We Sanctify

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You who fill and surround creation, Who adorned the heavens in time before time

with the sparkling net of galaxies like gems in the sky’s expanse – 

You don't need us to make Your name great

throughout the world. It's all we can do

to hold this scant fractal 

encoded in our limbs, 

our temporary breath. 

 

We praise anyway,

through our generations –

not because You need to hear it

but because something in us shifts

whether we whisper this reminder or shout it to the skies: 

You are upwelling, indwelling, holy: the song that sings in us.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהו''ה, הָאֵל הַקָּדושׁ .Blessed are You, Holy One, God Who is holy

 


Sparkling net of galaxies. This image is an artist’s rendering of a supercluster of galaxies, from the Smithsonian magazine. Fractal / encoded in our limbs. The four-letter Name of God can be understood to map to the human body: yud is the head, heh is the arms, vav is the spine, heh is the legs. [O]ur temporary breath. R. Arthur Waskow teaches that we speak the Name every time we breathe.

 

Originally published in Holy / Kedusha, Bayit, Jan. 2024.

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This liturgical poem is one of my contributions to the latest collaborative offering from Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group: Holy / Kedusha. Click through to Builders Blog to see the whole thing. As always, the offering is available both as a downloadable PDF and as slides suitable for screenshare.

Also as always, what we co-created is more than the sum of its parts. Both of the pieces I drafted were inspired by something that someone else wrote or said, and I wouldn't have written either one were it not for this collaboration. This work is one of the most nourishing things I do, and I am grateful.


Dancing with our stories

JustLaunched

Bayit just launched our first Kickstarter to support publication of Daughters of Eve, a volume of 12 fabulous feminist essays about women of the Tanakh. The essays come with discussion questions and journaling prompts. It's a really neat project, and I'm excited to be midwifing it into print. The hope is that readers will come away not only with more knowledge about the Hebrew scriptures, but also with reflections on how these ancient female archetypes influence and reveal who we are today.

Backers can support Daughters of Eve at a variety of levels, most of which come with swag (coffee mugs, tote bags, even journals and jigsaw puzzles!). Or if you're part of a book group, consider the Book Group package that gives you books, book plates, and a Zoom conversation with the author. Or maybe you and a bunch of writer friends want to chip in together on the Storyteller package that gives you a Zoom with Sally to talk about writing, story creation, character development...

I especially love the cover design for this title. To me it suggests that all of us who study Torah are engaged in a circle dance throughout the generations. All the way back to our Biblical forebears, and all the way forward to the endless generations who will come after us: we're all learning and becoming and dancing together. If feminist essays on Biblical women and the Torah study journey of self-discovery sound like your jam, I hope you'll join me in supporting Daughters of Eve

Donate to the Kickstarter here.


Afar

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Today on social media Bayit is featuring this small poem of mine, alongside art by R. Allie Fischman. When I wrote it, I was thinking about how so many of us out here have beloveds in Israel or in Gaza (or both) and are feeling-with-them from afar. It's something we have in common, those of us linked with one people and those of us linked with the other. (And some of us with both.) Our broken hearts connect us, and I refuse the idea that grief needs to take sides.

Israeli author Etgar Keret spoke about that recently. He said, "And when I see people watching the horrible tragedy that is happening here as if it were a Super Bowl of victimhood, in which you support one team and really don’t care about the other, empathy becomes very, very selective. You see only some pain. You don’t want to see other pain..."  (Read his interview here: I Feel A Human Deterioration.) 

Anyway, the poem and illustration are part of Our Collective Heartbreak, alongside many other powerful offerings of the heart, and you can find the whole collection by clicking through that link. For those who need the poem in plaintext, it appears below.

 

Afar

For Jews and Palestinians in Diaspora

 

We’re over here:

Too far to help, but not too far to feel.

We’re not living in a war zone

But we can’t sleep either

Because when someone harms you

We feel pain.

Holding you from afar –

Never really apart.

 

R. Rachel Barenblat


Why poetry matters (now)

Buried-barenblatPoetry and liturgy and art work differently than essays or arguments do. They can reach us in different ways than prose does.

Pastorally, I think art and prayer can meet a need that discursive forms don't / can't meet. Arguments call forth more arguments, and that doesn't interest me, especially now amidst so much suffering. 

Poetry and liturgy and art can also hold multiple meanings. Jewish tradition has beautiful teachings about God's speech being polysemic (saying multiple things simultaneously). I've been thinking about how prayer and art can function like that too.

Multivocality is part of the point. No prayer or poem or artwork will be understood in exactly the same way by everyone who reads or prays or views it. For me that's an important value right now. I need words and images that can hold multiple meanings and valances.

Anyway: all of this is why I've been grateful to my fellow builders at Bayit over the last couple of weeks. Much online conversation about Israel and Gaza feels fruitless to me, echo chambers talking past each other. And I'm simultaneously drawn to refresh news websites constantly to see what new horror may be unfolding, and aware that so doing doesn't actually help anyone (and might harm me.)

But a few days after the Hamas incursion into southern Israel I reached out to the Liturgical Arts Working Group and asked if there were interest in collaborating on an offering, and the answer was an immediate and fervent yes. So we brainstormed, we drafted, we commented and workshopped, we revised, and when all of that work was done I curated a flow through what we had co-created.

The collaborators on this artistic and prayerful response span the gamut from Reform to Orthodox. Some of us are mystics, others are rationalists. Our Judaisms are not the same. Our relationships with that beloved land and its peoples are not the same.  In this we mirror the Jewish community writ large. That feels important to me, too. We are different and we are part of the same whole.

Find the new offering of liturgy, poetry, and artwork from Bayit here, as downloadable PDF chapbook and as google slides suitable for screenshare:

 

Our Collective Heartbreak

 

(And for those who need the above poem in plaintext, instead of as an image, here it is.)

 

Buried

I can't even wish
for a time machine --
we‘d argue
which fork in the road.

The blood of beloveds
cries out from the ground.
Every bent and broken body
was someone’s beloved.

If I say
we’re more alike than not,
all our hearts are shattered
someone will disagree, but

how can I not grieve
with every bereft parent,
most treasured hope
now buried.

 

R. Rachel Barenblat - originally published at Bayit

 


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

 


What Gets Me - a new poem for Tisha b'Av

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Not just the litany of destruction: Babylon, Rome, the first Crusade.
Forced out of England, and France, and Spain.
Or how on this day in 1941 the Nazi Party approved
"The Final Solution," the mass graves, the gas chambers.

Or the old claim that we make matzah with their childrens' blood,
or the cartoons that show us hook-nosed and greedy,
money-grubbing, conspiring, defiling the world
with our stubborn insistence that we deserve to exist.

What gets me is that these hatreds persist.
In every antisemitic flyer and QAnon meme.
In every synagogue shooting.
In the uneasy fear that we might be next.

And still somehow we’re meant to look inside, to do the work,
To seek justice for those who have it worse than we,
To make things right with those we’ve harmed,
And if we must, to die like our ancestors  –

– with the Sh’ma on our lips.
 
R. Rachel Barenblat
 
 

It's almost Tisha b'Av. This is the new piece I wrote this year for that somber day. If it speaks to you, feel free to use it and share it.

I wrote it after traveling in Israel this spring. (And no, I'm not writing today about what's happening there. This is not that post.) I was profoundly struck by the reminder of how many peoples have hated us and tried to wipe us out. It's history I've always known, of course. But it lands differently now. Once I had the luxury of imagining that antisemitism was outdated and fading away. With the ugly rise of white nationalism and "Christian nationalism" both here and elsewhere -- with the reality that my synagogue now keeps its doors locked -- with praise for Hitler coming from public figures -- every Jew I know lives with the sickening awareness that there are people who want to exterminate us. Most of the time I keep the fear and grief at bay. But Tisha b'Av is in part about letting ourselves feel the things we keep at arm's length. We let our walls come down and face what feels annihilating. From the other side of that brokenness we begin the ascent to the Days of Awe.

And -- this feels really important to say -- if you are a trauma survivor, do what you need for your own safety. If letting your emotional or spiritual walls fall would harm you, don't do it. I can't say this strongly enough. The spiritual practice of opening ourselves to what's broken is a different thing altogether for someone who already suffers trauma's shrapnel. If that is you, maybe it's not safe for you to break open, or maybe you don't need the reminder of brokenness. Stay safe and whole. 

If you're looking for other resources for Tisha b'Av, here are two at Bayit that I find deeply powerful:

May this year's Tisha b'Av be what we need it to be, and may it move us closer to a world redeemed.

A Week of Building With the Bayit Board

 

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Every summer the Bayit board gathers for a retreat. There are board meetings, of course. There are big-picture conversations about what we're building, how we're building it, whom we serve. There are late-night conversations and early morning confabs. As we learn, and pray, and play, and dream, we strengthen the foundations of the building work we aim to do (and to empower others to do.)

We talk Torah over breakfast. This week we're in Devarim. Why is Moses speaking to the next generation as though their parents' adventures were theirs? Is he showing that there is no before and after in Torah? Is he connecting the people with their ancestors? Is he coming unhooked in time and uncertain with whom he's speaking? What are the pastoral and spiritual implications of each of these?

We dip in the ocean. We marvel at the ocean, because most of us on the board don't live here. (The one who does live here laughs and affectionately calls us tourists.) Pelicans glide right overhead, and sandpipers run on wet sand. We hum bits of liturgy on the beach. A seashell with a hole in it sparks a sermon idea. Among rabbis, with the Days of Awe on the horizon, everything is a sermon idea.

 

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We brainstorm about build projects, governance and innovation, what we want to co-create in the year to come. We talk about collaborative play, about middot (character-qualities), about book projects and game mechanics and how to reach people where they are. We play Hebrew bananagrams, examine what makes good games work, talk about what might differentiate liturgy from poetry.

We fall into accidental build-planning and vision conversations even when it's not board meeting time, because that's what happens when we're together. We cook good food. We make endless pots of iced coffee. One morning we wake early and paddle kayaks among dolphins in the intercoastal waterway and I quietly sing R. Bella's Modah Ani to the ospreys and the dolphins and the little sea turtles.

We daven beside (and in) the pool and the ocean. We sing the psalms of Hallel at new moon. We talk about the spiritual implications of the shehakol blessing, usually rendered as blessing God Who made all things by God's word, though the grammar points toward the future, not the past. What does it mean to bless God for speaking-into-being not what is, but what everything will become?

 

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We unpack the possible gematria of our rental car's license plate. We unpack our various responses to R. Alan Lew's writings on responsibility for recurring patterns, and the fine line between agency and blame. We talk about spiritual direction and flow and dishwashers, how to use StoryCubes in Torah study, favorite melodies for regular prayers, the ideal number of builders on any build team.

We talk about Tisha b'Av, about different understandings of the fundamental rupture that that day represents, about what we talk about when we talk about God. While floating in the salt waves, we talk about what it means halakhically and spiritually for a hat on the waves to be hefker (ownerless). We write ideas down on post-it notes and move them around like a live-action Trello board.

We dream an entirely new build: talking about tools we can create and curate, the communities we think it could serve, the needs we hope it would meet. The whole room gets excited, tossing ideas out in turn, each suggestion building on the last. One night we are joined by one of our builders, and we brainstorm about tools, partners, Torah interpretations, what the world needs that we could make.

 

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At the end of the week we are scholars-in-residence at the Jacksonville Jewish Center. We share some Torah, some spiritual tools and technologies -- some of what we do. There are services, a Friday night d'var, Torah study, lunch table discussions. We return home nourished by dreaming, collaborating, playing, praying, remixing: ready to take up our tools again, and to continue to build. 

 

Shared with deepest gratitude to the Bayit Board of Directors; cross-posted to Builders Blog. 


If We Build: D'varim 5783

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This is the d'varling I offered at Bayit's Scholar-In-Residence weekend at the Jacksonville Jewish Center.

It’s Shabbat Hazon, the “Shabbat of Vision.” This Shabbat gets its name from tomorrow morning’s Haftarah, in which Isaiah describes a vision of calamities that will befall Jerusalem and the Jewish people. Sure enough, we’re approaching the end of the Three Weeks leading to Tisha b’Av. If this is the Shabbat of Vision, it’s easy to see what’s coming: the fall of the Temple. 

Not all Jews deeply feel Tisha b'Av, or mourn the destruction of the Temple, but the fall of the Temple remains  the quintessential Jewish tragedy of loss and exile. And yet that hurban – that destruction – enabled the birth of rabbinic Judaism. Our forebears wrote the Mishnah precisely to preserve memory of what had been and to start rethinking what had been.They took the foundations of the Judaism that had come before, and began to build something new. 

Later, in the conversations that became Gemara, the scaffolding of construction rose higher and stretched more broadly. And then others built on those foundations. Today we inhabit a Judaism of so deliciously many rooms! Jewish life and practice now take some forms that our ancestors couldn’t have imagined. But all are built on the foundations we inherited from our forebears. They built the Judaism that their moment needed, and so too do we. 

The destruction of the Temple is foundational for the Jewish people not only because it sent us into Diaspora all over the world. It’s foundational because it laid down the principle on which Judaism as we know it continues to unfold: we all need to be builders. The Jewish future is always under construction. That’s the founding principle of Bayit. 

In Talmud we read:

Wise students increase shalom in the world, as it is said: “And all your children shall be taught of God, and great shall be the shalom of your children” (Isaiah 54:13). Don’t read it as “your children,” [banayikh], but “your builders” [bonayikh]. (Brakhot 64a)

It’s our job to increase shalom in the world: not just “peace,” but shleimut – wholeness, completeness. No one is a spectator to this holy calling. All of us are called to take up our tools and keep building Judaism. That’s one of our core values at Bayit, and as we say in Texas where I grew up, “Y’all means all.” All ages, all gender expressions and sexual orientations, all races and ethnicities, all branches of Judaism, clergy and laypeople, rationalists and mystics.

At Bayit we create and curate meaningful tools for building the Jewish future. Like our forebears, we remix tradition with innovation, what’s been with what’s next. Some of our “builds” are new books, or new prayers, or new practices. Some are games – you’ll get a taste of that tomorrow at Shabbat lunch.  All of our “builds” seek to engage in new ways or deeper ways, with a first-hand sense of participation and investment in the experience.

How we build is as important as what we build. Building the Jewish future is an iterative process. We try something new. Measure whether it worked. (What does it mean for a prayer or a ritual or a game to “work,” anyway?) We get feedback. We tweak and improve. And then we try again. You could call this design thinking, or research and development. I call it fun.

Does it feel weird to be thinking about fun on the cusp of Tisha b’Av? Maybe a better word is nourishing. Even when what we’re building is new liturgy or updated ritual for Tisha b’Av – like collaboratively writing the text we called Megillat Covid during the early months of the pandemic, or setting an Amanda Gorman poem to Eikha trope – there’s shleimut in doing it.

There’s shleimut in part because we’re building together. In our Liturgical Arts Working Group (a creative collaborative of writers, artists, and liturgists) we’ve got Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews, clergy and laypeople, spanning the continent. Together we’re more than the sum of our parts, and together we can build in ways that none of us could’ve done alone. 

The Judaism of the future needs all of us, in all that we are and all that we can become. That’s one of my favorite ways to understand the teaching from Torah that we’re made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26). Each of our souls is a facet of that ineffable Whole we name as God, which means the only way for the image of God to be complete is for all of us to build together.

And a Judaism of shleimut asks us to be authentic. In spiritual life and ethical life, the things we do and the way we do them, we need to bring our whole selves to the table. The work of building Judaism requires us to be real with each other, with our traditions, and with our Source. Otherwise what we’re building would rest on flimsy foundations.

The Judaism of the future won’t look exactly like the Judaism of today, any more than what we do looks exactly like the Judaism of 800 or 2,000 years ago. With all due respect to the great Rabbi Moses Shreiber of Pressburg, the Hatam Sofer (d. 1839) who claimed in a streak of preservationism that anything new in Judaism is automatically forbidden, change has always been built into Judaism. When the Temple fell, we took broken pieces of tradition as we’d known it and we built something beautiful and new. Even the Temples were a re-framing of what had come before, a traveling Mishkan in the desert, which replaced the stone altars of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 

Rabbi Isaac Luria (d.1572) taught that when God began to create, God’s infinite light streamed into creation. The “vessels” that were meant to hold that light were too fragile, and they shattered. The world as we know it is full of the broken shards of those original vessels, concealing sparks of creation’s original light. Our job as Jews – and I would say, our job as human beings – is to repair the world’s broken pieces and uplift those holy sparks. That was the original meaning of tikkun olam: literally, taking up our tools and repairing our broken world.

It’s Shabbat Hazon. When we look around, we can see plenty of brokenness. 

But brokenness isn’t the end of the story. The very fact of Judaism itself proves that, to the contrary, it’s only the beginning.  It’s an invitation to create something new, and a spiritual mandate to do so together. On our spiritual calendar, Tisha b’Av next week begins the seven-week runway to Rosh Hashanah and the infinite potential inherent in every new year. The Judaism of tomorrow will be what we make it, and especially on this Shabbat of Vision, I can’t wait to see what we’ll build together next. 

To remix Theodore Herzl (the “father” of modern political Zionism) with the 1989 Kevin Costner classic Field of Dreams, if we build it, it is no dream.

 

Cross-posted to Builders 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

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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. 

 

 


Our Cup Undrunk

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... Understood this way, the fifth promise is transformed from a divine promise we await, to a divine promise that if we ourselves act, then the fifth promise will be fulfilled.  

That clarion call is the modern message of the fifth cup (now cups – for Elijah and Miriam): even amidst celebration we must never rest on laurels or close our eyes to all that remains undone.  We must take up our tools and build that better future.  After all, too many remain bound, hopeless, unable even to yearn for a better future.  For them, and so for all of us, the fifth cup remains undrunk.

But symbols only matter if, well, they matter.  It’s too easy to let the fifth cup’s urgent call fade along with the taste of parsley dipped in tears. How do we stay mindful when Torah’s narrative goes elsewhere and the Pesach dishes are packed away? ...

 

I had the joy and the privilege of coauthoring this week's Torah commentary for Builders Blog. This year we're blogging through the Torah cycle with an eye toward building an ethic of social justice and a world worthy of the divine. 

Read the whole post at Builders Blog: Our Cup Undrunk For Now, co-written with R. David Evan Markus.


Recycling (first published in The Light Travels)

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The midrash says when the invaders left
they carried off the golden lamp as loot.
The absence of the lampstand was an ache –
without its light, reserves of hope ran low.
We had to improvise with what we had:
the iron spears our enemies had dropped.

We made our Ner Tamid that year with trash,
repurposing the implements of war
for bringing sacred light. How about now?
The planet is our Temple – and it burns.
We can’t just close our eyes. We’re all
indicted by the plastics in the seas.

We need to learn to sanctify what's here:
weave rags to rugs, old tires into shoes,
upcycle guns to instruments of song.
The miracle is not that God steps in –
it’s that we use these remnants to rebuild:
dedicate them and their sparks to God.

 

The midrash says. See Pesikta Rabbati 2:1. Ner Tamid. The “eternal light” that burns in every synagogue now, evoking the menorah lit in the Temple. The plastics in the sea. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one example of vast accumulation of microplastics in our oceans. Old tires into shoes. This is done all over the world, and is beginning to happen in the United States. Upcycle guns. See Pedro Reyes Creates 6,700 Beautiful Instruments from Mexican Drug War Guns.  We use these remnants. Innovators have turned plastic waste into bricks. Rededicate. The name Chanukah means dedication. [S]parks to God. From the mystical teaching that creation is filled with holy sparks that it’s our job to uplift.

 

This is my contribution to this year's Hanukkah offering from Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group. Click through for our whole collaborative offering of new poetry, liturgy, and art: The Light Travels.


A new essay in a new parshanut series!

...So does Lech-Lecha mean “go into yourself,” or “go forth from where you are”? Of course the answer is: it’s both.

Because of our calendar, we always read these lines with the Days of Awe reverberating in our souls. And that seems just right to me. The spiritual work of the high holidays takes us on a journey of introspection – that’s “go into yourself.” Now, as the new Torah cycle gets underway, that introspection fuels “go forth from where you are,” a journey of building a better world...

To build an ethic of social justice into our lives and our Judaism, we need to find balance’s sweet spot. We need to journey inward enough to see where we’ve fallen short and what work we need to do. And we need to journey outward enough to take the next action, however small, in lifting each other up – pursuing justice – mitigating climate crisis – helping someone in need...

That's an excerpt from my latest blog post for Bayit: Building Jewish. We've started an ongoing parshanut series that explores Torah through an ethic of social justice and building a world worthy of the Divine, and this is my first offering, written for this week's Torah portion, Lech-Lecha. I hope you'll read the whole thing: Journeying Inside and Out.

 


A week with the Bayit board

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I load my car with my guitar, my computer, tallit and tefillin, giant note pads and brightly-colored markers, a pair of shofarot, and drive north -- for a while. This year's gathering spot for our annual Bayit board retreat is a lakeside cottage by Lac-St.-Pierre, in western Quebec's "cottage country."

We brainstorm. We bring in a few board members via Zoom, though spotty rural internet means sometimes we use speakerphone instead. We sit around with guitars and an occasional ukelele. We enjoy the water, the cricket-song, the calls of ducks (who seem to me to quack ouai, Quebec-style.) 

We talk about where the last year has taken us -- books and liturgical arts and a blog and slides for sharing and spiritual games -- and brainstorm what we want to build in the year to come. What tools and systems do people need? What ideas can we incubate, playtest (or praytest), refine, share? 

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We daven by the lake: sometimes with our feet in the clear water, sometimes in boats, sometimes in the lake joined by darting fish and intrepid ducks. We sing Adon Olam to the tune of "O, Canada." We roast kosher marshmallows over a crackling fire and watch the sparks soar. We laugh a lot. 

We talk about Bayit's mission and vision. About books. Ethics. Essays. Liturgy. Art. Music. Games. We talk about the power of convening across difference, and what can flow from that. We study Rav Kook on teshuvah. We talk about Jewish spiritual technologies for getting through difficult times.

We walk down to the dock at night, and lie on our backs, and marvel at more stars than most people ever get to see. We can see the Milky Way stretching out ahead of us. It is spectacular. I think it could entice people who don't normally think about God to think about Mystery and meaning.

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We spend an afternoon with human rights activist Michelle Douglas, who ended "the Purge" of LGBTQ+ people in the Canadian army, talking about justice and reparations and repair. We sit with Michelle and a diverse group of local Jewish leaders to talk about justice and the spiritual work of allyship.

We teach each other new melodies. Sometimes the red squirrels chitter along with us or the loons trill in response.  We sit on a deck surrounded by cedar and pine forest, and plan Kabbalat Shabbat services for Capital Pride. We talk about building an ethic of social justice, and writers who help us get there.

After board meetings and vision sessions, after roundtable community conversations, after plans and action items, we segue into Shabbes. Harmony and prayer, leisurely learning and music, a "foretaste of the world to come" -- not least because it caps such a sweet a week of preparing to build anew.

 

 

Cross-posted to Builders Blog

 


Not the First

the same poem that appears below, beside a photograph of tealight candles

 

Lately the drumbeat of lies,
the erosion of rights feel like
constant bombardment.
I know incitement of hatred
is never good for the Jews.
I also know we're not the first
generation to live like this.
When bad news batters at the windows
I remember the Jews who fled Europe
and those who couldn’t leave in time.
Aish Kodesh, rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto
who buried wisdom in a coffee can
before the Nazis shot him.
I remember Cossacks, Crusades, Rome
all the way back to exile
by the waters of Babylon...
Every Friday night I cup
my hands around twin flames.
Millennia of ancestors stand
behind me. Their hope still burns.
I mean clear-eyed awareness
of just how broken this world is
and refusal to let that be
the last word. Yes, everything’s
shattered, our mystics told us that.
They also knew beneath every shard
is a holy spark nothing can ever quench.

Originally published at Bayit.

 

That's one of the poems I wrote for Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group, to share as part of our collaborative offering for Tisha b'Av this year, which is called For the Sake of Ascent.

This year, it feels like we live in Tisha b'Av -- in the brokenness -- all the time. Between ongoing pandemic, the climate crisis, and the stripping-away of rights, there's no escaping what hurts.

This year, we wanted our Tisha b'Av offering to acknowledge the broken places, but beyond that, to offer some meaning and hope despite all of our shattered places... or maybe in them and through them. 

And this year, the holiday falls on Shabbat, so it will be observed the following day, which is actually the tenth of Av -- and the first day of the reverse Omer count, the 49-day journey toward Rosh Hashanah.

That's the hook on which our offering hangs. The lowest point of our year is also the beginning of uplift: from rock bottom, where else is there to go? We respond to what's broken with building back better.

The theme for Bayit's Tisha b'Av collaboration this year is Descent for the Sake of Ascent. This is a Hasidic idea that I deeply love. In a word, our falling down is precisely the first step of our rising up.

Anyway: I hope you'll click through to read the whole collection of poetry, liturgy, and art for this year's Tisha b'Av, available both as a PDF and as google slides: For the Sake of Ascent - Tisha b'Av 5782.


Not Knowing

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The only thing I know:
we are not "there" yet,
and I'm not sure where "there" is
or how we will feel
or with what we will serve.

It's scary not having a map
to safety. Scarier still
that some claim the plague
never happened, or the deaths
aren't important...

These years are wilderness
and sometimes I struggle to hear
the still small voice
calling me forth
from my armchair, calling me

into humble not-knowing
and into the splendor
of not making myself afraid.
This work isn't new, and
we won't complete it: that’s ok.

Yes, there were leeks
in the beforetimes. I miss
them too. But then I remember
not everyone got to eat
even then. We can do better.

It's all right to feel fear
as long as we put one foot
in front of the other.
There is no path to Sinai
other than this.




With what we will serve - see Exodus 10:26. The still small voice - see I Kings 19:12Not making myself afraid - After Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, והעיקר לא להתפחד כלל / the important thing is not to make oneself afraid. Humble…splendor - Two ways of translating הוד, the quality our mystics associate with this week. We won’t complete it - see Pirkei Avot 2:16. There were leeks - see Numbers 11:5.

 

Originally published as part of Step by Step: Omer 5782, the collaborative offering from Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group for this year's Omer journey. Find that collection here:  Step by Step: Omer 5782 at Bayit.


New prayer-poems for the Omer journey

On Saturday night at second seder we'll begin counting the Omer: the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation. Here are seven new prayer-poems for that journey, one for each week -- plus a prayer before counting, and a closing piece that integrates the journey before Shavuot -- from Bayit: Building Jewish: Step by Step / Omer 5782.

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This time, seven members of Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group wanted to co-create together. So each of us took one week of the Omer. (I got hod, the week of humility and splendor.)

I also wrote an adaptation of a classical prayer before counting the Omer, and we co-wrote a kind of cento, a collaborative poem made (mostly) of lines from our other pieces woven-together, for the end of the journey. You can find all of this (in PDF form, and also as google slides) here at Builders Blog.

Shared with deepest thanks to collaborators and co-creators Trisha Arlin, R. Dara Lithwick, R. Bracha Jaffe, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz, and R. David Zaslow. We hope these new prayer-poems uplift you on your journey toward Sinai.


Announcing From Narrow Places

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Co-creating new liturgy for these difficult times is one of the things that has brought me spiritual sustenance over the last eighteen months. I'm honored to have convened this extraordinary group of artists, liturgists, and poets, rabbis and laypeople alike, and I'm humbled by the knowledge that our work has uplifted hearts and souls in many places.

I hope you'll pick up a copy of this book, and I hope that what's in it will sustain you.

Now available for $18 -- From Narrow Places: liturgy, poetry and art of the pandemic era from Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group. Featuring work by Trisha Arlin, R. Rachel Barenblat, Joanne Fink, R. Allie Fischman, R. Dara Lithwick, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz PhD, Steve Silbert, R. Jennifer Singer, and Devon Spier.

Rabbi Irwin Kula, co-president of CLAL, writes,

For too many, prayer is a vending machine experience and so unsurprisingly it no longer works. And then there are the poets and liturgists in this heart opening collection From Narrow Places who know prayer is a powerful way of consciously surrendering to the mystery and exquisite bittersweetness of Life. This collection of prayers will inspire and enchant you – the real job prayer is supposed to get done.

And Rabbi Vanessa Ochs, professor at University of Virginia and author of Inventing Jewish Ritual, writes,

From Narrow Places gives language and imagery to the Jewish spiritual creativity that is still holding us up through the pandemic. I pray that speedily in our days we will look back at this volume as a testimony to how Jews of one era weathered a crisis and emerged even stronger. For now, it chronicles how the richness of Jewish living, full and fluid, is holding us up in these challenging days. I will confess: each page unlocked doors to my unexamined disappointments, sorrows and even deep joys. Many tears, but good ones.


New poetry, liturgy, and art for Chanukah

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I'm delighted to be able to announce that Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group has just released a new collection of poetry, liturgy, and art for this year's Chanukah. 

It's available as a downloadable PDF and also as illuminated google slides suitable for screensharing. You can read excerpts of the prayers/poems and download a PDF, and preview the google slides and access those, here at Builders Blog: Rolling Darkness Into Light

This collaborative creative work is one of the most spiritually and creatively nourishing things I get to do. I hope that what we've co-created will speak to you.

This offering includes work by Trisha Arlin, Joanne Fink, R. Dara Lithwick, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz PhD, and R. David Zaslow. (And also me.) Click through and read it now.


A week of building with Bayit

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Top row: T-shirts courtesy of Steve Silbert; the Bayit Board meets onsite and online; kayaking on the lake.

Bottom row: morning davening gear, and our morning davening spot.

 

When we gather at our VRBO, the first thing we do is kasher the kitchen. We do a massive grocery run at a nearby kosher market and make dinner together. We turn a pile of inspirational stickers into impromptu mad libs. On Rosh Chodesh Elul we daven outside under the spreading trees and the fields of goldenrod and corn, and we sing and laugh our way through Hallel.

We blue-sky dream about what we want Bayit to be and do next. We talk about disruption, innovation, collaboration and creativity, inspiration and design, remix and joy. We talk about Jewish life and what what people need (especially now, amidst pandemic and change). We talk about spiritual tools and technologies, ritual and learning, knowledge and practice.

We talk about problem statements, and use cases, and minimum viable products, and how to know when a new idea "works," and the cycle of trying a new thing, measuring success, revising the thing, trying again. We brainstorm lists of people outside this room whose work we want to uplift, and talk about how to do that. We sing niggunim. We add cards to Trello boards.  

We talk about audiences for our offerings / who we serve. We talk about restorative religion and DIY religion and social justice. We talk about ethics, and pluralism, and collaborative creativity and why the collaborative process matters to us, and about bridging between silos and between communities. We talk about our collective strengths and competencies and what we love.

We review our portfolio of existing and possible build projects. We review the builds that are already underway, books and classes and ethics work and liturgy-poetry-art offerings. We let some ideas go. We write down new ideas that are flowing now that we're together -- some of us onsite, some of us on Zoom -- as we talk timelines, workflows, skillsets, middot / qualities. 

We sit at the kitchen counter with coffee and we workshop poetry and liturgy, reading lines aloud and offering suggestions, tinkering and uplifting. Over dinner we toss sermon ideas around. We share High Holiday planning. We look at Bayit's mission and vision, and choose which build projects to prioritize. We dream together about collaborations, set new ideas in motion.

In between these conversations we cook meals together. We kayak on a nearby lake. We study the Me'or Eynayim. We sing with guitars by the firepit and I marvel at the miracle that we are here together again, learning and hoping and building. We are rebooting Bayit together, retooling for who we're becoming and for the different needs that the pandemic has revealed.

On Friday we daven with guitar, riffing melodies, singing in harmony, laughing, reaching out to God with supplication and joy. The birds flit from one goldenrod stalk to another. The big maples grace us with occasional raindrops. The crickets and cicadas sing with us. We close with every Psalm 27 melody we know before blowing shofar. The sound rings out over the fields.

At the end of the week we make Shabbes. We gather with guitars by the lake, we daven and harmonize, we sing and rejoice. We take a day to rest and renew -- though honestly, for me, this whole week has been restorative and renewing, even though we got so much done. To have the opportunity to build for the future with such extraordinary hevre: I am blessed beyond measure. 

 

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Bayit board, onsite and online.

 

Cross-posted to Builders Blog, with endless gratitude to the Bayit Board and to all who build with us.

 


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.)