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Ain't nothing like the real thing

Real-thingThis is a short passage from Jewish With Feelingco-written by Joel Segel and Reb Zalman z"l  -- I reviewed the book here back in 2005. We talked about this passage a couple of weeks ago on the final day of Joel's Big Sky Judaism: The Everyday Thought of Reb Zalman class at the ALEPH Kallah.

I love Reb Zalman's metaphor of apples and prayer. When I moved to rural New England, I discovered that a honeycrisp apple picked right off the tree is mind-blowingly glorious! And it bears almost no resemblance to a golden delicious apple that's spent who-knows-how-long in storage. (If you don't live in a place where great apples are grown, extrapolate to something local and seasonal where you are.)

We all know that a factory-farm-grown piece of fruit that's spent ages in a refrigerator box doesn't hold a candle to something fresh and organic and picked right off the tree in season, in context, in the place where its roots have drawn sustenance. And Reb Zalman z"l recognized that the same can be said of the difference between rote unthinking prayer, and "the real thing." 

The first thing that changed my life when I encountered living Jewish Renewal at the old Elat Chayyim on my very first retreat was Jewish Renewal prayer. (I wrote about that a little bit in a blog post in 2012 -- Ten years in Jewish Renewal.) That's where I first experienced contemplative chant-based prayer, where one takes pearls from the liturgy and sings them over and over, going deeper and deeper into the words and their meaning. That's where I first experienced ecstatic prayer, where one can get so swept up in the davenen and the melodies and harmonies that one enters another state of consciousness altogether. That's where I first discovered that I could talk not only about God but also to God. It's not hyperbole to say that my life has never been the same. 

Reb Zalman used to talk about "freeze-dried" prayer. Our siddurim (prayerbooks) are like the dehydrated or freeze-dried food we send into space with our astronauts, but in order to be nourished, we need to add the "hot water" of heart and soul. We need to enter into the words on the page, to be willing to open our hearts, to take the emotional risk of speaking not about the Divine but to the Divine. And the difference between "wrapped and refrigerated" prayer and deep devotional davenen is as dramatic as the difference between a pasty pale wintertime grocery store tomato and a ripe, flavorful, spectacularly delicious heirloom tomato plucked from the vine and eaten before it's even cooled off from the August sunshine in which it was sustained. 

When I write about prayer, I tend to write most often about joyful prayer -- like the Kabbalat Shabbat service with Nava Tehila at the ALEPH Kallah two weeks ago. But sometimes deep davenen comes from a place of grief and fury, and that too can be sustaining to heart and spirit. What heart and spirit need is full expression. Meaningful prayer isn't just about being clappy-happy -- it's about being real, and bringing your real self, your whole self, to your davenen. It's about opening yourself up. It's about seeking the real thing, and seeking to be the real thing, instead of settling for the out-of-season peach that barely has any flavor.

Here's one more pearl from Reb Zalman:

Experiences of God are not that hard to come by: all that's required is a little yearning, a little searching, a welcoming of God within. Va-asu li mikdash v'shochanti b'tocham, says the book of Exodus (25:8): Only set aside a place, and I will come. 

May it be so. Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate!

Not by Might


I'm honored to have a poem in Not By Might: Channeling the Power of Faith to End Gun Violence, edited by Rabbi Menachem Creditor with a forward by Shannon Watts of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense

Shannon Watts writes:

"The emergence of Rabbis Against Gun Violence and this powerful collection of American faith voices reassures me that citizens of every variety are ready to stand together, to speak, preach, and act to demand an end to the ongoing American gun violence epidemic."

