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On "micro-spirituality" at The Wisdom Daily

Logo-twd-headerMy latest essay for The Wisdom Daily is online. It's on what one might call "spirituality on the run" -- the challenge of maintaining spiritual practice or spiritual life at the frantic pace (and frequent multitasking) of ordinary life. Here's a taste:

The laundry, the bills, the phone calls to return — the logistics to organize, the committee meetings, the errands to run — these are things that appear to have no limit. Who has time for spiritual practice when life looks like this? Of course, it’s because life looks like this that we need spiritual practice most.

I love the deep dives I can take on vacation or retreat, when I have the profound luxury of being able to set “normal life” and its pressures aside. But these are rare, tiny islands in the sea of stressors and obligations. How can I maintain enough of a spiritual practice in the midst of life’s chaos to keep me stable, sane, on an even keel, even joyful?

One answer is to rejigger what I think “spiritual practice” means...

Read the whole thing: Using "Micro-Spirituality" to Center Our Daily Lives.

I trust you: I am not afraid


You watch over my changes.
I trust you: I am not afraid.
I find strength in your song.
I become more myself.

Together we draw water in joy
from the living well.
We draw forth the changes
with which you bless me.

I'm not alone: you are with me,
no matter what name I call you.
I'm the luckiest woman in the world
because I have you.

Even when grief rends my throat
I'm not alone: you are there, and
my changes are there
waiting for me.



This poem arises out of the opening prayer of havdalah, "הִנֵּה אֵל יְשׁוּעָתִי / Hineh el yeshuati." (You can hear all of the prayers of havdalah beautifully sung here at the Havdalah page at B'nai Jeshurun -- there are also good translations and transliterations there, if that's helpful to you.) This is not a translation by any stretch -- but those who know the traditional words will hopefully hear their resonances in these lines. 

Shavua tov -- may the coming week bring blessings to all.

Rabbi Jack Riemer on 70 faces

70FacesSmallA while back I received a note from Rabbi Jack Riemer, author of one of my favorite revisionings of Unetaneh Tokef, and co-author with Sylvan Kamens of We Remember Them, which I use at every funeral. He had written a new review of 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia Publishing, 2011), and his review was published in the South Florida Jewish Journal. 

It's always a gift to receive a review of a book some years after its publication -- and especially so when the author of the review is someone whose work I so respect. Thank you, Rabbi Riemer! And thank you also for giving me permission to reprint the review in full on this blog.


70 faces: Torah poems
by Rachel Barenblat,
Phoenicia Publishing,
Montreal, Canada, 2015, 81 pages

                              Reviewed by Jack Riemer

We have had women rabbis for more than a generation now. We have a generation of young people who have never known it any other way. But if we stand back, we can see at least three contributions that women rabbis have made to our spiritual lives.

One is that women rabbis have given a whole new emphasis to the spiritual side of healing. We knew that rabbis were supposed to visit the sick, but women rabbis have given us a whole new perspective into the spiritual dimension of healing.  A second contribution they have made is their emphasis on prayer as a matter of the inner life, which was always there, but which was and is often neglected. And a third contribution that women rabbis have made is the creation of poems that see God in a whole series of bold new images that we were not accustomed to seeing before.

Continue reading "Rabbi Jack Riemer on 70 faces" »

Joy amidst mourning

All week I've been thinking about what I might say here in shul this morning. Mere commentary on this week's Torah portion feels insufficient. How can I talk about the rituals of the nazir, one who makes promises to God -- or the ritual of the sotah, designed to banish a husband's jealousy -- or even the priestly blessing that we just read together -- when LGBTQ members of our community are grieving so deeply? And yet faced with the enormity of the tragedy at Pulse last weekend, my words fail me.

Into this moment of grief comes an expression of great joy. Just moments ago we welcomed a beautiful little girl into the covenant and into our community. What words of meaning can I offer to her two mothers now?

I can say: you belong here. In this community those of us who are straight aspire to be thoughtful and sensitive allies, so that those of us who are queer can feel safe expressing all of who we are.

I can say: tell us what you need. Tell us where we are falling down on the job of making this a safe and celebratory and welcoming home for you, and we will try to do better. I can say: your child will always have a home here, no matter how her gender expression manifests or who she loves.

And I can say: all of us here commit ourselves to building a world in which hate crimes are unimaginable. A world in which no one could feel hatred toward another human being because of that person's race or gender expression or sexual orientation or religion. Can you imagine what it would feel like to live in that world?

Can you imagine a world in which the tools of massacre no longer exist? In the words of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai: "Don't stop after beating the swords into plowshares, don't stop! Go on beating and make musical instruments out of them. Whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them back into plowshares first."

Our tradition has a name for this imagined world in which hatred has vanished like a wisp of smoke: moshiachtzeit, a world redeemed. I don't know whether we will ever get there. But I know that we can't stop trying.

