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When life feels like a wilderness, at The Wisdom Daily


The folks at The Wisdom Daily have published my latest essay. It's about repetition, and patterns, and this time of year, and discovering who we really are. 

Here's how it begins:  

Sometimes life feels like a wilderness, wild and waste and inhospitable. Sometimes I feel like I’m going in circles, recognizing my own sorrows as ruefully familiar landmarks in an otherwise pathless desert. This painful issue – haven’t I been here before? This broken relationship – why are its jagged edges slicing into me again? This dysfunctional work situation – haven’t I spent forever struggling with these colleagues and their ill will? Why can’t I seem to get out of this place?

You can read the whole thing at their site: When Life Feels Like A Wilderness

Poetry by the sea


It's always a joy to visit Temple Beth El of City Island. For years I've been wanting to attend their annual Shabbat by the Sea -- and this year, on August 26, I will! Weather permitting, we'll meet for Kabbalat Shabbat at the seaside home of two members, Ken Binder and Steve Roth, who live at 2 Bay Street on City Island. (In case of rain, we'll meet at the synagogue instead.) 

This year, Shabbat by the Sea will be preceded by a spiritual poetry reading by yours truly. I'm planning to share some poems from my newest published collection, Open My Lips (Ben Yehuda Press 2016) as well as from the as-yet-unpublished manuscript of my next collection, Texts to the Holy, love poems for the Beloved (many of which were shared here in early form.)

All are welcome (though donations will be gratefully accepted before Shabbat begins). If you're near City Island, I hope you'll join us! Plan ahead for traffic and finding parking. Poetry reading at 5:45, outdoor Kabbalat Shabbat services at 7 (join us in the kabbalistic custom of wearing white to greet the Shabbes bride), lavish oneg to follow.


Harnessing Tu b'Av


If you live someplace where the sky was clear last night, you may have seen August's full moon glowing huge and luminous. On the Jewish calendar, that was the full moon of the lunar month of Av. Today is Tu B'Av (the 15th of Av -- Hebrew numbers double as letters, so the number ט׳׳ו becomes the word Tu.) Just a few days ago we marked Tisha b'Av, the most grief-drenched day on the Jewish calendar, anniversary of the destruction of both Temples, anniversary of so many great shatterings in our people's history. That's the psycho-spiritual low point of the year. Immediately after that, the emotional tenor of our calendar starts looking up as we approach the Days of Awe. Today -- the full moon following Tisha b'Av -- is supposed to be a day of joy.

Today is the anniversary of the day when our mythic ancestors, condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years because their lack of trust meant that they couldn't enter the land of promise, discovered that their years of alienation from God were over. There's a beautiful story about digging graves every year on Tisha b'Av and sleeping in them, and each year waking to discover that more of their number had died. This went on until the 40 years of wandering were complete, whereupon they woke and everyone was still alive. By the 15th of the month they realized that that chapter of their journey was over, and in wonderment they clambered out of their graves into renewed life. (See Tu b'Av, the end of being "grounded," and accessing God's love, 2013.)

Another tradition sees Tu b'Av as a kind of Jewish Valentine's Day. Talmud teaches that in antiquity this is when the unmarried women would put on white dresses and go dance in the vineyards, and by the end of the night they would have found husbands. I'm struggling with that one this year. The flowering of new romance is hopeful and sweet... and it's hard to face that sweetness as I continue to navigate the aftermath of the disintegration of my own marriage. I'm keenly aware that the hopes implicit in the image of white dresses and new love don't always endure. That on the far side of that story there may be the disentangling of two lives, and with that disentangling may be profound grief. For those who are in that chapter of a life's journey, Tu b'Av may hurt.

The challenge is harnessing the emotional uplift of Tu b'Av to help us climb out of our emotional low places even if there is no white dress in the vineyards, no simple happily-ever-after. On this day long ago our ancestors rejoiced that their years of  deep alienation from God were over -- and then their story continued, with new challenges to face and new lessons to learn. We always have new challenges to face and new lessons to learn. The work of authentic spiritual life is facing that truth not with dismay but with readiness. Whatever comes, we can find blessings in it, if we take the leap of faith of climbing out of our mourning. We can find blessings in whatever the next chapter of our story may be, even if we are not yet ready to dance.


Image source: full moon and heart nebula.

Wake to you

I want to wake to you. When my alarm pulls me
(a silvered trout, struggling, from sleep's stream)

you remind me I breathe air, can thrive. Your song
calls forth my own. I'm a tuning fork, vibrating.

When my walls crumble and fall, you show me what stays.
Point out that shrinking myself won't keep me safe.

You take delight in my strength, urge me: be more.
You don't want artifice. You exult when I shine.

When I relinquish control at the end of the day
and slip into sleep you keep me safe and seen.

In dreams I give you the keys to my secret places
but you don't need them: my door is open to you.

You know my true name. You know my tender heart,
the path into my garden where roses bloom.



