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If I had any pull with God, everything you need
would appear right now in front of you.
A door would open and inside it
a rose-strewn path, the yearned-for embrace.
I’d take the broken pieces of the afikomen
and restore them as if by magic.
But that isn’t how it works. God isn’t
a diner waitress saying what can I get you, hon?
That’s why our sages taught: a clay vessel
is purified when it breaks and is glued.
A human heart, charged with a lifetime’s losses
becomes real when lovingly mended.
All I can do: ask God to cradle your heart
in Her own hands and make you whole.


I had actually forgotten that I'd written this poem until someone shared this image on the site formerly known as Twitter. As soon as I read it, I remembered what was on my mind and heart when I wrote it. I had to search on my hard drive to date it, though -- I wrote it in spring of 2015, earlier than I thought. Looks like it was originally written in couplets, though I also like the shape that someone gave it in this image. (There's a slight transcription error in line 8, but I'm honored that someone liked the poem well enough to share it this way, even without the original punctuation and italics.) It's not exactly a sonnet, in terms of rhyme or meter, though it's inspired by the movement of a Petrarchan sonnet -- eight lines, a turn, then six lines. My favorite line is still, "God isn't / a diner waitress saying: what can I get you, hon?" That's not how I understand prayer to work, even petitionary prayer. Sometimes I can't help wishing it worked that way, though. I would order so much wholeness and healing and sweetness and fulfillment of hope. 


The cat can tell the moment I'm awake.
He purrs because he knows breakfast will come.
It's dark: I'm not so thrilled to be alert
this rainy Tuesday dawn, brain sputtering
on far too little sleep, running on fumes.
Next time the former president is indicted
for racketeering I shouldn't stay awake
refreshing headlines, waiting for the news.
Of all the things that don't belong in poems --
though justice does, blindfold and sword and scales.
This week our Torah portion is called Judges.
(I cannot make this up.) Too on the nose?
"Justice, justice" -- Moses said it twice.
I live in hope. What else is there to do?




This week's Torah portion: Shoftim.



Lady Justice. You go, girl.

After the funeral


Rain taps on the roof like quiet hands.
So much softer than clods thudding
on a plain pine box.

Once everyone is gone
they take away the green tent
open on all sides, the worst chuppah.

The words wash away, but
I'll never forget
who rolled up his sleeves to finish shoveling.



In Jewish tradition, everyone present at an interment shovels some earth onto the casket. It is considered one of the last acts of lovingkindness we can do for the person who has died. 

I do remember, very clearly, who picked the shovel back up and helped us truly finish burying my parents after everyone else had taken a ceremonial turn. I wonder whether every funeral I conduct from now on will always bring those memories to mind.


If We Had To Choose: Re'eh 5783 / 2023

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That's the beginning of this week's Torah portion, Re'eh. The Italian rabbi and physician Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, born in 1475, writes:

ראה, pay good attention so that you will not be like the nations of the world who relate to everything half-heartedly, always trying to find middle ground. Remember that אנכי נותן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה, I present you this day with the choice of two extremes, opposites. The ברכה / brakha is an extreme in that it provides you with more than you need, whereas the קללה / klalah is another extreme making sure that you have less than your basic needs. You have the choice of both before you; all you have to do is make a choice.

I'm fascinated by the Sforno's admonition. I usually think of middle ground as a positive thing. Compromise, moderation, finding the balance between the two poles -- that's good, right? Living in community requires compromise. The capacity to make peace and find middle ground seems like a good thing. But what I hear the Sforno to be saying is: sometimes seeking middle ground isn't right.

I hear the Sforno to be saying: don't be wishy-washy. We shouldn't "both-sides" everything. There's actually a difference between brakha and klalah, blessing and curse, right and wrong. When it comes to making an ethical choice between what's right and what's wrong, it's our job to know the difference. When it comes to right and wrong, defaulting to some imagined middle ground helps no one.

Looking at the world around us, this feels resonant. We're faced with ethical choices all the time. We can uphold the truth, or we can shrug off lies. We can learn from our nation's flawed and messy history, or we can pretend slavery wasn't so bad. We can ensure that every American can exercise their right to vote, or we can ignore when a state party leadership simply refuses to redraw gerrymandered maps.

We can protect human rights and dignity, or we can let lgbtq rights be eroded as in many states (now also at risk federally). We can uplift diverse voices, or we can ignore the banning of books relating to race, gender, sexual orientation, and history, including books about the Holocaust. We can seek climate resiliency, or we can ignore the hottest month on record and the hundred-degree oceans.