The anthology features work by Sarah Tuttle-Singer, Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin, Rabbi Michael Bernstein, Rabbi Matt Rosenberg, Lorraine Newman Mackler, Rabbi Michael Knopf, Rabbi Simcha Y. Weintraub, Rabbi Evan Schultz, Rabbi Hannah Dresner, Rabbi David Evan Markus, Alden Solovy, Rabbi Jesse Olitzky, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Hermmann, Diane O'Donoghue, Rachel Weinberg, Rob Eshman, Rabbi Ben Greenberg, Rabbi Richard Myles Litvak, Rabbi Ron Fish, Rabbi Noah Farkas, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, Margo Hughes-Robinson, Rabbi Marcus Rubenstein, Eileen Soffer, Rabbi David Lerner, Amy Ramaker, Rabbi Salomon Gruenwald, Marc Howard Landas, Rabbi Seth Goldstein, Rabbi Daniel B. Gropper, Rabbi Rick Sherwin, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, Francine M. Gordon, Rabbi Gary S. Creditor, Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, Rabbi Yael Ridberg, Rabbi Daniel Kirzane, Rabbi Menachem Creditor, Rabbi Annie Lewis, David Paskin, Rabbi Denise Eger, Rabbi Larry Bach, Rabbi Danielle Upbin, Barbara Schutz, Stacey Zisook Robinson, Lisa Rappoport, Liav Shapiro Gilboord, Nicole Roberts, Rabbi Sara O'Donnell Adler, Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman, Maxine Lyons, Rabbi Kim Blumenthal, Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevit, Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt and Rabbi Aaron Alexander, Rabbi Ben Herman, Rabbi Philip Weintraub, Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, and Joy Gaines-Friedler. (And me, of course.)

Here's a review of the collection on the URJ website. Copies are available on Amazon. Deep thanks to Rabbi Menachem Creditor for putting this volume together.


New for The Wisdom Daily: life in the imperfect tense


The folks at The Wisdom Daily have published my latest essay. It's about my sense that divorce happens in the imperfect tense. (The decision to end the marriage may now be in the past, but it's also always continuing in to the present.) And it's about how the hard emotional work of ending a marriage maps for me, this year, to where we're at on the Jewish calendar.  Here's a taste:

...This is hard work. And sometimes I am tempted to try to bypass it. Can’t I just focus on the positive, and turn my attention away from what hurts?

Not if I want to heal, I can’t. When a wound is infected, ignoring it or pretending it isn’t there won’t help. The only thing to do is grit one’s teeth and clean out the wound, and maybe suture it gently so that it can finish closing on its own. When the wound is emotional rather than physical, the same holds true.

No one likes to look at what hurts. But if we don’t face our own brokenness, we can’t sweep away the shards and prepare to rebuild.

That’s the lesson of this time of year on the Jewish calendar...

Read the whole thing: Exploring my imperfection during my divorce.

Capstone of my Kallah: Kabbalat Shabbat with Nava Tehila


The absolute highlight of my week: Kabbalat Shabbat with Nava Tehila.

My week at Kallah had a lot of highlights. Teaching was one of them -- getting to spend a week teaching some of my favorite classical midrashim (interpretive stories) and creating a safe container within which students could write and share their own midrash. Co-leading shacharit on Thursday morning was another -- Rabbi David and Rabbi Evan and I co-led a service around the firepit, beginning with the cowboy modah ani, which always feels extra-appropriate in Colorado!

But the capstone of my week, the absolutely most special part for me, was Friday night davenen. Friday night is supposed to be both soulful and celebratory as we welcome the Shabbat bride, the Shekhinah, the Queen, into our midst. I'd been looking forward to this Kabbalat Shabbat for months, hoping that it would give me some good "juice" to take home with me. And oh, holy wow: Kabbalat Shabbat at this year's ALEPH Kallah was everything I needed it to be and then some.


My son with an angel, on the pre-Shabbat walk.

The evening began with everyone in splendid whites, as is our custom here (following the custom of the kabbalists of Tzfat.) There was live music (Shabbat love songs) outside my dorm, and people in angel wings blessing us and pointing the way across campus to where we would daven. The kids got special white sparkly Shabbat facepaint. There is nothing like walking across a neighborhood (even an ad hoc one) calling "good Shabbes" to others who are beaming and celebrating too.

On Shabbat morning there were six different davenen options (I went to the kids' / family service, expertly led by Ellen Allard and the Kirtan Rabbi.) But on Friday night, we who were planning the Kallah chose to have only one service, and it featured the leaders of Nava Tehila, the Jewish Renewal community of Jerusalem. Friday night was the one time during the week when we wanted everyone to be together, for Kabbalat Shabbat and for the festive banquet-style meal that followed our prayer.

Reb Ruth, Yoel, and Dafna led davenen, as is their custom now, in the round. In the middle was an empty space (like the Holy of Holies in the Temple of old), circled by a ring of davenen leaders and musicians, circled by concentric rings of us. Because we were facing each other (rather than facing a bimah or stage), because in the middle was open space (sometimes filled with dancing daveners), I felt as though the music and the prayer were naturally arising among and between us. 

The last time Nava Tehila led davenen at Kallah was 2009, and I was there, and it was amazing. This time was even more so.