And there is a very old Jewish teaching that each new baby contains all the promise of moshiachtzeit, all the promise of a world redeemed. Maybe this baby will help to bring about the healing of the world for which we so deeply yearn.

May we rise to the occasion of being her community. May we support her and her mothers. May we take action to lift them up and to keep them safe. And may we work toward a world redeemed in which all of our differences are celebrated and sanctified as reflections of the Holy One. 

And let us say, together: amen. 


These are the words I spoke from the bimah yesterday morning at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 

After Sinai

For three glorious days
I'm with you on the mountain.

Face to face with your radiance
I remember how to shine.

I am seen. I open in places
I didn't know had been closed.

And then it's over. Even
in a crowd I feel alone.

I miss your voice so much
my own throat closes.

What I wouldn't give to be
in your sweet presence again.



For three glorious days. Torah teaches that the revelation at Sinai took place after a three-day period of preparation (Exodus 19). Face to face. God spoke to Moshe face to face (Exodus 33). I remember how to shine. When Moshe came down from Sinai he was radiant (Exodus 34). 

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

Mourning the massacre in Orlando

I'm home from an extraordinary three day Shavuot retreat at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, about which I hope to write more soon. For now I am struggling, as are we all, to assimilate my fury and my grief at the horrific shooting at Pulse, a queer nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which took place on the first morning of Shavuot. 

ALEPH just put out a response to the shooting -- a short statement (which I will enclose below) and a beautiful new liturgical poem written by my co-chair:

ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, expresses horror, shock and grief for the victims of Sunday’s shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. We stand with all – LGBTQA or straight, those who identify with any faith or with none at all – whose hearts break for the victims, for their loved ones, for a community’s peace shattered, for hope and safety shaken, for rights and dignity trampled, and for political rhetoric arousing religious hatred in its wake. We fervently pray to heal the injured, and we re-dedicate our hearts and hands to building a world in which the twin scourges of violence and hatred end.

In grief and solidarity, we offer this liturgical poem by Rabbi David Evan Markus for use in vigils and prayer services. May the Source of Peace bring comfort to all who mourn, and inspire all to build an ever more just world, speedily and soon.

The poem is offered for public use -- if it speaks to you, please feel free to use it aloud and to share it widely: The Pulse of Revelation, by Rabbi David Evan Markus.

First fruits and flow

A d'var Torah written for the second day of Shavuot at Isabella Freedman, for after the bikkurim / first fruits parade. I wound up speaking extemporaneously, but what I said more or less followed this outline. 


When we enter into the land we are to bring the first fruits of our harvest to the place where God's presence dwells, teaches the Torah. After we affirm where we are, we recount how we got here. Our ancestors wandered into the land of Egypt, and in time were oppressed there. We cried out to God, and God heard our cries and brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and brought us to this very place, a land flowing with milk and honey.

When we enter into the land --

Today I don't think those words can mean only the land of Israel. They can't refer only to what happened then and there. That may be what they used to mean, but we learn in Pirkei Avot (as Rabbi David mentioned on Shabbat morning) that "every day a heavenly Voice issues forth from Mt. Horeb" -- the revelation of Torah is ongoing, and it's our obligation to find new ways to interpret so that the Voice continues to speak in ways that can be heard.

I like to think that "when we enter into the land" can mean the landscape of the human heart, the interior landscape in which we each find ourselves this year. The season is turning. What new doorway are you walking through as summer approaches?

Granted, I don't want to overlook the land on which we stand today, or to say that the pasuk is only about interior journeying. Whether you call this place Isabella Friedman, or Elat Chayyim, or Hazon, it is indeed a land of beauty and abundance. But most of us who experienced this morning's parade of first fruits did not grow or harvest in these fields, and did not tend to these flocks. This is a borrowed land of milk and honey, and while it is a perfect spot for a pilgrimage, we will all have to go home when Shavuot is over.

Of course, so did our Biblical ancestors. That's why these three great pilgrimage festivals are called regalim -- from regel, foot, because we traveled to get there, and then we traveled home again. We here today drove in cars or took trains or perhaps flew to get here, and "here" is northern Connecticut rather than Jerusalem, but in a deeper sense we are walking precisely in our ancestors' footsteps. At least as far as the pilgrimage part is concerned. 

The first fruits of our harvest --

What harvest did each of us bring here today? The farmers from Adamah may have the most obvious answer, but I think that they too are bringing intangible offerings, as are we all.

That can't just mean the radishes we've grown or the goats we've reared. Of course those are first fruits, and they are beautiful. But the teaching has to be deeper than that. What about the fruits of your intellectual harvest, the ideas and teachings you've taken in and made your own? For those who are ending a school year soon, whether as students or as teachers, what thoughts can you harvest to offer on the altar? What about emotional harvest, the wisdom not of your mind but of your heart?

