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

My Post

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.)


How To

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

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

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

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

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

 


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


Hefker / ownerless

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This gorgeous illumination is by Joanne Fink; the poem is mine. 

As always, I'm humbled and honored to have midwifed this collection of new poetry, liturgy, and visual art into being -- and I know that my own poem is stronger for the collaborative workshopping, so I'm grateful for that too. 

You can read excerpts from everyone's beautiful work and download the collection here: Together, Becoming - Shavuot 2021 from Bayit.


As Pesach approaches again

When we planned our first pandemic Zoom seders a year ago, none of us imagined that we would be preparing now for a second "season of our liberation" locked down at home. There's a sense of emotional and spiritual heaviness. We are all so tired, and so grief-soaked, and so ready to be with each other in person again. We yearn to feel free, but we're not "there yet."

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"Whatever gets in the way of the work is the work," as my poetry mentor Jason Shinder z"l used to say.

Before we can experience liberation at Pesach, we need to begin where we are. When the Bayit Liturgical Arts Working Group met to begin planning our offering for this second COVID Pesach, we decided to offer materials that could be a bridge or doorway into seder: starting where we are, and bringing us (we hope) to a place of readiness to approach freedom.

 

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What does it mean to approach the season of our liberation when so many of us feel we are still in Mitzrayim / in the Narrow Place of pandemic, economic uncertainty, and global grieving? What do we carry with us on the journey? How will this seder be different from all other seders, even the first pandemic seder we celebrated a year ago? Here are our collaborative answers.

You can find the whole collection here, in google slides form (beautiful!) and PDF form (somewhat more utilitarian): Approaching our second COVID seder. Please use them, excerpt them, adapt them, share them. We hope that they will reach everyone who would find meaning in them. May they make our second COVID Pesach more meaningful and real.


Labor of love

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A glimpse of the Color The Omer Trello board: the digital "room where it happens."


I can't remember how we initially framed my role. Cat-herder, maybe. I'm the lead architect for Bayit Publishing, so our book projects (and liturgy projects and to some extent blog projects) are in my purview. Last summer, a new idea from Shari Berkowitz reached our doorstep: a contemplative coloring book for the 49 days of the Omer, with illustrations that each user can transform with color, and kavanot / intentions /reflections and questions on each page. The Bayit board approved the Build Plan, and we set the book in motion by creating a Trello board where collaborators could keep track of tasks and chat via digital post-it notes. That was June, and at first, I didn't think I'd be very involved until it was time to bring the book to print.

When Shari brought the concept to Bayit, our #VisualTorah sketchnoter Steve Silbert immediately volunteered to do the illustrations. Right away, they invited me as editor / publisher to partner with them on brainstorming and revising. What an unexpected delight. Over time we refined each page. We brainstormed visual elements and ideas for drawings, far more than the 49 pages that made it into the book. We took turns drafting text for each page, and then editing each others' work (usually a paragraph would get winnowed down to "slim text" which would then get revised a third time once we reached the page layout stage). Steve drew things, and sometimes drew them again and again, revising for visual impact or riffing off of our ideas. 

By the end of the process, Trello had become my daily companion. I kept it open in a tab all the time. (We use it for all Bayit builds, but the Color the Omer board became my default, for a while.) Any time a little red dot appeared on the tab, I knew that Shari or Steve had left a comment, and I'd click through to join the conversation and help however I could. Once all the pages were drafted, Shari put them in order. Then we handed the manuscript over to R. David Markus, who combed through it for misplaced nekudot (vowel markings) and Hebrew typos and asked great questions about text and formatting choices. Draft, refine, draft again. At last, after nine months of collaboration -- just in time for Pesach! -- the book was ready to be born. 

I love the idea of an Omer coloring book: as an Omer practice, an artistic practice, a mindfulness practice. I love the illustrations that Steve drew, and the ideas that Shari brought to the table, and how R. David helped us see beyond our blind spots. And maybe most of all, I love being part of a thoughtful, creative, collaborative build team. We learned to hold our own ideas loosely, to embrace each others' creativity, and to improvise and riff and revise together. All of us deeply respect each other and each others' work, so all of our comments were offered not in a spirit of tearing-down but in a spirit of building-up. We cheered and supported each other as we worked together to build this tool for spiritual life that we wanted to offer to the world.

As this book enters print, I feel like a proud midwife. I love getting to be a thought partner, a helper in the background: the cat-herder, the holder of the container. This has always been part of our mission at Bayit: we collaborate broadly as we build and test and refine tools for a Jewish future always under construction. And we love lifting up meaningful work so that it can shine.

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Order Color The Omer now --

and may it enrich your Omer journey in countless ways!

$13 on Amazon (and Amazon's global affiliates)


The lot of one year. (It's been a lot, this one year.)

Purim is almost upon us -- the last Jewish holiday that most of us celebrated in person last year, before the pandemic started keeping us apart. It's a tough anniversary. A year since we started staying apart to protect each other. It feels like forever. We celebrate Purim with costumes and masks -- masks, for sure, mean something different now than they ever did before. We celebrate topsy-turviness -- but what does it mean to do that when our whole world feels turned upside-down? 

Those were some of the questions animating the members of Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group. I think you'll see them in our fifth collection of prayer and poetry and artwork, which we just released today. My main contribution (aside from convening the group!) is a poem about Esther and us, quarantine and saving lives and loss. I also wrote one of the short pieces in our seven-part "Last Purim" series, reflecting on what Purim was like "before covid," a year (or maybe a lifetime) ago. 

For me I think R. Sonja K. Pilz's poems are the most poignant and powerful this time around -- the one about her baby thinking masks are ordinary, and the litany with the refrain of "twelve months / or more." But honestly, everything in this collection moves me, and I'm grateful to be collaborating and co-creating with this exceptional group of artists, liturgists, and rabbis. You can read excerpts and download the PDF here at Builders Blog: The Lot of One Year - Liturgy, Poetry, and Art for Purim 2021.


Windows

Once I compared daily prayer
to a chat window open with God
all the time. That was before.
Now the chat windows where I text,
the Zoom windows where we meet,
are as fervent as prayer:

the only way we can be together
anymore. The digital windows open
between my home (my heart) and yours --
they're what link us, together apart
like lovers with hands pressed
to far sides of thick glass.

Chanukah candles go in the window
to shine light into the world
to proclaim the miracle even
in dark times. We've all seen
the old photo, chanukiyah burning
small and defiant in the foreground

and on a building across the street
the swastika's hideous slash. I put
my lights each night in my window:
tiny candles visible to anyone
driving through the condo complex.
It's not brave like the rabbi in Kiel

in 1932, though more people hate us
today than I used to imagine. Still
these little lights declare
that hatred will not destroy us.
Let's be real: no one walks past
my window in the smalltown night

so I post a photo too on Facebook
scattering holy sparks
through every browser window
proclaiming the miracle
that we're still here, that
the light of our fierce hope still shines.

 

[Originally published in Great Miracles Happen Here: Liturgy, Poetry, and Art for Chanukah, published by Bayit: Building Jewish. Click through to read excerpts and download the whole collection.]


Prayers, poems, and artwork for Chanukah

It's not like the Temple, sullied
by improper use and then washed clean
and restored to former glory.
This house is tarnished by familiarity.
Month after pandemic month I've circled
from bed to table to sofa to bed again.
I no longer see the mezuzah
on every door frame. Tonight
with one tiny candle I light another.
I want their little flames to galvanize
my hands to consecrate each room...

That's the beginning of a poem called "Rededication," which I wrote in collaboration with the other rabbis, writers, liturgists, and artists who are part of Bayit's liturgical arts working group

You can read all of "Rededication" on page 11 of our new collection for this difficult pandemic Chanukah. (I also have another prayer-poem in that collection, about candles in windows and Zoom...)

The collection is called Great Miracles Happen Here: Liturgy, Poetry, and Art for Chanukah. I think it's a really beautiful collection, and I really hope you'll click through and download the PDF.

Here you'll find new liturgy for this pandemic Chanukah, evocative poetry, and stirring artwork, intended for use by individuals and communities across and beyond the denominational spectrum.

My collaborators and fellow builders on this project are Trisha Arlin, R. Dara Lithwick, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz, R. Jennifer Singer, Devon Spier, and Steve Silbert.

Find it here on Builders Blog: Great Miracles Happen Here: Liturgy, Poetry, and Art for Chanukah. (You can also find it, along with our other liturgical offerings, at Bayit's Liturgical Arts for Our Times page.)


Liturgy for Sukkot in times of covid-19

Before Tisha b'Av, I gathered a group of liturgists to collaborate on a project that became Megillat Covid, Lamentations for this time of covid-19.