The leaders of Nava Tehila:
Dafna Rosenberg, Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan, Yoel Sykes. 

With words, with customs, with kavanot (intentions), they brought the holy city of Yerushalayim into our midst and brought us into its glow. And their holy levi'im (the musicians accompanying them) included several of my nearest and dearest, which made it extra-special -- beloved faces, beloved voices, co-creating this extraordinary Shabbat for us and with us. As we davened and danced it felt like we were more than the sum of our parts. All of our voices, all of our hearts, raising sparks with joyous song.

I was surrounded by a community of some 500 ardent participants. I let it sweep me up: I danced in the aisle, I sang my heart out, I felt goosebumps in the silence after each psalm (as Reb Ruth once said, "If you've ever wondered what glory is...? It's this feeling in the room right now.") The six psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat became a pilgrimage, building awareness of transcendence, and then with "Lecha Dodi" we brought in immanence, unifying the Holy One of Blessing with the Shabbat Queen. 


Shabbat tealights, before lighting. 

I listen to Nava Tehila all the time -- especially their latest album, Libi Er / Waking Heart, the title track of which inspired the first poem in what is now Texts to the Holy. When I sing along with their music in the car, I remember every time I've been blessed to daven with them: in Jerusalem in 2008, at the Kallah in 2009, in Jerusalem in 2014... Now when I sing with their cds, or when I daven and lead davenen using their melodies, I'll remember this extraordinary night at the Kallah.

Here's Nava Tehila's Kabbalat Shabbat Playlist on YouTube. These are the melodies they used at our Kabbalat Shabbat, which they sent out in advance so that as many people as possible would know the melodies and be able to fully participate in davenning along. I expect to listen to this playlist a lot on Friday nights to come, when I am home alone and need to connect myself back to the spiritual sustenance I found in that glorious Friday night davenen at the 2016 Kallah.


Jewish Renewal and the Jewish future on Judaism Unbound


A while back Rabbi David and I were interviewed for the Judaism Unbound podcast, wearing our ALEPH Alliance for Jewish Renewal co-chair kippot. Our episode is the first episode in a four-part series that will also feature The Kitchen (and its Hello Mazel initiative), OneTable, and (as always) podcast co-hosts Dan Libenson and Lex Rofes -- and it's now live and available for download and listening


At Or Shalom in Vancouver on the Listening Tour. 

We talked about the history of Jewish Renewal and its core tenets, about "inventing" one's own form of Judaism, about the tension between structure and flexibility in Judaism writ large, and what it might look like to give the next generations the "keys to the car" and let them shape the Judaism they most need. 

Here are a few teasers to whet your appetitite:

“What is the Judaism that you yearn for? What is the Judaism of the future that you want to see? And the follow-up question becomes ‘How can we help build that Judaism?’ ‘How can you help bring that about?’” -- Rachel

“There is no such thing as the Renewal prayer book. The Renewal prayer book defeats the point. You should be able to evolve a Renewal experience from any book or no book at all..."

"It’s not like you have to go to minyan three times a day or else you’re not a good Jew. What does it mean to evolve a Judaism where there are many [other] on-ramps? Well, some people are going to resonate with music. Some people are going to resonate with meditation. Or making a meal, or social justice. Whatever brings you to ‘wow,’ that’s the stuff that we work with." -- David

Judaism Unbound, a project of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future, describes itself as "a project that catalyzes and supports grassroots efforts by 'disaffected but hopeful' American Jews to re-imagine and re-design Jewish life in America for the 21st century." (Sounds right up ALEPH's alley, doesn't it?) Our conversation with Dan and Lex was terrific. I hope you enjoy: Jewish Renewal and the Jewish future on Judaism Unbound

The smith speaks

I had work for a while.
The women donated mirrors
and I made the basin for the place
where God's presence dwells.

Since then I've tended goats.
What else is there 
for a coppersmith to do
in this unsettled wilderness?

I missed the tasks of forging
but no one becomes free
without some sacrifice.
Still, others grumble.

They say Moshe dragged us here
to feed his ego. They bitch
if Moshe and God really cared
we would never have left Egypt.

In response God sent snakes.
Wailing spread across the camp
as limbs blackened and puffed up,
as puncture wounds putrefied.

The families of the bitten
begged Moshe to seek God's help.
As though they hadn't slandered him
to anyone who would listen.

As though their attributions
wouldn't wound him, wouldn't
bruise his human heart.
I don't know how he set that aside

but this morning he instructed me
to go to the men for their bracelets.
I crafted a curling snake
as copper-red as tongues of fire.

Moshe said "mount it on a miracle."
A flagpole was the best I could do.
When the snakebit looked upon it
their wounds disappeared.

How did the snake I myself made
channel healing from the One?
Remembering now, my hands shake.
I want to return to my goats.



8668_1317066235_3This poem arises out of this week's Torah portion, Chukat. The people rebel against Moshe and God, and in response God sends a plague of poisonous snakes. When the people ask Moshe to intercede, God tells Moshe to make a copper snake and that those who look upon it will be healed.

Reading the parsha this year, I find myself wondering about the anonymous smith who made the נְחַ֣שׁ נְחֹ֔שֶׁת / the copper snake. This year I'm also feeling a lot of empathy for Moshe, who both leads and serves a community that repeatedly speaks ill of him and of their journey. 

During the class I'm teaching on midrash (we're both reading and discussing classical midrash, and writing midrash of our own), this poem is what I've been working on during our writing time.

The opening stanza references a teaching from Rashi, that the Israelite women donated their copper mirrors in order for them to be hammered into the washbasin and laver for the mishkan, the place where God's presence dwelled within and among the people.

A teaching from Joel Segel on equalizers of heart and soul

Master-your-equalizer_On the first day of Big Sky Judaism: The Everyday Thought of Reb Zalman z"l, Joel Segel took us into an imagined conversation with Reb Zalman about rationalism:

"I hear where you're coming from. I understand the appeal of the intellectual. And: you're a musician, so you know what an equalizer is, yes? Imagine that at the bottom of the equalizer, instead of Hz and kHz are written labels that read intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual.

I'm hearing that your intellectual faders are up, and all the rest of them are down. So try an experiment. Pull up the faders in heart space. What happens in you when you pick up the heart fader? Maybe what happens is that you experience yourself feeling an internal voice chorusing 'Ribbono Shel Olam thank You thank You thank You.' Push down the intellectual fader and pull up the emotional one and see what arises in you." 

The four equalizers map, of course, to the Four Worlds about which we so often speak in Jewish Renewal: assiyah (action / physicality), yetzirah (emotions / heart), briyah (intellect / contemplation), and atzilut (essence / spirit.) Everything is always happening in all four of these realms at once, though many of us feel more comfortable in one of these worlds than the others.

At lunch after class I shared this image with a friend who knows something about recording music, and she pointed out that the name "equalizer" points the layperson in the wrong direction. The goal isn't to make all of the faders "equal." For one track one might want more treble; for another track, more bass. Just so, the internal equalizers about which Reb Joel was teaching us. Maybe when I'm hiking in the Colorado hills my physical fader is high, since I'm unusually aware of my body and my surroundings -- whereas when I'm davening, my emotional and spiritual faders might be at peak.

Different moments in the day, different days in the week, require different balances. The goal isn't to perfectly equalize our experience of the four worlds -- or at least I don't think it is. The goal is to cultivate awareness of which world(s) I'm living in, and to learn the practice of adjusting my own psycho-spiritual faders. Just as different instruments speak different languages but they're all needed in the orchestra, just so different parts of ourselves need to be allowed to speak as we inhabit the four worlds in different ways.

Four glimpses of the pre-Kallah Shabbat


Mincha in the mountains.


Unlike at last Kallah (when we were on a lake -- an easy natural mikvah), no formal mikvah experiences are scheduled for smicha week. But on Friday afternoon of my first week here, two friends and I decide to create our own. We make our way to the campus rec center, where there is a huge pool with a beach-like slope at one end, and a large and spacious hot tub, too. We opt first for the hot tub, and -- immersed in its foaming waters up to our necks -- we talk about what we need to release from our lives in general and from the week now ending in particular. And then we immerse. It's not a kosher mikvah, of course -- it's a swimming pool, with no source of living waters; for that matter, we're wearing swimsuits -- but on a spiritual level when I emerge from the waters after my final immersion I feel lighter. More radiant. More ready to welcome Shabbat.



As I make my way back to my dorm after the festive meal that followed Kabbalat Shabbat, I am drawn to the trio of guitarists sitting on one of the semicircles of big stones on the lawn outside the building. (So are a few dozen other people.) I settle happily on one of the big rocks that serves as a bench, and as they play and sing, the assembled group sings with them. They play (and we sing) the birkat hamazon (grace after meals), prayers, folk songs, new melodies, old melodies. In between singing harmony with my friends, I have conversations with current and prospective ALEPH students, with faculty, with other musmachim (alumni / ordinands). We sing and sing and sing. And sing some more. Between the singing and the Shabbat wine, by the time I stagger up to my room (well after midnight, which means it's well after my bedtime!) I am exhausted... but grateful.



On the campus where we're staying the grounds are pretty flat. But off to one side there are mountains, and I don't want to spend two weeks at the cusp of the Rockies and never actually see the mountains themselves! So on Shabbat afternoon two friends and I head to Horsetooth Mountain Park, and we walk up into the hills. It's a hot day, and we're at altitude; I huff and puff more than I would prefer. But the hills around us are extraordinarily beautiful. My spirits are lifted by the grasses and piñon pines and wildflowers, by the clouds scudding across the blue sky, by the sound of wind in the grasses. We sing bits of the Shabbat afternoon service to the special nusach (melodic system) used only at that time on that day. "Mincha" means offering or gift. In that moment, singing bits of the ashrei on a trail in the hills in the sunshine, everything feels like a gift.



After evening davenen we make our way outside for havdalah. We form a huge circle, arms around each other. Fragrant teabags are passed out for our b'samim, the spices we will bless to prevent ourselves from fainting as the second Shabbat soul departs. Havdalah candles are lit. We sing the words I love so very dearly: hineh El yeshuati, evtach v'lo efchad... (This is the God of my redemption; I trust, I am not afraid...) We sing the blessings sanctifying the One Who makes divisions between Shabbat and the week. When the candles are extinguished a few people sing to Elijah the prophet in Ladino, and then we sing Eliahu HaNavi and Miriam HaNeviah in Hebrew, and then people start dancing as the musicians keep on playing. La-yehudim haita ora -- a prayer for light and joy and honor for us in the week now beginning. We sing, and we dance, and the week begins. 


Related: Six jewels from Clergy Camp.

Ready for the 2016 ALEPH Kallah!


The 2016 ALEPH Kallah begins later today, and I can't wait.

This week-long wonderland of learning, davenen, community, and togetherness has been in the works for a long time. Behind the scenes at ALEPH we've been working hard on this for a solid year. I can't offer enough praise for Tamy Jacobs, our Kallah coordinator; or for Judith Dack, our Kallah Chair; or for the countless teachers, rabbis, artists, planners, and volunteers who have been working overtime to bring this week into being. 

And now it's finally here. I've been at Colorado State University in Fort Collins for a week already (enjoying Clergy Camp), and almost all of us who were here last week are staying for Kallah. We'll be joined by hundreds of others today; by tonight, there will be around 500 people gathered for our celebratory welcome and opening ceremony. (One of those people joining us today is my six year old, who will be attending the Kids' Kallah. I am especially excited about his arrival!)

I'm teaching a class this week, and also taking a class. With two other ALEPH Board members, my co-chair Rabbi David and my friend Rabbi Evan Krame, I'm co-leading Thursday morning davenen. Aside from those things, I don't know exactly what my week will hold. But I expect that the week will feature togetherness, and learning, and high-spirited davenen, and countless conversations, and a variety of wonders I can't yet name. 

For those who are traveling to Kallah today: travel safely -- can't wait to see you here! For those who aren't joining us, I'll do my best to post a few times over the course of the week to give you glimpses of what you're missing... and I hope you'll be able to join us in two years' time for the next ALEPH Kallah!

Six jewels from Clergy Camp


Thursday morning davenen. A rainbow of tallitot (prayer shawls); a rainbow of neshamot (souls).


On Monday morning, the Fourth of July, we daven in semicircles of chairs beneath the trees. It feels so good to be sitting beside some of my dearest beloveds and beaming at others across the semicircle.

And then when we get to the blessing for redemption (emet v'yatziv, for those who know the liturgy) ALEPH rabbinic student Jessica Shimberg starts singing "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of Hashem," and a ripple of laughter runs around the space. We sing the whole prayer to the melody of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, with gusto and multi-part harmony. Mi chamocha ba-eilim Adonai -- the words scan perfectly, and there is something wonderful about setting our song of redemption to this old American hymn. It feels glorious -- both the playful creativity of the melodic choice (the kind of thing Reb Zalman z"l used to love) and the heart with which everyone sings the words.

