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A new book of high holiday art

The High Holidays aka Days of Awe aka Yamim Nora'im are meant to be a pinnacle of the Jewish spiritual year. But what if the words in the mahzor (high holiday prayerbook) don't move you? Or what if you're not a synagogue-goer? Or what if you're a visual thinker, or looking for inspiration in a different way? Images speak their own language that can reach the heart in ways that text may not.

Enter Bayit's Visual Mahzor project, a volume of art inspired by the texts of the Yamim Noraim / Days of Awe. Curator Justin Sakofs solicited art that arises out of the Torah and Haftarah readings for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  We recently launched a Kickstarter to help bring the book to fruition, and as of this writing we're 65% funded. You can become a backer of the project (and learn more) here

This is the kind of work I love midwifing into the world. It's a project I never would've thought of, but as soon as Justin brought it to the table I understood how it could reach people who might not connect with the traditional texts, or who might be looking for a new way in. And it allows us to lift up the work of 30 extraordinary artists who engage in a kind of creativity I admire so much. 

The video on Kickstarter features glimpses of just a few of the works of art in the collection (more can be seen in the thumbnail images above). The book will be 8" square, easily tucked into a tallit bag to bring to shul. Gaze at the art while listening to Torah and haftarah readings, or during services more generally, and see what arises. Each piece of art can enrich our relationship with these texts.

The Visual Mahzor could also be stashed in your backpack for an autumnal hike, displayed as a coffee table book to show Jewish pride, used as a conversation-starter in living rooms or coffee shops, given to someone who invites you to a break-the-fast or high holiday meal, or delved-into as a meditative focus during the high holiday season and beyond. Click through to learn how to support this project.




We've reached light's peak
but that doesn't mean
everything is downhill.

The riverbed to loss
is well-carved.
Keep your cup brimming.

Even if you can't name
the tree of white blooms
it flowers anyway.

Volunteer wildflowers
take defiant root.
Learn from them

and from this profusion
of petunias,
silent orchestra

of purple trumpets
in riotous array
singing color and light.

The next best time: B'ha'alotkha 5784


Reading B’ha’alotkha this year, what jumps out at me is Pesah Sheni. God spoke to Moses saying, the children of Israel should make the Passover offering at the appropriate time. Except there were some people who couldn’t make the offering because they had come into contact with death. So they came to Moses and said, what about us? 

Moses asked God, and the answer he received was: anyone who couldn’t observe Passover at the right time, because of an encounter with death or because they were on a long journey, can make the offering at the next full moon. (Num. 9:10-12) In other words: if we miss the appropriate time and place for Pesah, we get a second chance.

We've all regretted something we didn’t manage to do. Maybe it’s something personal: I wish I’d done more to encourage people to vote. Maybe it’s something communal: the conversations we began after last month’s initial Israel/Palestine film screening were amazing, I wish we’d started listening and learning together years ago.

Here come these verses about Pesah Sheni to remind me it’s not too late. If there’s something that will bring us closer to God (remember, that’s what a korban / an offering was, from the root that means to draw near; and if the G-word doesn’t work for you, think Justice, or Compassion, or Truth) we get another opportunity.

Granted, Torah goes on to say that if we could’ve made the Pesah offering at the right time, and for some reason we just didn’t, “our soul will be cut off from our people.” (Num. 9:13) For me that’s a descriptive statement, not a prescriptive one. If we don’t engage in mitzvot or connect with community, we’re going to wind up feeling disconnected. 

So much in modern life can make us feel disconnected. I don't think I need to list those things; I imagine each of us could make our own list. And this year, on top of that, painful divisions in Jewish community around Israel and Gaza have made many of us feel alienated and disconnected in spaces where we most yearn to feel otherwise. 

But Jewish life is predicated on the premise that community matters. And I increasingly believe that figuring out how to be in community even when our views on Palestine and Israel differ is some of the most important work we can do right now – as Jews, as Americans, as human beings. 

Recently I read an interview that Roxane Gay did with the author Lamya H, included at the end of the e-book of Lamya’s memoir Hijab Butch Blues. Lamya says:

“I was lucky enough to be part of a very intentional queer Muslim community…. Not everyone was someone I would be close friends with. But because we were building this thing that was deeply intentional, everyone showed up for everyone else. It’s where I learned a lot of organizing skills, in terms of navigating conflict and being around people whose politics are different from yours, who live in the world in ways that don’t match yours – but who you deeply, deeply connect with, and who become chosen family. Navigating all of those things taught me so much about the value of kindness.”

Roxane Gay responds, “When you engage in community with kindness, it makes it possible to navigate all kinds of terrain, both good and challenging.” I read that and I thought: this speaks to me as a member of a broad Jewish community that’s struggling with the challenge of deeply-held views on Israel and Palestine, all rooted in Jewish values, that don’t align.

This year some of us are grieving what our Israeli cousins are going through, and some of us are grieving what our Palestinian cousins are going through. We may feel that difference keenly. But I believe our hearts are big enough to hold it, alongside the common ground that we all want a better future for our beloveds in that beloved land. 

We all want a better future in this beloved land, too. When I read about the plan for a "post-Constitutional" Federal government or those who want this to be a “Christian nation” – when I think about other rights that we could lose – the stakes feel impossibly high. We need each other in Jewish community now more than ever. 

Which brings me back to this week’s parsha. The Hebrew word mitzvah / commandment is a close cognate to the Aramaic word tzavta / connection. A mitzvah is something that connects us: to God (whatever we understand that to mean), to tradition, to community, to each other, to ourselves. 

Torah’s talking about someone who missed Pesah because they were in contact with death or on a long journey. But Rashi expands that. He says, it doesn’t need to be a long journey that keeps us away from mitzvot and community. Even if we were just right outside the door, we can still seek a do-over. 

Framed in modern terms, we could say: no one’s going to police what’s kept us from the mitzvot, from community, from building a more just world. We might feel like our failure to do these things before disqualifies us from doing them now, but Torah says otherwise. Torah says, re-orient, re-align, and try again. That's the work of teshuvah, which is the work of Jewish life.

In an ideal world, Pesah happens at the full moon of Nisan and sets us on a path toward covenant. “We were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm: out of servitude and into holy service, partnering with God in building a more just world.” That’s our core story.

In an ideal world, we’re already on that journey. And if we’re not, it’s not too late to start. It's not too late to welcome the refugee and protect the vulnerable and tend to the climate crisis and uplift human dignity. Like the saying goes about planting a tree: the best time to do it would’ve been then. The next best time is now. 


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.)


Recommending these blues

9780593448786I just finished Hijab Butch Blues by the pseudonymous Lamya H, and it's honestly dazzling. Hijab Butch Blues is a queer coming-of-age memoir interwoven with global immigrant story interwoven with verses from the Qur'an and rich, meditative midrash thereupon.

The word midrash is the language of my tradition. I don't know whether to call these passages contemporary queer tafsir? Whatever one calls it, the way Lamya's writing gives voice to Qur'anic figures' interior lives -- and the way those lives illuminate theirs -- moves me deeply.

Here is an excerpt from the book. (It's not one of the midrashic passages, but it's powerful.) There's also an excerpt, and an audio sample, at Penguin Random House. 

It's probably thirty years since I read Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues.  Our language around gender has evolved a lot since then, though I remember how the book and its author blew my mind when I heard Feinberg speak at my alma mater back then.

Lamya H's title is a respectful tip of the hat to their literary ancestor... though honestly I don't think it matters whether or not you know Feinberg's work. The stories Lamya H tells are stunning, searing, poignant, both funny and heartbreaking. They stand on their own.

In their holy wrestle with their traditions and texts and cultures, I recognize something akin to my own feminist journey of coming home into a mature relationship with my own texts and traditions and roots. I know it's a fallacy to imagine that I know the author, after reading their words, but I feel like I do; or at least I feel like I could. If you read memoir, if you are interested in queer Muslim voices of color, if you thrill to contemporary retellings that get deep inside Scriptural stories, I commend this book to you.

I'm keenly aware this year that some pro-Palestinian voices don't want readers who weep for Israelis as well as for Palestinians. I don't know where Lamya H falls on that. That said, at the end of the e-book there's an interview with Roxane Gay where Lamya speaks about being in community. They talk about connecting with people whose politics are different from theirs, and about kindness. I hope that they might be glad that their work speaks to me. I know I'm glad to encounter their voice in the world.

A barukh she'amar for Shavuot morning

48144636867_a9dbbaeb3a_cThe Torah of knobby roots
protruding from sandy earth.
The Torah of watch your step
in every language at once.
The Torah of Duolingo lessons
teaching me to praise God
for Duolingo lessons.
The Torah of my heart,
a fragile paper balloon
buoyed by candlelight.
The Torah of silence, broken
by an unexpected dance beat.
The Torah of small cats.
The Torah of photographs.
The Torah of chlorophyll
singing its exuberant chorus
across these green hills.
The Torah of saying what's true.
The Torah of uneven stones
and wildflowers between them.
The Torah of tracing
this curving path, trusting
it goes where I need to go.

One drop


"A Drop in the Ocean" by David Parker.

I talk to friends in Israel. They tell me everyone knows someone who is connected with the hostages. About the protests outside the Prime Minister's house. How the hostages are on posters everywhere, in public art pieces everywhere, how theirs have become household names even for those who didn't know them. How every baby they see reminds them of Kfir Bibas, kidnapped at 9 months, now 17 months. Some of them tell me how it feels to send a son or daughter or sibling or grandchild off to fight Hamas, knowing that some will not come home again. After eight months, no one is the same.

I read the words of friends with loved ones in Gaza. They tell me about the destruction. Buildings collapsing, tens of thousands dead, two hospitals now the sites of mass graves. The rubble, the hunger, the fear. How even the places where people had run to seek refuge don't seem to be safe anymore. When the IDF bombs a school, many don't believe the goal was taking out some number of Hamas fighters embedded within. Why would they believe the IDF or the Israeli government? They trust neither. They believe the goal is to wipe them all out, or to cause as much damage as possible.

I wake to the news that four Israeli hostages are home, rescued by the IDF. Three of them are in their twenties, kidnapped from the Nova music festival. I'm old enough that they look like kids to me. The image of Noa Argamani reuniting with her father overwhelms me with emotion. I imagine what's going through his heart and mind, seeing his daughter alive after 245 days of fearful wondering. I imagine what's going through hers. One Israeli special forces police officer died from wounds sustained in the rescue. I imagine that person's family and their grief. Does this feel "worth it," to them?

Meanwhile, at least 125 were killed in the strike on Nuseirat that enabled the rescue. Or maybe 210 dead and 400 injured, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Or the "Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry," in the words of Ha'aretz. (Some don't believe the IDF; others don't believe the Gaza Health Ministry.) No one seems to dispute the fact that most of those killed and injured are women and children. I read descriptions of hospital hallways teeming with the wounded. I imagine what's going through the hearts and minds of those families, and the families of the dead. Who do they blame for their grief?

Sometimes it is impossibly surreal that here and there are happening at the same time. Sometimes it's hard to see the beauty of here because we're so caught up in feeling-with them there. (Which "them," which "there"? Fill in the blank for yourself.) I don't think I know anyone who cares about Israelis or Palestinians who is okay this year, much less anyone who aspires to care about both. How to rejoice for the four who've been brought home, when hundreds of other lives ended in the process and peace seems nowhere in sight? How to taste a single drop of joy intermixed with this vast salt sea of sorrow?




Trudging on treadmills
and surrounded by vacuum, tired
of freeze-dried anything
we'll kvetch: why did you bring us
out here to die? Was the climate crisis
really so dire?

Like our ancient ancestors
craving cucumbers and melons,
the thirsty tastes
of fertile crescent,
nothing to eat but manna
every blistering day.

Maybe a captain, frayed to the end
of his connector cable
will snap: I can't anymore
with you ungrateful wretches,
go eat hydroponic lettuce
until it comes out your nose.

What liturgies will we write
remembering this green Eden?
What revelation will we receive
in ownerless wilderness
wandering across the vastness
between stars?



Why did you bring us? Ex. 14:11. Cucumbers and melons. Numbers 11:5I can't anymore. Numbers 11:11. Until it comes out your nose. Numbers 11:20. Ownerless wilderness. We receive(d) Torah in a place that is hefker, ownerless; some say, we receive when we ourselves become hefker.

The idea of seeking a new home among the stars is still science fiction. But I can imagine a hypothetical generation of space refugees behaving like the Children of Israel in the wilderness, stiff-necked and grousing. Mostly I wish I could be a fly on the wall to see the liturgies they would write.


If: Behukotai 5784 / 2024


If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit…you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land. (Lev. 26:3-5)

In the past I’ve read these opening verses in part as an environmental teaching. If we live in a way that’s aligned with the mitzvot, we’ll be laying the groundwork for a healthy planet. Last week’s parsha Behar (often read as a double portion with this week’s Behukotai) talks about the mitzvah of shmitah, letting the earth rest in every seventh year. In an era of climate crisis, we know that treating the earth in a transactional way that privileges profit over sustainability will lead to woe – like the curses listed later in this parsha.

All of that still resonates. But this year I got caught on the phrase “you shall… dwell securely in your land.” And all I can think is: halevai – would that it were so! 

The idea of dwelling securely feels almost laughable. The horrors of October 7th shattered a sense of safety and security for many of our Israeli friends and family. Violence across the West Bank and the war in Gaza have shattered any sense of safety or security for Palestinians. Torah’s promise is so far from the reality we see in the news and on social media that it draws me up short. 

There’s no practical comparison between our life here and the lives of Israelis or Palestinians – we’re not living under rocket fire or aerial bombardment. Still, I know that many of us don’t feel wholly safe and secure in this land either. The fact that our synagogue has been locked ever since the hostage crisis at CBI Colleyville is testament to that. 

Some immediately blamed prominent Jews for the results in this week’s jury trial of the former president, and the resurgence of that antisemitic conspiracy theory makes many of us anxious. Meanwhile I know that many of us are experiencing vitriol aimed at Zionists or Israelis as a blow to our own hearts and our sense of belonging. 

There’s a difference between feeling unsafe and being unsafe, but both take a toll.

I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled…no sword shall cross your land. [Your army] shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. Five of you shall give chase to 100, and 100 of you shall give chase to 10,000… (Lev. 26:6-8)

I have mixed feelings about Torah’s promise of routing enemies. I understand why superior power is the dream of every oppressed people! And yet I wish Torah could have promised, “You and those whom you understand as enemies will become able to see a better path forward.” But I don’t think that perspective was viable in antiquity. 

Honestly, it doesn’t always feel viable now. Even though I share our prophets’ yearnings for the day when swords will be beaten into plowshares… and poet Yehuda Amichai’s yearning to go even further:

Don’t stop after beating the swords
into plowshares, don’t stop! Go on beating
and make musical instruments out of them.
Whoever wants to make war again
will have to turn them into plowshares first.

(Someone’s actually doing that, by the way – a group called Armory of Harmony.)


This print features that Amichai poem in Hebrew, and is available from the artist here

These verses remind me of the second paragraph of the Sh’ma, the one that says that if we follow the mitzvot we’ll get the rains in their seasons and will receive all that we need. (The one that our siddur leaves out, because its editors found its promise too transactional.) 

I agree that a purely transactional reading fails us. If our reason for doing mitzvot is that we’ll get rewarded, that’s liable to fall apart the first time we realize that the wicked often prosper, and that terrible things can happen to good people who live an upright and mitzvah-filled life. 

But I find meaning in that part of the Sh’ma when I interpret it in a less literal way, as we did this morning. I think we can do the same here. 

The word hok, a type of mitzvah, is related to the root meaning to engrave. Hukkim are the mitzvot that are carved on us, or the ones we carve on our own hearts through repetition and through allowing ourselves to be changed. Think of how water wears away stone to form channels through which it can flow. 

The verbs telkhu and tishm’ru, “walk” and “keep,” remind us that the mitzvot are our path. As the Ahad Ha-Am said of Shabbat, “More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” It’s true of all of the mitzvot: we keep them, and they keep us.That’s how we acquire betah, faith or trust. 

JPS renders betah as “dwell securely,” but this isn’t the kind of security that might come with an alarm system. It’s inner security, it’s faith. If we walk a path of keeping mitzvot and letting them keep us, that’s how we can live in trust, or have trust live in us. This may be a tall order in these days of rising antisemitism and continuing anxiety and fear for all of our beloveds in the Middle East. But I think it’s the invitation that Torah offers us. 

Still, what can we do to reinterpret the verse about our enemies falling before us by the sword? In the daily amidah, there’s a line of prayer that asks God for a time when our enemies will have no hope. It’s become common practice in liberal Jewish circles to replace “enemies” with “enmity.” May enmity itself wither and disappear from the earth. 

The commentator known as the Sforno understands the verse about giving chase to our enemies as: “without even needing to fight them.” In other words: maybe someday when humanity is wholly aligned with a path of right actions and justice, warfare will just… become obsolete.  Enmity itself will disappear. 

Most of our commentators don’t make that kind of interpretive move. Then again, most of our sages lived in eras when Jews faced persecution: R. Yochanan ben Zakkai during the first Roman-Jewish war, Rashi during the Crusades, Rambam who fled from Iberia with his family, the Hasidic masters during the era of pogroms and the Holocaust. It’s a sobering reminder that even those of us living in American comfort, far from today’s sites of bloodshed, carry ancestral memory of centuries of persecution and hatred.

But we also still carry Torah’s promise. It’s up to our generation and the generations to come to build toward a world in which enmity will fall by the wayside. A world in which all can live with betah, complete trust and safety. Because here’s another thing I noticed this year: Torah promises that we will live securely in our land, and in the next verse, that God will grant shalom to the land. I like to understand that to mean: we’ll live with faith and trust and safety wherever we are, and wholeness and peace will come to everyone. 

Here’s what I hear Torah saying to us this year:


If you walk in the paths of the mitzvot, and
let them be carved on your heart and mind, and
allow yourself to be shaped and changed by them...
Then you’ll become aware of the rains in their season –
sustenance and hope flowing to you from beyond you.
And there will be times in your life when you can’t feel that flow,
just like there are seasons in Jerusalem when the rain doesn’t fall.
But you’ll find that whatever you have, is enough to get you through.
Then you will be filled with fundamental faith and trust wherever you are.
And there will be wholeness and peace everywhere.
And you will be able to lie down and truly rest
and enmity itself will disappear.
And I will be ever-present in your midst:
God, Who brought you out of the narrow place
so that you can live in a way that is upright,
ethical and unbowed.



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