my fulltime job as mother to a six year old. The answer is that while it's true that these weekends are exhausting, they are also incredibly renewing. It is a joy and a privilege to get to visit different Jewish Renewal communities: to see what's similar and what's different about how we daven, what's similar and what's different about our origin stories and our hopes for the future, what's common and what's unique about where we hope ALEPH and Jewish Renewal will take us in years to come.


Next on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour: Vancouver over the weekend of March 26! If you're in or near Vancouver, join us at Or Shalom.



The instant you depart
I'm counting the days.

When I'm wholly with you
everything is sweeter.

A simple swallow of wine
reveals new flavors.

My soul is doubled
like manna in the desert.

My laugh lines deepen.
I am radiant as a bride.

If only I could stop time
and stay in your embrace.


Counting the days. In Hebrew, days of the week are named by their distance from Shabbat. (So Sunday is "First Day," and Monday is "Second Day," and so on, until Friday is "Sixth Day" -- the last day before Shabbat.) My soul is doubled. On Shabbat, says the tradition, we receive a neshama yeteirah, an additional soulLike manna in the desert. We read in Torah that when the children of Israel were sustained by manna during their forty years' wandering, they collected twice as much manna on Fridays -- a double portion for Shabbat. (This is why today many follow the custom of having two challot on the Shabbat table.) I am radiant as a bride. Jewish mystics compared the Sabbath to a bride.

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.

Purim: a holiday of hiding and revealing

Because this year is a leap year on the Jewish calendar, we've had an extra month between Tu BiShvat and Purim... but Purim will be here soon, not long after the vernal equinox which marks the official first day of spring.

I used to think Purim was just a kids' holiday, an opportunity to dress up and make noise in shul. But even though I have a kindergartener who loves the schtick and silliness of Purim, I've come to savor Purim for the gifts it offers me as an adult. Each year, Purim teaches me again how to find divine presence in places and times which I might otherwise have mistakenly imagined to be devoid of God.

Here's a bit of wordplay which reflects some of what I'm talking about. Purim features a megillah (scroll) in which God is never explicitly megaleh (revealed). God's explicit presence is nistar (hidden) in this book -- as Esther (can you hear the connection between "Esther" and "nistar"?) hides her Jewishness when she enters the royal palace.

But Esther reveals her Jewishness when her people need her, and God's presence is woven throughout the story in the twists and turns of providence. Purim is a holiday of hiding and revealing. At Purim, God hides in plain sight.

I love the idea that God can hide in plain sight. Because if God can be hidden, than any place where (or time when) I feel as though God's presence is missing, it's possible I might be wrong about that. Our tradition contains this wisdom in a variety of places: not only implicitly in the Purim story, but explicitly in the Tikkunei Zohar, which teaches that there is no place devoid of the divine presence.

Here's what that means to me. No matter where we are, no matter what we're doing, God is with us. No matter what we are feeling -- even if what we are feeling is frustration, or loneliness, or grief -- God is with us. Even at times when life feels hopeless and we feel existentially alone, God is with us. Even when God's presence is neither visible nor palpable, God is with us.

I don't know what the word "God" means to you. I know that for some of us, that word is freighted, or opaque, or alienating. Fortunately our tradition offers us plenty of other words to try on. One of my favorites right now is the Hebrew word Havayah. It's a reshuffling of the letters yud-heh-vav-heh, the four-letter Name of God which is found in Torah and which is often understood as a permutation of the verb "to be." But Havayah can also be understood to mean "The Accompanier," or "The One Who Accompanies."

When I use the name Havayah, I'm reminding myself that I never need to feel alone. I'm reminding myself, as the Purim story reminds me, that even when God seems hidden, that doesn't mean there is no source of holiness in the world. Maybe what I'm experiencing is just a divine game of hide-and-seek. Maybe God hides in order that we might do the work of seeking. Maybe the seeking itself is what I really need to find... and I'm never truly doing it alone, because the One Who Accompanies is always with me.

These are intense theological musings to have been sparked by a scroll which is, on the surface, a bawdy soap opera about a long-ago Persian court! For me, that's precisely the point. Purim teaches me to seek (and find) depth, or meaning, or God, even in the unlikeliest of places. May you find wondrous things in unlikely places, this spring and always.


This originally appeared in the Berkshire Jewish Voice, in their Feb. 14 to April 2 issue.


On spiritual thirst


My latest post just went up at The Wisdom Daily. Here's a taste:

Sometimes in difficult circumstances, the safest thing to do is to shut down awareness of one’s emotional or spiritual thirst.

But like any other coping mechanism, this one can outlive its usefulness. Human beings can grow accustomed to almost anything. There is risk in allowing the practice of ignoring one’s thirst to become habitual. After a while, one might not even notice anymore that the thirst was ever there. And our emotional and spiritual thirsts are important. They come to tell us something about who we most deeply are.

