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We are animals too

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God is as close now
as blood pulsing in our veins,
that animal rhythm.

Our bellies know animal hungers一
a salt imbalance disguised
as a yen for Pringles,

or the way stone fruits
or avocados or ceviche
can be medicine.

We make teshuvah
not despite our animal nature
but with it:

with bodies that crave
and hearts that yearn,
like God’s, know me!

No one teaches animals
to resent their bodies.
Show me how to love mine.

As Zohar reminds me,
there is no place
where God is not:

even my asthmatic lungs,
my animal being,
my imperfect heart.

 

[A]s blood pulsing in our veins. The Qur'an (Surah Qaf 50:16) teaches that God is as close to us as our own jugular. In Elul, according to R. Schneur Zalman of Liady, "the king is in the field," e.g. divine transcendence, usually inaccessible to us, becomes intimately present where we are. Like God’s, know me! One of my favorite mystical teachings holds that God birthed creation in order to be known. [N]o place / where God is not. From Tikkunei Zohar, לית אתר פניו מיניה / leit atar panui mineih, “there is no place devoid of God’s presence.”

This poem originally appeared in Rosh Hodesh Elul / New Year of the Animals, a collection of new poetry, liturgy, and artwork co-created by Bayit's liturgical arts working group. Find the whole collection here (available as a downloadable PDF and also as slides suitable for screenshare.)


Sustainable

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The first part of the drive was on familiar roads, the same roads I take daily to get my kid to camp over the border in Vermont. What was different was that this time, I kept going. East Mountain Farm is only a few minutes from my house, but it's further down Henderson road than I had driven before. Not surprisingly, it is beautiful: contented brown and white cows resting in the shade, rolling hills and pasture, a series of red barns. I was there to pick up chicken to put in my freezer, and eggs to eat.

Two springs ago, when the pandemic was new and our grocery supply chains got fouled, there were anxious months of going to the grocery store not knowing what I might find on the shelves. I know how lucky I am that I never experienced that until my mid-forties. Even so, the unpredictable absence of staples like flour and dried beans and toilet paper was deeply unsettling. Chicken, too, was hard to find for a while there -- because of COVID outbreaks in the places where poultry is processed. 

I know how lucky I am that I live near farms. I've been a member of Caretaker Farm (the local CSA) for almost thirty years, which means I get an abundance of beautiful local produce. I know how lucky I am to be able to afford that, too -- and now to be able to afford sustainably-farmed meat. I feel good about supporting a local farmer in his desire to honor the land and its animals. I feel good knowing that these chickens lived well. I feel good knowing that I will have plenty to eat next winter.

I know that my support of this local farmer doesn't do a thing to repair the harms caused by big agribusiness. I've read about the harms that factory farms perpetrate on animals and on their ecosystems. Then again, there's something wrong with the whole idea that our individual purchasing choices or habits (to recycle this soda can, or not to recycle; my personal grocery budget) will make or break the planet. We need large-scale change, corporate change, systemic change. And how likely does that seem?

I pull my mind back from that rabbit hole. Thinking too much about agribusiness and corporate greed and political gridlock will lead me to despair, and despair does not help anyone -- not those whom I serve, not me, not the world. I return to a mantra from an old REM song: not everyone can carry the weight of the world. It is not my job to carry the weight of the world. It is my job to do the best I can with what I've got, and right now the best I can do is to support a local farmer and his flock. 

 


Seaside Mah Tovu

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How good are your beach blankets,
O Yaakov --
your shaded pavilions, Yisrael!

And I, in Your great kindness
stand on packed sands
at the edge of Your sea.

Wholly One, I love Your house:
this place so drenched in Your presence
even overworked people feel it!

I bow into endless waves
(Your face, Your embrace)
and You wash over me.

And I -- I am my prayer.
In the rush of Your waters
reshape me like tumbled glass.

 


 

This poem riffs off of Mah Tovu, which you can find on the right-hand side of this two-page spread. For some wisdom about the prayer, here's a piece at ReformJudaism.org.

(And no, I didn't find all that seaglass -- or any seaglass! I found the photo on the internet. I've found a few shells and some smooth pebbles, though... and the seaglass felt like the right metaphor for the moment.)


How To

How to hold fear for so long
my shoulders learn a new shape.
How to watch numbers climb
higher, and then higher.
How to hold funerals
and kindergarten
over Zoom.

How to read subtle signals
via eyes alone.
How to re-grow scallions in water
because there might not be
more to buy.
How to feel our connections
though we’re apart.

How to sit
with unimaginable losses
even if they aren’t
our own, even if they are.
How to hold each other
when we can’t touch.
How to weep.

How to feel
everything that’s broken
—from mobile morgues
to the lies that fueled
shattered Capitol windows—
then ask the grief and fury
to drain away.

How to nurture
hope’s tiny tendrils
unfurling into flower
with every vaccination.
How to trust each other
take down our veils
and blink in unfamiliar sun.

 


This new poem for Tisha b'Av first appeared in Tisha b'Av 5781: Our Mourning Year, a new collection of poetry, liturgy, and artwork for our communal day of mourning, published by Bayit: Building Jewish. If you click on that link, you'll see excerpts from all of the poems and glimpses of one of the illustrations, and you can access either a PDF of the full collection or a google slide deck suitable for sharing online. I'm grateful to the poets, liturgists, rabbis, and artists who collaborate with me at Bayit and I'm humbled to be part of this offering.