Davening with heart and creativity and with my loved ones always feels like coming home.



On the first morning of class with Rabbi Jeff Fox we study Talmud, Tosafot, Judith Plaskow, Tamar Ross, and Rambam, all of which inform our conversation about geirut (conversion) and the unfolding of Jewish tradition. I can feel synapses sparking to life that haven't been lit up in ages. The text study is enlivening, and the conversations that it engenders are even more so.

We talk about Ruth and Ezra as opposite Biblical paradigms for how to relate to conversion. We talk about how Rashi sees the Exodus to Sinai journey as parallel to, and as a kind of, conversion. We talk about Jewishness as spiritual practice and Jewishness as peoplehood and what happens when we try to separate those two. We talk about the implication of seeing the Sinai moment as the paradigmatic experience of Jewishness if that moment occurred only for the men.

I wish I could send a message back in time to my collegiate religion major self. Could I have imagined then that someday this would be my life: sitting around a table with wise colleagues who are at least as passionate about Judaism as I am, grappling with tradition, asking hard questions and taking joy in the wrestle?



Each of the three daily services are led by groups of students. I remember being a student and working with my friends to plan and co-lead services for smicha students' week -- trying to find the right balance between tradition and innovation, stretching our skills, sometimes falling on our faces, finding our wings as davenen leaders and learning to soar.

One morning the prayer leaders take lines from Lin-Manuel Miranda's sonnet and use them as a call-and-response prelude to the bar'chu, the call to prayer. When the whole room choruses "Love is love is love is love is love" I get goosebumps.



Around the room, Rev. Bill Kondrath has posted signs with drawings of different emotional states, labeled with single words: "scared," "joyful," "sad," "mad," "powerful," "peaceful." He invites us first to stand beneath the sign depicting the emotional state that felt most safe to us in childhood. Then to stand beneath the sign depicting the emotional state we felt least able to express in childhood. And then to stand beneath the sign depicting the emotion we habitually substitute for the one we didn't feel safe expressing.

In the conversation that ensues, one of my classmates mentions Reb Zalman's teachings about the need for rabbis to serve as geologists of the soul. This is maybe especially true for those of us who serve also as spiritual directors: it's our task to help those whom we serve to uncover the gems buried in the strata of their own hearts.

Some of what we find inside is joyful, and some of what we find can feel like land mines. But the only way to defuse the land mines is to find them and gently dismantle them, and the only way to uplift the gems is to unearth them and polish them and let them shine.



Thursday morning. We are once again davening outdoors, this time in a little courtyard. It's the second day of Rosh Chodesh (the new moon -- the beginning of the lunar month of Tamuz). We sing the blessing for Hallel in a lusty call-and-response. And then my friend Hazzan Dave Abramowitz, who goes sometimes by the nickname "Tall" (for reasons obvious to anyone who knows him), belts out chasdo, ki l'olam chasdo to the tune of "Day-O." I've sung Psalm 118 to this melody before, but with his big baritone voice leading us, the singing is extra-delicious. 

A little bit later in Hallel, when we sing Zeh hayom asah Adonai, "This is the day that God has made: let us rejoice and be glad in it!" I think: yes. Yes, it is. This very day is a day created for us to rejoice in it. Every day is a day created for us to rejoice in it. How fortunate I feel to be in a place, this week, where it is so easy to access that awareness.



Getting to study conversion all week with the rav who authored this teshuvah on the presence of a male beit din at the immersion of a female convert [pdf] is a mechaieh -- it's life-giving. The conversations are fantastic and thought-provoking. Over the course of the week we study Yevamot. We study rabbinic teshuvot (responsa). We learn the strange story of Warder Cresson. We study the stories of the converts of Hillel and Shammai, and the story of the student of Rabbi Chiyya.

We talk about the physical process of conversion, and we talk about the psycho-spiritual process of conversion. We talk about what it means that there are people who won't accept certain conversions, and about the implications for someone who might convert under one set of assumptions and then shift to a different community of practice. We talk about motives for conversion: how much do motives matter? We talk about: what does it mean to come beneath the wings of Shechinah? What does it mean to accept the yoke of the mitzvot?

At the end of our last class we go around the room and each person mentions something in our learning that especially moved us. We close with a kaddish d'rabbanan, the special kaddish recited at the end of study, in gratitude to and in honor of our teacher. It has been an extraordinary week of learning. I am so grateful.

Off to Clergy Camp!

ClergycampgraphicI'm on my way today back to Colorado for two weeks of ALEPH programming. The ALEPH Kallah begins on July 11, and of course I'll be there for that -- wouldn't miss it for the world. But I'm going to be there this week, too.

During my years of rabbinic school, I always went to another week of ALEPH learning before the Kallah -- what we called "smicha students' week" (or "smicha week" for short), a week-long learning intensive with the ALEPH Ordination Program community of students and faculty.

We would daven together three times a day, learn together all day and all evening, and generally enjoy the pleasure of steeping in one another's company and in our studies. The classes we took during those intensive weeks would continue via teleconference calls (or, by the time I finished the program, webconference video calls) for months thereafter. 

Last time I did that was summer of 2010. (I wrote about it here: My last smicha students' week. That's where I wrote the poem that begins "Don't chew on your mama's tefillin...") As that poem makes clear, I had an infant at the time, and navigating his needs while immersing in study and community made that a week not quite like any other.

The following January I was ordained, and since then, I haven't attended smicha students' week -- it's not for me anymore. I've felt some sadness about that. I miss the hevreschaft (community of learners) and the spirited daily davenen. But it's a natural consequence of finishing rabbinic school, so I accepted it... until now.

This year ALEPH is piloting a new program for ordained clergy, which we're calling Clergy Camp. Those of us who are ordained and practicing in the field are invited back during smicha students' week for our own dedicated learning track. While the students are doing their learning, we'll be doing our continuing education. We'll get to share meals and davenen with the ordination program community. I anticipate that it will feature much of the joy I used to take in smicha students' week -- without the stress of being a graduate student! 

During the mornings I'll be studying geirut, conversion, with Rabbi Jeff Fox, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat, the groundbreaking Orthodox seminary ordaining women to serve as clergy. During the afternoons there will be a skills practicum taught by Reverend Dr. Bill Kondrath, Director of Theological Field Education at Episcopal Divinity School. During the evenings we'll be integrating our learning via group hashpa'ah (spiritual direction.) It promises to be a rich and full week. I'm incredibly excited about it. To those whom I'll be seeing at Clergy Camp, and those whom I'll be seeing at Kallah next week: travel safely!

On the cusp of promise

36-Israel-symbol-exampleIn this week's Torah portion, Shlakh, twelve scouts are sent to glimpse the land of promise. What they see there terrifies ten of them. The grapes are so big that two men are required to carry a single bundle. They return to the community and report that entering this land is simply not possible: "the inhabitants are giants, and we must have looked like grasshoppers to them!"

They spread their fear to the children of Israel, and God -- incensed that after all the miracles they've experienced, the children of Israel do not trust -- declares that this generation will wander in the wilderness until they die. Their children will enter the land, but they will not. They are too caught in their own fear.

I suspect we all know what it's like to glimpse a land of promise and then to shy away. The work it would take to get there is too vast. The personal changes required are too difficult. Maybe, like the children of Israel who came out of Mitzrayim, "the Narrow Place," we are too shaped by our familiar constraints.

Once limits become habitual, they become invisible: we don't even notice them anymore. We learn to live within a small space. We train ourselves not to grow beyond the box, because outside the box is scary. Outside the box the grapes are as big as beach balls. Outside the box we are afraid we will be as insignificant as grasshoppers.

Spiritual life calls us to recognize our own fear. To notice what buttons are pushed when we think about expanding beyond whatever our limits have been. To breathe into the paralyzing fear of failure, of smallness, of taking on something we won't be able to handle. And spiritual life calls us to breathe through that fear, and to step into the unknown.

When we sing "Mi Chamocha," the song at the sea, I often invite us to remember a time in our lives when we've felt like the children of Israel trapped between the Egyptian army and the sea. A time when it felt as though there was no way through. And I invite us to recognize that no matter what seas we're facing, we don't have to cross them alone.

We stand at the shore of the sea no less than our ancient ancestors did. And no less than our ancient ancestors, we are always at the cusp of the land of promise. A place of expansiveness, a place of nourishment and sweetness, a place of divine flow.

We will have to acknowledge our fears in order to get there. We may have to accept our own feelings of smallness. But we can choose to trust even though we are afraid. And when we do, the One Who accompanies us in all of our changes will accompany us into infinite possibility. Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be so.


This is the short d'var Torah I offered this evening at Kabbalat Shabbat services at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)