In recent weeks we've gathered again -- in slightly different configuration -- to build something new for this pandemic season: a set of prayer-poems for Sukkot and Simchat Torah, which we've titled Ushpizin. That's the Aramaic word for guests, usually used to refer to the practice of inviting ancestral / supernal guests like Abraham and Sarah into our Sukkah... though this year, what does it mean to invite Biblical guests when many of us don't feel safe inviting in-person guests? That's the question that gave rise to the project.

The prayers / poems that we wrote arose out of that question and more. What does it mean to find safety in a sketch of a dwelling in this pandemic year? With what, or whom, are we "sitting" when we sit in our sukkot this year? What about those of us who can't build this year at all? And what can our Simchat Torah be if we are sheltering-in-place, or if our shul buildings are closed, or if we are not gathering in person with others? 

For Megillat Covid, we each wrote a piece and then I collected them. This time our creative process was different. Four of us collectively wrote nine pieces, and then we met to workshop them and revise them together, in hopes of creating not just nine individual prayers but a whole that would be more than the sum of its parts. And then we wrote the tenth prayer-poem together as a collaboration... and Steve Silbert offered a couple of sketchnotes, too.

You can click through to Builders Blog to read excerpts from our ten poems and to download the whole collection as a PDF, and I hope you will -- I'm really proud of this collection, and humbled and honored to have convened the group that brought it to life.

 


Megillat Covid at Builders Blog

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One of the things we do at Bayit is share curated resources and spiritual tools for "building Jewish." Our latest is Megillat Covid -- a collection of five offerings for Tisha b'Av, written in and for this time of pandemic.

Megillat Covid comprises five readings / prayers / variations on Eicha (Lamentations). One was written by me, one by Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz who is the editor of the CCAR Press, one by liturgist and poet devon spier, one by liturgist and poet Trisha Arlin, and one by my fellow Bayit co-founder Rabbi Evan Krame. Each looks at Lamentations and at the pandemic through its own unique lens, and I am honestly humbled and moved to be able to curate such a meaningful resource in this moment. 

Here's an excerpt from each of our five pieces; you can click through to Builders Blog to read each of our poems in full.

*

Crying Out by R’ Rachel Barenblat draws on images from the pandemic and asks the question: who will we be when the pandemic is gone? Here is a brief excerpt (you can read the whole piece in the PDF file at Builders Blog):

Lonely sits the city once great with people —
her subways now empty, her classrooms closed.
Refrigerator trucks await the bodies of the dead
wrapped in sheets of plastic and stacked like logs.
Mourners keep a painful distance, unable to embrace…

Along the Lines of Lamentations by R’ Sonja K. Pilz is similar to a cento (a poem that repurposes lines from another poem), as it consists primarily of quotations from Eicha, re-contextualized by their juxtaposition and by this pandemic season. Here is a brief excerpt (the whole appears in the PDF at Builders Blog):

We were laid waste (2:5).
We were stripped liked a garden;
Ended have Shabbat and festivals (2:6).
Our gates have sunk into the ground (2:9).
Elders sit silently;
Women bow their heads to the ground (2:10).
My eyes are spent;
My being melts away (2:11)….

Jeremiahs without a jeremiad by devon spier offers fragmented lines evoking our fragmented hearts in this time of pandemic. About her contribution, devon writes:

To be used to cultivate an embodied COVID megillah reading that honours the fall of Jerusalem and the ebb and flow of our bodies in the months of the Coronavirus and related social distancing. 

To honour that for those of us with pre-existing conditions (our own frail, flimsy, fabulous humanness, our addictions, chronic health issues, years of unfelt griefs suddenly flung to the surface…each of these), we can wrap our whole selves in the scroll of this weeping day. And we can arrive, just as we are.

I would frame this as a kavannah as lines of ketuvim (lines of poetical post-exilic writings) the speaker can read before beginning chanting to set an intention. Or, the lines of this work could also be read throughout the chanting, as the verses I cite appear throughout the first chapter of Eicha. 

‘V’ha-ikar…” and the essence: Pause for the moments you feel the most human. Feel. And insert the words of this piece exactly where you are. From the lines of this intention and a gentle remembrance on this solemn day where we still face ourselves, our ancestors, our communities and each other, in and beyond, always, with hope: “Jerusalem is me is you.”

Here is a brief excerpt (the whole appears in the PDF at Builders Blog):

lamentations
for those with pages
of unwritten loss
lamenting
Jerusalem
and everything else
they never had
but Are
somehow
we are…

Alas by Trisha Arlin evokes the full journey of Eicha, from weeping for the city in distress to remembrance and the promise of change. Here is a brief excerpt (the whole appears in the PDF at Builders Blog):

…Eating, Sleeping, Walking
Alone
TV, Facebook, Prayer
Alone
Coughing, Crying, Dying
Alone

Alas, loneliness!
I am so frightened.
I weep and who will hear me?…

Remember by Rabbi Evan Krame evokes the end of Lamentations, beseeching God to remember us and to let us return. Here is a brief excerpt (the whole appears in the PDF below):

God! Remember what we had? Consider and see our situation!
Our future went to strangers, our houses no refuge.
We are like orphans, without a leader, our mothers worry like widows…

Read the whole thing here: Megillat Covid at Builders Blog.


Being Real: Digital Edition

Real (1)

Once there was a toy rabbit who yearned to become Real. He loved his Boy, and he was loved by his Boy. And when his Boy fell ill, the toy rabbit was his constant companion.

When the Boy recovered, the doctors said the rabbit was contaminated and needed to be burned. In that darkest night, as the rabbit waited, he wept a tear. And from his tear a flower grew, and from within the flower came the Shechinah. She told him that as he had become real to the Boy who loved him, now he would be real to everyone.

Okay, in the original telling it wasn't Shechinah, it was a fairy. Close enough.

So in this sacred text -- which, as you probably know, is a children's book by Margery Williams called The Velveteen Rabbit, from which my blog takes its name -- the way one becomes Real is through loving and being loved... and through the actions fueled by that love, especially accompanying someone into the darkness of illness and loss. That sounds about right to me.

Becoming Real requires empathy. How can we safely feel empathy in these times of pandemic when there are so many reasons to despair? And how do we accompany each other, as the rabbit accompanied his Boy, when we are physically separated or quarantined?

That last question is the easiest for me to answer: we accompany each other however we can. Write a letter, send an email or text, make a phone call, meet over video... If nothing else, hold the other person in your heart and stretch out your soul to connect with theirs.

During this pandemic we're learning how to be in community even when we are physically alone. On the second night of Pesach, I sat alone with a Zoom screen in front of me -- and R' David and I co-led a seder for our communities, and it felt real. It wasn't "as-if" -- it was really seder. I imagine many of you had similar experiences.

I remember being a child, getting a long-distance phone call from my parents, and feeling amazed that they could be so far away and I could still hear their voices. There was a bit of a lag, as our voices traveled beneath the ocean, but that didn't matter.

Remember the miracle of long-distance phone calls? Or the first time you ever saw a loved one's face over video? Or: imagine reading an email and feeling that a loved one is with you. Or reading a blog post that makes you feel understood. Or texting with a friend, carrying their words and their presence on your smartphone throughout the day.

Our vernacular separates between the internet and "RL," real life. But connections forged or sustained online are real, just as our davenen together tonight is real.

An emotional and spiritual connection -- with another; with community; with our Source -- can be real no matter what tools we're using to create or sustain it. The bigger challenge is being real in the first place. The Velveteen Rabbit reminds us that being real requires openness and empathy enough to companion each other in tight places.

Sometimes it's hard to be real when someone is suffering. It's hard to sit with someone in their sorrow. The word compassion means "feeling-with" or "suffering-with." Being real asks us to feel-with each other.

Sometimes our own struggles prevent us from being real. When my son was born I suffered from postpartum depression, but I told my doctor I was fine, because I was ashamed and I didn't want him to really see me. That fear kept me from being real.

Sometimes it's hard to be real with God. Because I get trapped in katnut, in my small human mind. Or because the words of inherited liturgy feel empty. Sometimes prayer can feel like a long-distance call where I'm not sure anyone's picking up on the other end.

But authentic spiritual life asks us to be real. Our prayers aren't just words on a page, they're pointers to lived emotional experience. To really pray the words of Ahavat Olam, or to remix them anew, I have to feel unending love streaming into creation.

And, I also have to be careful about how I channel unending love. Authentic spiritual life asks me to open my heart -- to my yearnings, to the needs of others, to my Source -- and it also asks me to maintain boundaries. In the language of our mystical tradition, it asks me to balance the overflowing love we call chesed with the healthy limits we call gevurah.

Authentic spiritual life asks us to feel-with each other even during pandemic, even during this time of rising awareness of how systemic racism harms Black and Indigenous People of Color, even in times of personal grief. If we refuse to feel with each other, then we break that nourishing human interconnection that is our obligation and our birthright.