Read the whole thing: An alternative to the life you lead.



God is the doorman,
the one you don't notice

holding the heavy panel
so you can go through.

God is the hinge
that swings the door,

the joint and socket
that make opening possible.

God is the door
through which you walk

from one chapter
to the next,

adorned with words
that remind you

who you are becoming,
who you really are.


This week's Torah portion is Pekudei, which contains -- among other things -- descriptions of the making of the mishkan, the portable tabernacle which was intended as a place where God's presence could dwell. One of the parsha's recurring words is adanim, which is usually translated as sockets or hinges... but which comes from the same root as Adonai, one of our tradition's core names for God. That's what sparked this poem. 

(For some beautiful wisdom on adanim and Adonai, don't miss this recent post from Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan: To infinity and beyond.) 

New Paradigm Spiritual Community Initiative

25446560022_ec63efc0eb_zI'm at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center today for the inaugural gathering of participants in a new program called the New Paradigm Spiritual Community Initiative.

This is an invitation-only gathering for about fifty people working in a variety of different arenas, all of which could be described as "spiritual communities" in one way or another. Some of us serve congregations; others serve in other capacities. (And some, like me, do both. I'm there both as a pulpit rabbi and as co-chair of ALEPH.)

The NPSCI is intended to be a five-year project, and this initial "consultation" will help to set its direction. 

Yesterday we began with some getting-to-know-each-other work. Each person took one minute to introduce ourselves to the room and say something about who we are, what we do, why we're here, what we're hoping for, etc. (And wow, this is quite a group!)

Then last night Rabbi Sid Schwarz (author of Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Community) offered some framing remarks. Here are a few glimpses of what he said:

NPSCI aspires to support the development of spiritual communities that: a) are rooted in the wisdom and practice of Judaism, b) help people realize their full human potential; and c) inspire people to work for a more just and peaceful world...

When we are able to give people a sense of their purpose in the world, it is an experience of kedusha, holiness. Religions, at their best aspire to do both tzedek (justice) and kedusha (holiness), and often they fall short. They lose focus and perspective both on the means and the ends. But one of the things we in this room have in common is, we believe that Judaism has some chochmah, some wisdom, that can help create vibrant spiritual communities...

He talked about the need for innovation and R&D in Jewish life (a subject near and dear to our hearts in ALEPH!), the need to support and train those working within existing institutions on transformation from within, and the need to help people see that the paradigms in which we live are changing and that we need to shift our institutions to meet those changing paradigms. He asked:

Can we identify common elements that constitute a new paradigm for spiritual communities in America, and if so, what are the elements? What are the conditions for success? What best supports adaptation and innovation?

The question "what are the preconditions for spiritual innovation" is one of the core questions we're bringing to the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour. Any time our core questions appear in other contexts, I feel affirmed in the fact that we're asking the right questions -- and glad to be able to wrestle with these big questions in the company of others for whom they are also meaningful. Another place of overlap between R' Sid's remarks and our conversations at ALEPH was this question he asked:

What would it be like if it were presumed that a Jewish spiritual community is one which both does the healing work people need in order to become whole, and one which raises people's sights about how to contribute to healing our broken world?

Today we're exploring different themes (wisdom, justice, covenental community, sacred purpose, arts), hearing from researchers from Harvard Divinity School who are working in this arena, and breaking into affinity groups (I'll be connecting with creative and innovative pulpit rabbis.)

The NPSCI is sponsored by Clal and spearheaded by Rabbi Sid Schwarz. Its other organizational co-sponsors are HazonBend the Arc, Mechon Hadar, and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.  I'm not sure yet what exactly I'll be taking away from this gathering, but I can already tell that these are going to be thoughtful, interesting, meaningful conversations about the future of spiritual community. I'm glad to be here. 



The space between

Commandment4-cherubimWhen you hear the word "cherub," what do you imagine?

I looked the word up in a dictionary, and found the following: "having the childlike innocence or plump prettiness of a cherub." Maybe you've seen Renaissance paintings adorned with little pudgy winged smiling babies. Is that what a cherub is?

Not in Jewish tradition, it's not. The first mention of cherubs -- in Hebrew, כרבים / kruvim -- comes in the book of Genesis. When Adam and Chava are barred from the Garden of Eden, kruvim with flaming swords are stationed at the edge of the garden to keep the first humans from returning. The second mention of kruvim comes in the book of Exodus, in the description of the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary where God's presence could dwell.

As we read this morning, the craftsman Betzalel made the ark out of acacia wood, and covered it with gold. Atop its cover he made two golden kruvim, with their wings outspread, facing each other. In an earlier passage, God indicated that once the mishkan was built, God would speak to Moses from between the kruvim atop the cover of the ark.