On a smaller scale we can give each other the benefit of the doubt, or we can assume the worst of each other. We can speak with each other, or we can speak about each other. We can be curious and open about what's going on with each other, or we can make assumptions. And this too ties back to the "blessing or curse" paradigm that Torah gives us, because our relationships can feel like either one.

"The power to choose doesn't mean that every choice is equally wise... We can choose to let the elderly homeless remain on the streets.  We have that power," notes R. Bradley Shavit Artson. He doesn't need to add that if we can make that lousy choice, we also could choose to house the homeless and to feed the hungry. We can choose to take care of each other, or to say that others' needs aren't our problem.

Every year, including this one, we read these verses just before the Days of Awe. The new year begins five weeks from tonight, so new beginnings and existential choices may already be on our minds. But I think the choice between brakha and klalah is always in front of us. And this year, the Sforno's words remind me that equivocating, or opting not to choose, is also a choice... it's just not a very good one. 

There's a grammatical oddity in the first verse of the parsha. "See, this day I set before y'all blessing and curse" -- the instruction "See" is written in the singular, while "before y'all" and the rest of the verse is written in the plural. The opening word is spoken to each of us individually, a reminder that Torah speaks to each of us where we are. But the blessings and curses arise out of our communal choices.

The blessings and curses are aggregate. They impact the community as a whole. And they ask something of the community as a whole. If we want the coming year to be one of justice, we need to enact it together, because one person acting justly alone can't create justice. If we want the coming year to be one of concern for the needs of others, we need to live out that concern and act on it together.

What are the values we want to animate us in the CBI community in the coming year? In our towns? Across our state and the neighboring ones? In our nation? The choices we make together can bring blessing or curse, a welcome or a closed door, hope or despair, abundance or lack. I think we all know which is the world we want to live in. Now we just have to make that world real for everyone.


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

Gevurot: Be There

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This new prayer-poem is in the same vein as Texts to the Holy (Ben Yehuda Press), my volume of love poems to a beloved or The Beloved (depending on how you want to read them). This is my contribution to the latest collaborative offering from Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group. Eight of us worked together on this one. It's part of a series of offerings arising out of the blessings of the Amidah.

I'll enclose the poem below as plain text for those for whom the above image doesn't work. If you know the blessing we're working with, you may be able to see how each phrase links back to something in the original Hebrew. Or maybe not, and that's okay, too. I hope that the prayer-poem can "work" either way.

These offerings are like fractals, or a kaleidoscope, or a collective word cloud, or a many-faceted gem. The same tiny piece of prayer inspires different things for each of us. Sometimes we root our offerings in the etymology of a particular Hebrew word or phrase. Sometimes the same word takes each of us in a different direction. (Hebrew is rich like that.) We take a prayer and we talk through it. We turn it over and over, and we refract the light of our creativity and our understanding through it. Or we refract ourselves through the lens of the prayer. Or the prayer through the lens of each of us. (Or all of the above.) We share our work, we critique and comment, we make suggestions. We turn things around, change stanzas, turn one poem into two or vice versa. Artists riff off of words. Writers riff off of images. And when all is said and done, we've created something that's more than the sum of its parts. 

I often feel these days that my own creativity is lying fallow. I'm not working on a big poetry project, and that's been true for a while. My last two books were Texts to the Holy (which came out from Ben Yehuda in 2018) and Crossing the Sea (from Phoenicia, 2020). It's going on four years since Crossing the Sea came out, and I don't know what's next. Maybe the pandemic and the loss of my second parent and my heart attack are percolating in me. Maybe the pastoral needs of this moment are so great that I just don't have space for holding a book in mind. Anyway: even in a time of limited personal creativity, this collaborative work at Bayit nourishes me, and it keeps me writing, a little bit. I'm grateful for that.

Read the whole thing here: Amidah Offering: All This Power / Gevurot.

And here's my small offering to the whole: 


Gevurot: Be There


Be there for me forever.

Wake up the parts of me
that have fallen asleep.

When I'm sitting in ashes
you lift me up
with gentle hands.

With you I feel alive.
All I want
is for your beauty
to bloom.

You're the dew that keeps me going
on the aching, thirsty days
when life wrings me dry,
the rain that refills
the emptied cup of my heart.


R. Rachel Barenblat