Continue reading "First fruits and flow " »

Yearning and revelation

Torah comes in many forms. There's written Torah and oral Torah and the Torah of lived human experience.

Revelation comes in many forms, too. Maybe, like the poet Rainier Maria Rilke, you see a piece of art and realize what fades and what endures, and you come away certain that you must change your life. Maybe you're out for a jog when you realize that the pastime you've been enjoying, the one that makes you happy outside of your job, is actually the thing you feel called to be doing as your paying work. Maybe you hear a piece of music and it moves you, and then the melody reverberates in your heart, opening up depths of feeling you hadn't known you were missing.

Revelation isn't just the things we learn, or realize, or recognize. It's how we allow those things to change us.

The Sinai moment is our people's quintessential experience of revelation. Some say that God's own self was revealed to the people on that day. And midrash (Exodus Rabbah) teaches that God's voice divided itself into 70 human languages so that everyone might understand it. Everyone who was there, regardless of age or social station, heard God's voice in a way that they could understand. So can we.

The thing is, revelation doesn't just flow on Shavuot. On Shavuot perhaps the cosmos is aligned in a way that might make it easier for us to receive. Everything we do on that day is designed to open us more deeply to what's coming through. But the divine broadcast is ongoing even when it isn't Shavuot.

Continue reading "Yearning and revelation" »

Morning blessing


When I have the luxury
of unhurried minutes with you

hands wrapped around
my morning mug of coffee

(flowing with milk and honey
because you are with me)

the sky becomes clearer, my heart
lighter, the road before me

streaked with joy
sings me a new song.


Flowing with milk and honey. Torah describes the land of promise in these words.

[B]ecause you are with me. This echoes Psalm 23, verse 4, "For You are with me."

[S]ings me a new song. Psalm 96 instructs us to sing unto God a new song, but this poem imagines all of creation singing a new song to me -- or perhaps singing it together with me, because after deep connection, my heart cannot help but sing.

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

The spiritual call to empty one's cup

TeacupThe last Torah portion in the book of Leviticus, Bechukotai, begins with an if/then: "If you follow My engraved-commandments and faithfully observe My connective-commandments..."

If we allow God's commandments to be engraved upon our hearts, and if we guard the mitzvot and keep them close to us, then a lot of good things will come to pass, says Torah, including good rains and good harvests and peace in the land. But the promise that leapt out at me this year was "you will eat old grain long stored, and you will have to clear out the old to make room for the new."

What does it mean to eat old grain long stored? To me this evokes what we've set aside for the proverbial rainy day. Torah seems to be suggesting that if we keep the mitzvot, if we allow them to work on us and perhaps even change us, we will feel safe consuming the resources we set aside. Because an abundant flow of new blessings will be waiting to come our way, and we won't be able to receive those blessings until we make room for them.

Maybe some of you know the Buddhist parable of Nan-in and the teacup. Nan-in was a Buddhist monk, and someone came to him to learn the wisdom of Buddhism. Being a good host, he served tea to his visitor. He filled his visitor's cup and then kept pouring the tea, so that it overflowed. The visitor leapt up, angry, and demanded to know why Nan-in was making such a mess. "You are like this teacup," said Nan-in. "Your mind is already full of what you think you know. How can I pour in the wisdom you seek unless you first empty your cup?"

Sometimes spiritual life demands that we empty our granaries, that we empty our cup: that we let go of our certainties and allow new possibilities to change us.

Notice this, though: Torah isn't saying that if we have trust in the abundance that is coming, then we'll be able to do the mitzvot. Doing the mitzvot comes first. Act first, and trust will follow. And even if it doesn't, act as though it does. Do the mitzvot, and then take the leap of faith of trusting that abundance is coming. The first thing we're asked to do is to practice mitzvot. The second is to trust that the universe will repay us with shefa, with the boundless flow of blessing.

This isn't investment advice -- Torah isn't telling us to burn our savings because if we follow the mitzvot we'll be rewarded with riches. This is spiritual counsel. If we take on what our tradition calls ol malchut shamayim, "the yoke of the kingdom of heaven" -- if we accept the mitzvot upon ourselves -- then God will ask us to take a leap of faith and to trust that good things are coming.

The word malchut, often translated as kingdom or sovereignty, has another meaning. To our mystics, malchut connotes Shechinah, the immanent indwelling Presence of God. Those of us who have been counting the Omer may have noticed that the seventh day of each week of the Omer is considered a day of malchut, a day of Shechinah's presence. When we take on the mitzvot, we're not just accepting the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. We're accepting the enfolding embrace of the Shechinah.

And when we know ourselves to be enfolded in God's loving presence -- when we know that we are loved by an unending love, when we can feel the connection of that loving presence wherever we go and whatever we do -- then we can take the leap of faith that spiritual life demands. Then we can trust that there will be abundance in our lives and in our hearts.



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