Later, when the Temple was built in Jerusalem, it too would have a pair of kruvim. But descriptions of those Temple kruvim differ. In one place, we read that they faced each other, like the ones above the ark. In another place, we read that they faced the Temple itself. One could decide, faced with these conflicting descriptions, that the Tanakh just didn't have a very good editor! But the sages of the Talmud had another perspective. When the children of Israel followed God's will, they said, the kruvim faced each other lovingly. When the children of Israel disobeyed, the kruvim turned their backs on each other.

Torah teaches that God spoke from within the empty space between the two kruvim. And Talmud teaches that the kruvim faced each other when we followed the mitzvot, and turned away from each other when we did not. What happens when we bring those two teachings together?

Continue reading "The space between" »

Halaila hazeh (on this night)

After pyjamas, tooth brushing, and reading a book (which lately means him reading Press Here to me), we turn off the lights. Beneath the glowing stars on the ceiling we say prayers and sing our bedtime songs. This always includes the one-line shema, sung to the melody my mother taught me (which I now know to be by Sulzer.) This week I've started singing the first two of the Four Questions at bedtime, too.

Last year I sang the first question to him every night for a month and by Pesach he was able to belt it out proudly. This year I suggested he could learn the first two, and at first he balked. "I don't know," he said. "What if I can't do it?" I assured him that if he isn't comfortable singing them by Pesach, he won't have to. Grudgingly he admitted that I could sing them to him, but insisted he wouldn't sing along.

That was a few days ago. Then, one night as I began singing "Mah nishtanah," he joined in. To my surprise, he sang both of the questions with me, giggling all the way. When we were done I told him I was proud of him. He said he'd sing the questions to himself until he fell asleep. Then we sang the angel song. These days he usually chooses Shir Yaakov's melody over Carlebach's, though I love them both.

Then he said "Wait, before 'Goodnight You Moonlight Ladies' can I pray for one thing?"

"Of course," I said, startled.

"Thank You God for all the things You put in the world that make us feel better when we're not so happy," he said earnestly, and my heart grew three sizes at his spontaneous offering of prayer and his comfort with speaking not just about God but to God.  "Amen," I said. "That's a beautiful prayer." (And I wondered what brought that on, though by then it was already well past official bedtime, so I didn't ask.)

Then I sang him our variation on James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James" (that's the aforementioned "moonlight ladies" lullaby, which we've been singing to him pretty much since the week he was born) and kissed him goodnight. Sure enough, when I walked by his room on my way upstairs, I heard him singing the Four Questions to himself. "Halaila hazeh, halaila hazeh..." On this night, on this night...

On this night, I am proud of my kid. On this night, I am humbled by my kid. On this night, I am so grateful for my kid.

The ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour is Canada-bound


This winter's stops on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour have been at conferences. In January we held one focus group for ALEPH ordination program students, followed by two open mike sessions at the OHALAH conference of Jewish Renewal clergy. In February we took advantage of spending a few days with our Rabbis Without Borders colleagues, and had some great conversations about ALEPH, Jewish Renewal, and the Jewish future while we were at Pearlstone. Now we're preparing for our two March stops, both of which will take us across the border to the north: we're Canada-bound!

Our Montreal Shabbaton on March 12 will be co-sponsored by B'nai Or Montreal Community Shul, Mile End Chavurah, and our colleagues at ALEPH Canada. (Here's the Facebook event page.) The plan calls for a morning / early afternoon program at the JCC/YM-YWHA, 5400 Westbury Avenue. We'll begin with a Shabbat morning service (in which Rabbi David and I will participate -- he's going to chant Torah, as Pekudei was his bar mitzvah portion!), a kiddush and vegetarian potluck lunch, and an open mike after lunch where we'll curate a conversation about hopes and dreams for the renewal of Judaism.

Our executive director Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin will be with us, as will Rabbi Evan Krame (a member of the ALEPH Board) and Rabbi Shalom Schachter (son of Reb Zalman z"l), both of whom will also participate in the morning's service. (And we're always grateful when Board and staff are able to join us in our spiritual practice of receptive listening -- whether in person as we travel around the continent as life permits, or in the many listening tour sessions we've held via zoom videoconferencing. Alas, we're not able to visit everyone in person, so we are grateful for long-distance ways of listening.)

That evening we'll reconvene at Le Dépanneur Café, 206 Rue Bernard West, for havdalah. Then there will be a community cabaret, which promises to be terrific, though R' David and I will be quietly slipping out after havdalah and before the cabaret. (We've evolved a custom of spending Listening Tour Saturday nights post-havdalah together processing what we've learned and heard -- and also recording as much as we can remember of what was said, since we don't take notes on Shabbat.) Sunday morning we'll hold some meetings and conversations before we out-of-town guests hit the road to head home again.

If you are in or near Montreal, or are able to get there to join us, please do. We'd love to hear your thoughts, hopes, and dreams about ALEPH and Jewish Renewal's past, present, and future. (And if you're in or near Vancouver, stay tuned -- we'll be bringing the Listening Tour to Or Shalom over the weekend of March 26.)