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

I had fun with meter in this one; it's not exactly in iambic pentameter (though some lines are), but on the whole the lines have five stresses apiece, which is something that emerged in an early draft and then I chose to play with. Also, though the original draft was longer, it now has the same number of lines as a sonnet. Though right now I'm keeping it in couplets, I'm considering whether I prefer the visual prosody of four quatrains and a couplet instead.

I'm a tuning fork, vibrating. I love the fact of sympathetic resonance, both as a metaphor and as a reality. 

When the walls crumble, you show me what stays. See my recent post Entering Av.

[T]he path into my garden hints at the beginning of chapter 5 of Song of Songs. (By the way: Reb Zalman z"l wrote a beautiful melodic setting of those verses, which you can hear in this video from Nevei Kodesh in Boulder, a congregation I was blessed to visit this past spring.) 

[W]here roses bloom. The Zohar is rife with images of roses and rose gardens, and associates them with Shechinah, the immanent, indwelling, feminine Presence of God.

On healthy humility as Tisha b'Av approaches

28721407382_25ec12b993_zAs Tisha b'Av approaches, I've been thinking about ענוה / anavah, humility. About this quality, my friend and colleague Rabbi Barry Block writes:

The Mussar Institute’s recommended daily affirmation for ענוה (anavah – humility) is, “No more than my place, no less than my space.” The second half of the phrase suggests that one who is “too humble” isn’t humble at all. Now that’s a חידוש (chiddush, a new insight), particularly important for rabbis.

(That's from his essay Mussar for rabbis: humility.)

Humility and Tisha b'Av are often linked because of a story about how excess humility led to the destruction of the second Temple. (Rabbi Barry cites it in his essay.) In a nutshell, it goes like this: in 70 CE, the Romans -- in partnership with a Jewish collaborator -- sent to the priests an animal they had intentionally blemished, making it ritually unfit for sacrifice.

This put the priests in an impossible bind: either they could reject the Romans' sacrifice (thereby incurring Roman wrath), or they could sacrifice the blemished animal (thereby going against God), or they could kill the collaborator who had brought them the animal (thereby unjustly taking a life, and giving the impression that the punishment for presenting an unfit animal for sacrifice was the death penalty.)

They asked Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkulus to decide which of these bad choices was least bad, and he declined to rule. He was paralyzed, and therefore he chose inaction. (He may not have seen it as a choice, but it was -- opting for inaction is itself an action.) His people needed him to occupy the space of leadership and responsibility, to make the call about how to proceed, and he didn't, or he couldn't. The choice before him was a terrible one, but in declining to choose, he made the situation far worse. His reluctance to occupy the space of leadership led to the destruction of the Temple, our place of connection with God. 

Lately I've been wearing a wristband emblazoned with words from Rabbi Simcha Bunim. The story goes that he carried two slips of paper in his pockets at all times, and on those papers were the words בשבילי נברא העולם (for my sake was the world created) and ואנכי עפר ואפר (I am but dust and ashes). Each of these is a necessary reminder, and each serves as a corrective to the other. When I'm feeling small or low or insignificant, I need to be reminded that all of creation came into being precisely in order that I might exist here and now. And when I'm feeling haughty or prideful, I need to be reminded that I am temporary and will die.

When I glance down, I never know which of the two phrases I'm going to see. But of the two phrases, I think the one I most often need to see is "For my sake was the world created." Many women struggle with the unconscious internalized sense that we are "supposed" to be quiet, or deferential, or to pursue peace with others even when the peacemaking comes at the expense of our own voice, our own truth, our own strength. (Men struggle with this too, of course, but this tends to systemically afflict women. See 9 non-threatening leadership strategies for women -- behind the humor, the ugly truths are all too real.)

Holding oneself back in order to please others (or in order to not risk offending others, which is a variation on the same theme) isn't humility. It's taking up (in R' Alan Morinis' words) "less than my space," and that's not a character strength, it's a character flaw. That's the sin of R' Zecharia ben Avkulus, which our sages teach led to the destruction of the place our people held most dear. Keeping silent in the face of injustice or untruth isn't a virtue, and it's often driven by the kind of fear I spoke about from the bimah on Shabbat. We diminish ourselves when we let fear rule us, and self-diminishing isn't humility and isn't healthy.

As Tisha b'Av approaches, what would it look like to relinquish the false humility of excess silence? To practice making difficult choices, and speaking difficult truths, and taking responsibility for one's power and one's ability to create change, even when so doing feels risky because of how others might respond? To take up exactly as much space as God intends each of us to inhabit -- knowing that we are dust and ashes, and also that we are reflections of the Infinite, precious and holy, entitled to enough room to stand in, entitled to enough air to breathe, obligated by virtue of our agency to work toward building a better world?

Entering Av

This isn't so much a "d'var Torah" as a "d'var calendar" -- the text I'm exploring this morning is the unfolding of our calendrical year.