We need to feel, without spiritual bypassing, while maintaining a container strong enough to hold safely. This inner structural integrity can help us build systems and structures of integrity in this world that so needs repair. And that includes our Jewish communities, too: we need to be real in order to build a Jewish spiritual future worthy of the name.

And we need to be real for the sake of our own souls. I've learned that the flow of creativity requires me to be real: with myself, with God, with you. The posts and poems and prayers that seem to resonate most are ones written from that place. I think they speak to people deeply precisely because they're real. It's my responsibility to cultivate sufficient gevurah to write about what's real in a way that's safe for me and for my readers.

In seeking to strike that balance, there's risk -- and there's also reward. As we read in Mishlei, "As water reflects face to face, so the heart reflects person to person." (Proverbs 27:19) When I'm willing to be real, others are real in return. You meet my honesty with yours, my heart with yours, my words with yours, my prayers with yours.

Reb Zalman z"l used to say that we all have our own unique login to the Cosmic Mainframe. "To log on to God," he said in 2004, "we need only awareness, because God is there all the time, making your heart beat." That login is open to us even in quarantine. We just have to be willing to be real at the table, the meditation cushion, the Zoom screen.

And our connections with each other and with community are still open to us even in quarantine. Online life, online davenen, online friendship: these aren't "virtual reality." They're as real as we allow ourselves to be.

 

Offered as a keynote teaching at the 2020 Clear Vision Reb Zalman Legacy Shabbaton organized by Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland, Oregon. My Friday night d'var was designed to dovetail with the Shabbat morning d'var given by R' David Markus, The Mishkan's Next Digital (R)Evolution, and our paired talks in turn fueled the Mishkan Sandbox Lunch-and-Learn with our host R' David Zaslow.  (Cross-posted to Bayit's Builders Blog.)

 


Calling all clergy: come write psalms with me!

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In these first six weeks of the pandemic, I've been teaching a psalm-writing workshop for my shul and a friend's shul together, and a member of my community who's a rabbi has been taking the class. After the first week, she commented to me that the class feels like spiritual self-care, and that she hadn't realized how much she needed to read and write psalms, to connect with emotions and spirit in these incredibly difficult times. Then another rabbinic colleague called me from across the country and said, "I love that you're teaching a psalms class for your congregation. Would you teach something like that for rabbis?" 

Announcing: online learning at Bayit: Building Jewish! This will be our first class offering. It's designed for clergy. (Never fear, over time we're planning to balance learning for clergy with learning aimed at a broader audience. Also, I'm about to teach a version of a psalms class for My Jewish Learning which will not be for clergy, and I'll share info about that here soon too.) Here's a description of Bayit's first online offering:

The psalms give voice to a range of human emotions, from despair to exultation. In this class for clergy, we’ll study psalms (both classical / Biblical, and contemporary poems that function in similar ways) and then open our creative channels to write our own. Both the reading and the writing will enliven our relationship with text, tradition, ourselves, and our Source, and will give us tools for building a more robust relationship with the psalms and with our own creativity.

In each session, we’ll study select psalms and poems together, delve into writing exercises, and enter into a safe space for creativity as we write. We’ll share work (in dyads or as a whole group) and offer feedback. Throughout, we’ll seek to attune ourselves to the inner dynamics of heart and spirit, exploring how our continuing spiritual formation is being impacted by our spiritual service during this time of pandemic.

The class will meet over Zoom for five sessions of 90 minutes apiece. We will focus each week on a different facet of the psalms and our inner lives: gratitude, awareness, teshuvah, grief / anxiety, and wholeness.

Tuition: $180

Dates: Fridays May 15 and 22, June 5, 12, and 19; 3pm ET / 12pm PT

This class  for clergy will be limited to 12 participants. Once the first session fills, registrants will have the option of pre-registering for the next iteration of the class, which will take place after the first five-week session is complete.

Read all about it and sign up on Bayit's Online Learning page. All are welcome, with two caveats: 1) only the first 12 to sign up will get in to the first iteration of the class (though I will gladly teach it again if there's interest), and 2) if you're going to be studying the psalms with me at the Richmond Academy for Spiritual Formation in December, you might want to wait and do this learning with me in person, since what I'll be offering in this Zoom class will overlap a lot with the psalms work I do with the Academy. I look forward to learning with y'all!