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One year ago:
a hospital room
on the seventh floor.
I stood for Hallel
in grippy socks
and thin johnny

my hand adorned
with a heparin drip
on a wheeled pole,
leadwires and stickers
reporting on
my unruly heart.

Most days
I forget.
Mind busied
with counting
how many meetings
are scheduled.

Did I make room
in the car
for my son's double bass,
is there milk
in the house
for tomorrow's cereal?

But then
your voice knocks
and my heart wakes,
remembering --
being alive
is revelation.



Ready to Receive: Bamidbar 2023 / 5783


This Shabbat we begin reading the book of Numbers -- in Hebrew, Bamidbar. That's the name given both to the book of Numbers, and to this week's Torah portion, which begins:

וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר יְהֹוָ֧''ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד

And God spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting... (Numbers 1:1)


The wilderness of Sinai.

Bamidbar means in the wilderness. Midbar, wilderness, is related to m'daber, when someone speaks. The wilderness is where we hear the voice of God. And the quintessential example of that is Sinai, where we received the revelation of Torah long ago in a time beyond time; when we continue to receive Torah even now, in our day. You might have noticed that I just scrambled place and time. Hold that thought.

So we're in the wilderness of Sinai. Torah also locates this in the Ohel Mo'ed. When the word mo'ed appears with ohel, tent, it's usually translated as Meeting. This is the Tent of Meeting, the place where community comes together. But on its own, mo'ed means season, appointed place or time. As in the מוֹעֲדֵ֣י יְהֹוָ֔''ה / mo'adei YHVH / God's "fixed times," that we just read about in Torah. (Lev. 23:2)

Shabbat is first among those fixed or appointed times. Every seventh day we rest, as God rested; we live as-if the world were already redeemed; we taste eternity. And then Torah lists the other Biblical moadim, the oldest among our festivals. Pesach, and Shavuot, and Sukkot, and the Days of Awe. These are our earliest moadim, the most ancient appointed times of connection with our Source.

"And God spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai," -- the place of revelation; "in the ohel mo'ed," -- both the tent of community meeting, and a sacred fixed point in time. That's where this verse places us: in the wilderness, in the middle of nowhere -- which is where God speaks (or maybe where we hear), where we're receptive as satellite dishes, at the nexus of holy space and holy time.


I kind of imagine our souls at Sinai as a human version of the Very Large Array. 

In the Midrash we read:

Why [was Torah given] in the wilderness of Sinai? Our sages taught: Torah was given with the accompaniment of three things: fire, water, and wilderness... Why was the giving of Torah marked by these three? To show that as these are free to all, so too the words of Torah are free. Anyone who does not make oneself as open (hefker / ownerless) as the wilderness is not able to acquire wisdom and Torah.

(Midrash Numbers Rabbah 1:7)

In order to receive Torah, we too need to become hefker, ownerless. Torah was given at Sinai because in antiquity "the wilderness" had no owner. Because it was hefker, it belonged equally to everyone. Hefker is a legal term, often used in the context of "land that is declared ownerless by a beit din." But I'm most interested in what it means for us spiritually, what it teaches us about how to prepare for revelation.

Becoming hefker means not letting ourselves be "owned" by our achievements. Maybe we become so attached to a job or a role that it begins to "own" our sense of self. Or our sense of self gets tied up in whether or not we get a certain job,… and then what happens at retirement? When we define ourselves through what we accomplish and how others see us, that can get in the way of receiving Torah.

Hefker means not letting ourselves be "owned" by our attachments. It's so easy to get attached in our relationship to possessions. What kind of car we drive, or maybe we've chosen not to drive at all. Where we get our clothing, whether "I wear name brands" or "I only buy secondhand." When we define ourselves through our stuff or lack thereof, that can get in the way of receiving Torah, too.

Honestly, if we define ourselves wholly through our emotional "stuff," our baggage or our traumas or the harms we've endured, I think that can get in the way of receiving Torah too. Let me be clear: I'm not saying that having experienced trauma blocks the flow of revelation! I'm saying that when we get too attached to any piece of our identity, we block ourselves from being open to something new.

And no aspect of our identity makes us "worthy" of receiving Torah. The worth of a human soul is both infinite and innate. We merit the receiving of Torah because that's our covenant. God gives us Torah, and we aspire to live a life of meaning through the mitzvot, the commandments, contained therein. We merit the receiving of Torah every time we say yes to that covenant, to living our Jewish values.

On some level, Torah is ours even if we're full of ourselves. But as we ready ourselves for Shavuot, for standing again at Sinai, for receiving Torah anew, I'm moved by that midrash from Numbers Rabbah about becoming hefker. In some way, becoming hefker feels like a call to become more simply ourselves, unencumbered by roles or expectations. It reminds me of the Zen parable of Nan-in and the teacup.


There was a Japanese Zen master named Nan-in who lived during the Meiji era (1868-1912). During his days as a teacher, he was visited by a university professor curious about Zen.

Being polite, Nan-in served the professor a cup of tea.

As he poured, the professor’s cup became full, but Nan-in kept on pouring. As the professor watched the cup overflow, he could no longer contain himself and said, “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

Nan-in turned to the professor and said, “Like the cup, you are too full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Like that professor, we need to empty our preconceptions, our over-attachments, before we can receive Torah anew. This is big spiritual work. That's why our tradition gives us the seven weeks of the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot! And this is not just for priests (who don't exist anymore), or rabbis, or sages, or Hebrew-speakers, or people in power. The Midrash reminds us of that, too.

“Rabbi Yochanan said: When God’s voice came forth at Mt. Sinai, it divided itself into 70 human languages, so that the whole world might understand it. All at Mt. Sinai, young and old, women, children, and infants according to their ability to understand. Moses too, understood only according to his capacity, as it is said (Ex. 19:19), ‘Moses spoke and God answered him with a voice.’ With a voice that Moses could hear.”

(Midrash Exodus Rabbah)

Torah flowed in a way that all the world could understand. And God's "voice" -- which of course isn't a literal voice -- is pitched in a way that can reach us where we are. Torah reaches every person in accordance with our capability to hear. Torah's like the manna that fell in the wilderness. Midrash teaches that each person tasted something different, depending on what they needed:

The infants in accordance with their faculties; just as this infant would suckle at his mother's breasts, so he would taste it; as it is stated: "And its taste was like that of a cake (leshad) baked with oil.” [This is a pun on shadayim, breasts.]

And the youths in accordance with their faculties, as it is stated: "My bread also which I gave you, fine flour, and oil, and honey, wherewith I fed you" (Yechezkel 16:18).

And the adults in accordance with their faculties, as it is stated: "And the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.” Just as the manna, each person tasted it in accordance with his faculties, so the commandment, each person heard it in accordance with his faculties.

(Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 12, 25)

Everyone found in the manna what they most needed. Torah is the same way: one text, from which we take away different wisdom depending on who we are, and when and where we are. We find different things in Torah depending on what we need. So... what's the Torah that you most need this year? What's the wisdom, the new interpretation, the deep justice and love that you most need this year? 


Image by Steve Silbert.

The divine broadcast continues to sound, and we receive it when and where we are attuned. And one of our tradition's times to "tune in" is in just a few days, when we gather at the foot of the mountain to hear God's voice anew. So get ready to tune the dial on your inner spiritual radio. Or maybe I should say subscribe to God's podcast (or God's TikTok?) because new episodes are dropping all the time.

We're all invited to let go of attachment to stuff or status, role or expectation, because all of those can block our capacity to hear the divine broadcast. We get to drop everything extraneous, and each of us gets to be our purest, most essential self. You'll know best how to embody that change on Thursday afternoon. Some people immerse in a mikvah, some use meditation, some use song.

And then without preconceptions we open our hands and our hearts. We come to the table with an empty teacup, ready to be filled. We open to Torah, to wisdom, to the spiritual sustenance we need.

See y'all at Sinai, real soon.


This is the d'varling that Rabbi Rachel gave at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)

Life lessons

Before I became a rabbi, I worked as an editor. I edited a monthly paper in south county for a few years after my first stint in graduate school (MFA in writing and literature at Bennington.) A good editor, I came to understand, is one who helps a work become the best version of itself: not imposing her own voice, but helping the writer refine their gem in the ways that will most allow it to shine.

Over the last few years I've been bringing that skillset to the publishing work I do at Bayit.  Y'all, it is so much fun. I love helping people uncover what's best in their work. I love uplifting voices that move me. (Arguably this is part of why I co-founded a Jewish spiritual innovation incubator in the first place.) I love how together we can bring forward something that is more than the sum of our parts.

About two years ago, a manuscript came our way that piqued my interest. It's by R. Mark Asher Goodman, a rabbi who at the time I only knew over Twitter. His book features Hassidic texts -- many of them translated into English for the first time -- and opens them up for a modern reader with wry and self-deprecating humor, pop culture references, and quotes from the Wu-Tang Clan.

It's called Life Lessons from Recently Dead Rabbis: Hassidut for the People. Would Bayit be interested in publishing this book?

Would we ever


Introducing... Life Lessons from Recently Dead Rabbis: Hassidut for the People

by R. Mark Asher Goodman; cover art by R. Zac Kamenetz

published by Bayit: Building Jewish

The process of bringing the book to press has taken longer than I thought it would, of course. The last couple of years have been challenging ones. Not just the continuing global pandemic and American political upheaval, but also my father's illness and death, and my heart attack and continuing health quandaries, on top of rabbi-ing and parenting and all the normal things that need to get done.

But it is so worth the wait. Hasidic texts are a particular passion for many of us at Bayit (I've been blogging about them since the early years of Velveteen Rabbi when I was in rabbinical school), so that aspect of the book is already my jam. If you're a longtime reader of Hasidic texts, you'll find familiar kinds of wisdom here -- plus also perhaps some texts from rebbes you haven't encountered before.

If you're new to the Hasidic world, if you can't read Hebrew, even if you're a spiritual seeker with no connection to Judaism at all: wow are you in for a treat. Each chapter contains questions for contemplation, texts in translation, and Mark's commentary. And Mark's voice is unique. Heartfelt and thoughtful, and also sometimes snarky, geeky, and irreverent. These are a few of my favorite things.

I wish I could say we planned to launch on Lag Ba'Omer, the holiday when we light bonfires to represent the fire of mystical Torah wisdom still shedding spiritual light in our day. Truth be told, it was a coincidence of timing and data propagating. Then again, maybe every coincidence is God's hand at work. Who am I to say that this wasn't the Kadosh Baruch Hu pulling some digital strings? 

Anyway, you can learn more about the book (and click through to buy a copy, if you're so inclined) on its page on the Bayit website: Life Lessons from Recently Dead Rabbis. And while you're there, I hope you'll click through to see Bayit's whole catalogue, e.g. the other books that we've published and are in the process of publishing. We've been entrusted with some really amazing work. I am so grateful.

Thanks for listening to me kvell about the newest book I've been blessed to midwife into being.  If you love the cover of Life Lessons, check out R. Zac Kamenetz's psychedelic portraits of rabbis and rebbes. (And here's a link to his work with Shefa, doing Jewish psychedelic support.) Find author R. Mark Asher Goodman here. And stay tuned for info on Bayit's upcoming books, coming soon. 




"I burst into tears the minute I saw the news." I've already heard that this afternoon from more women than I can count.

I want to say first: if reading anything about the E. Jean Carroll case might harm you, maybe because you are a survivor of assault or defamation and this whole news cycle is like salt in a reopened wound, please take care of yourself and click away if you need to.

And if that's not you, and if you are one of the people weeping this afternoon because the jury in the Carroll case found the defendant liable for both battery and defamation --

because of the sheer existential relief of knowing that at least here, at least once, a woman who's been deeply harmed both physically and reputation-wise is believed and is vindicated --

because like so many of us, you've been braced against the fear of yet another news cycle filled with reminders that it doesn't matter to the world if someone touches us without consent, or spreads hateful vitriol and lies in order to discredit us --

because there's a spiritual relief in truth, and in facts, and in justice, especially against the backdrop of years of national gaslighting --

-- if any of this describes you: please know that you're not alone, and I see you, and I am holding you in my heart.

Touching Eternity: Emor 5783 / 2023

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This week's Torah portion, Emor, gives us a roadmap for the spiritual flow of the Jewish year. First is Shabbes. "On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest." (Lev 23:3) Then comes Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Then the seven weeks of the Omer, the corridor of time we're in right now. Then Shavuot on the 50th day, festival of first fruits.

Then Rosh Hashanah, a day of shofar blasts. Of Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement. Torah says, "וְעִנִּיתֶ֖ם אֶת־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶ֑ם " -- usually translated as "you shall practice self-denial," though I prefer to read it as, "You shall answer your soul." Four days later, Torah says, it's time for Sukkot. Build a sukkah and live in it. Gather lulav and etrog. Rejoice before God for seven days, and the 8th day is a festival day too.

It's an outline of the Jewish spiritual year. Every seventh day, we're supposed to rest. Shabbat is first and foremost: the basic unit of Jewish time is six days of regular week and a seventh day of Shabbat. And then we move from liberation to revelation to gratitude. From spring harvest (Pesach) to summer harvest (Shavuot) to the Days of Awe and the fall harvest (Sukkot.) That's the cycle of our year.

There are a few holidays that aren't here. Tu BiShvat, the new year of the trees. Purim, festival of masks and merriment. Tisha b'Av, when the Temples fell. Chanukah. All of these are post-Biblical. They're from the last couple thousand years, more or less. That makes them positively modern, by Jewish standards! Listed here are the oldest fixed points in the Jewish year, from antiquity to now.

This week's Torah portion reminds me that our holidays aren't wholly separate or discrete. The festivals are connected like pearls on a string. One leads to the next. Notice how the Omer draws a through-line connecting liberation at Pesach with revelation at Shavuot, or how Rosh Hashanah (shofar as spiritual alarm clock) sets up Yom Kippur (answering the call of our souls) which leads to Sukkot.

The festivals connect us with the earth: Passover and Shavuot and Sukkot are all harvest festivals, because in the Mediterranean climate where our tradition originated those are all times of year when things are growing. They connect us with the heavens, too: Pesach and Shavuot fall at full moon, Rosh Hashanah falls at new moon, and of course each week is half of the moon's waxing or waning.

They connect us with community. In antiquity, the Shalosh Regalim / Three Pilgrimage Festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot) were times of coming-together as a community. Today the Days of Awe and Passover tend to be our big times of convocation. But whether it's three times a year, or twice a year, or every week, these holy times are meant to be celebrated in community, as a community.

And they connect us with our obligation to take care of each other. This week's Torah portion reminds us again that when we harvest, we must set aside grain for "the poor and the stranger," for those who are marginalized. (Lev. 23:22) At Passover we remind ourselves "let all who are hungry, come and eat." At Sukkot, in our rain-prone sukkahs, we rekindle awareness of homelessness and housing insecurity.

The earth, and the stars, and community, and taking care of each other: these are among the most enduring things there are. Empires come and go, and all of these are still here. An individual life has its ups and downs, and all of these are still here. Our festivals connect us with eternity. And I like to hope that even thousands of years from now, maybe orbiting some distant star, they always will.

So notice where we are in the year. Where are we coming from? Where are we going? Take heart in how the Jewish year connects us across both time and space -- with our ancestors and our descendants, and with our fellow Jews everywhere. We're part of something enduring. And may all of this galvanize us in taking care of each other, and of our world, and of our own spiritual lives: now and always.


This is the d'varling that I offered at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires on Shabbat (cross-posted to CBI's From the Rabbi blog.)

Barukh She'Amar (2)

Screen Shot 2023-05-02 at 9.17.33 AM

Every sunrise and sunset, birth
and death, blossom and snowfall...
How does Your mouth not tire
of speaking the world into being?

Almighty, we can’t imagine
infinity without growing weary.
It's hard to remember
Your mouth is purely metaphor

though Your speech is real.
You speak every atom
in the universe,
a mighty chord resounding.

If You ever chose silence,
even for an instant,
we would blink out of existence
as though this experiment had never been.


R. Rachel Barenblat



This is a revision of a liturgical poem I wrote several years ago. It appears in my book Open My Lips, published by Ben Yehuda Press.

I still love the imagery in the original poem, and the way the cascade of items evokes the constancy of God's speaking the world into being. And... I've found that it's too long for me to regularly use as liturgy.

So here's a shortened version that works better for my current davenen-leadership style. Perhaps it will speak to you, too.


52862132239_f9c5ba0ece_cSo many things here used to be yours. I'm looking at two little harlequin dolls. Their hands and feet are made of china; their bodies are silken beanbags dressed in bright flowers. They sit on a bookshelf at my house, as they did at yours. The bookshelf itself was yours, once, too. I think you would like seeing your things interwoven with mine. Of course, either you will never see this -- or you are always already here with me. Usually I assume it's the latter. Every now and then I'm racked with grief-stricken certainty that it's the former. When that passes, I go back to talking to you every time I pass your photograph, as though it were a window between here and wherever you are. Last night I dreamed that I held my breath, dove deep down into a vast cistern, and slipped through an airlock into a hidden world. There should have been pressure at that depth, but instead gravity was lighter, like walking on the moon. Do you feel lighter now, unencumbered by the illness that mortal flesh is heir to? Where is the airlock that will let me find my way to where you are?