On Friday, just before Shabbat, we entered into the lunar month of Av. Av contains the low point on our communal calendar: Tisha b'Av. Tisha b'Av is the day when we remember the destruction of the first Temple by Babylon in 586 BCE, the destruction of the second Temple by Rome in 70 CE, and countless other tragedies that have happened at this season in other years, from the beginning of the first Crusade, to the expulsion from the Warsaw Ghetto and the mass extermination that followed. 

Tisha b'Av is a day for confronting brokenness. The brokenness of the world. The brokenness of our hearts. And yet tradition teaches that on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av, moshiach will be born. The beginnings of our redemption arise from this very darkest of places. It's a little bit like the Greek myth of Pandora who opened the box containing war and destruction and famine and all manner of awful things -- and at the bottom of the box, found hope. A tiny spark of light to counter the darkness. 

It's the height of our beautiful Berkshire summer. Why would we choose, as we move into Av, to delve into grief? Because if we don't let ourselves feel what hurts, we can't move beyond it. If we don't let ourselves acknowledge what's broken, we can't mend. If we don't let ourselves acknowledge what feels damaged, we can't begin to repair it. Brokenness is part of the human condition, and the only way to transcend it is to let ourselves feel it fully. Feeling what hurts is the first step toward healing the hurt we feel.

According to the Mishna, on Tisha b'Av we mourn not only that long list of historical calamities, but also a psychospiritual one: the time when the scouts went into the Promised Land, and became afraid of what they saw, and returned to the children of Israel and said "we can't go there, those people are giants, we must have looked to them like grasshoppers." Av is a time for remembering how we diminish ourselves when we let go of faith for a better future and let our fear rule us instead.

Why would we want to look at the times when we've been afraid? Why would we want to examine our own complicity in the cycles of brokenness that are a part of every human life -- how we keep bringing ourselves, over and over, back to the same issues, the same fears, the same hurts? Because in that examining, we strengthen our power to make different choices. We don't have to repeat the mistake the scouts made. We don't have to repeat our own mistakes. We can make teshuvah -- we can turn.

Rabbi Alan Lew writes,

Tisha b'Av is the moment of turning, the moment when we turn away from denial and begin to face exile and alienation as they  manifest themselves in our own lives -- in our alienation and estrangement from God, in our alienation from ourselves and from others.

This new lunar month invites us to recognize that our constructs -- the narratives we've inherited or built to tell us who we are -- are just that: constructed. And like everything else in this world of entropy, they fall apart. When our constructs are shattered, we feel shattered, too. But Tisha b'Av comes to teach us that even when the walls crumble, even when the Temple is destroyed, even when our constructs shatter and we feel adrift, something more lasting than all of these persists in us. 

You can call that something "God." You can call that something "Love." You can call that something "Transformation." 

Av is our month of greatest sorrow -- and in that greatest sorrow, we find an opening to joy. In facing what's falling down, we find a way for our spirits to rise up. In facing our fear and our complicity in succumbing to that fear, we find an opening into a future of promise. In facing our feelings of helplessness, we find strength. In facing the darkness, we find light. Kein yehi ratzon


These are the remarks I offered at my shul yesterday morning (cross-posted to my congregational blog.)

You might also find useful this set of resources for Tisha b'Av 5776 on Kol ALEPH, the blog of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Diving into Jewish-Muslim dialogue again

WYSIWYG-Women-Fashion-Harajuku-necklace-Crescent-Moon-necklace-with-star-of-david-charms-moon-and-starIn August of 2009, I went on a retreat for emerging Jewish and Muslim religious leaders organized by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. In June of 2014, I returned to that retreat as an alumna facilitator. This week I'll be spending a few days at a retreat center a few hours from here, once again serving as alumna facilitator for an extraordinary group of Muslim and Jewish religious leaders. I'm really excited about getting the opportunity to do this work again, and about further building and strengthening connections between our two religious communities.

This year's retreat is co-presented by RRC and ISNA. I remember that there was conversation, at the 2014 retreat, about the challenges for Muslim religious leaders of signing up for a program presented solely by a Jewish institution. I can imagine feeling the same way were our positions reversed -- how would people in my community react if I signed up for a leadership program offered by a Muslim seminary? -- and I'm happy that this time the retreat is co-presented by institutions from both of our communities. I give kavod (honor) to RRC and ISNA for their joint willingness to make this retreat happen -- and also to the Henry Luce Foundation and the Legacy Fund for their fiscal support of this holy work.

As on previous retreats, we'll spend some time engaging in text study as a spiritual practice, exploring the texts that are sacred to each of our traditions. We'll do some learning and sharing about each of our traditions. We'll break down some of the stereotypes each group can't help unconsciously holding about the other. (In my experience part of what's interesting is always discovering the unthinking stereotypes we carry within our own communities, too -- there's a lot of diversity, and also a lot of misunderstanding, among and between different branches of Judaism as well.) We'll build trust and we'll tackle tough questions.

You can find the blog posts that have arisen out of these several retreats in my Jewish-Muslim Dialogue posts category. In addition to those, here are two published essays and a high holiday sermon that came directly out of these retreats: