Praying in the nursing home

NursinghomeWhen I arrived at the nursing home with my guitar and a pile of prayerbooks, they kindly gave me a bellhop's cart. Better yet, they provided a staff person who could lead me through the labyrinth to the right elevator which would take me to the hallway nearest to the private dining room. In that room there is a china closet with  wine glasses inside, and a window with a distant mountain view. Aside from the speaker mounted in the corner, periodically blaring announcements, it feels almost like a home.

We'd never done this before -- bringing the service in to the nursing home. I have one congregant there, and he used to be among our most faithful daveners. We've missed him, the last few years as he's been increasingly unable to come to shul. And then his daughters asked whether we could bring shul to him. So we put the word out, and we hung a sign on the door of the synagogue in case anyone dropped by this morning expecting our usual services, and we met in the nursing home instead.

I had brought ten copies of a handout I had prepared, containing a song and a tiny excerpt from this week's Torah portion. I had brought a pile of fifteen siddurim. At first it seemed as though that would be sufficient, but as more and more people arrived, we pulled extra chairs in from the dining hall next door. Eventually people shared prayerbooks and looked on with each other, which had not been intentional on my part, though I think it actually led to a deeper feeling of connection with each other.

We sang as many old melodies as I could come up with, from "Mah Tovu" to "Adon Olam." The music is a carrier wave for the meaning behind the prayers, and I wanted to reach the patriarch who sat with us, eyes closed, clenching his daughters' hands. We touched on every prayer in the morning service, but did some of them in abbreviated form; what I wanted most was for the rhythms and sounds to gently enter our elder's heart. I chanted a bit of Torah and offered a blessing for everyone present.

After the Torah reading I shared a glimpse of the ideas about which I had planned to speak, about the Torah of wholeness and how each of us is a Torah (stay tuned -- I'll post that tomorrow), and then I offered an impromptu teaching about how our ancestors carried in the ark both the second set of tablets and the shattered first set of tablets. From this we learn to cherish not only our wholeness, but also our brokenness. We are precious not only when vigorous, but also when broken by illness or age.

When it was time for the kiddush afterwards we stood in a circle around the refreshments which our patriarch's daughters had provided. We sang the borei pri hagafen blessing over bunches of grapes because we had gotten our wires crossed about who was bringing juice and wine; we sang the borei minei m'zonot blessing over coffee cake because the same miscommunication had meant there was no challah. It didn't matter. All around the room were smiles, and clasped hands, and open hearts.

I love leading services in the sanctuary at my shul. We have an extraordinarily beautiful space, with tall windows looking out over an amazing panorama of wetlands and mountains and meadow. And yet there's something special about bringing our community and our familiar prayers into a setting like this. As a friend noted to me afterwards, praying in this way helps one to realize that the words and the heart behind them are what connects us -- not the building, no matter how beautiful it may be. 

 


Shabbat, technology, and tube socks

It really wasn't my intention to base multiple Hebrew school lessons this year around repurposed undergarments. But sometimes this rabbinic life takes me into places I didn't exactly expect to go. Case in point: yesterday I found myself preparing for my fifth-through-seventh-grade class by standing in line at the local Dollar Store (not my favorite shopping destination, but this time it was suitably affordable for my needs) with a double armful of cheap white tube socks.

I wanted to teach my students about Shabbat. I knew I wanted to begin with a short conversation about who creates holiness, God or us. (Psst: both, together.) I knew I wanted to convey that Shabbat is the holiest day of the year and it happens each week; that on Shabbat, we who are made in God's image rest as Torah teaches that God rested on the seventh day of creation; that Shabbat is a day to stop doing and to just be, to be "human beings" instead of "human do-ings."

In years past, I haven't been wholly satisfied with our conversations about different Jewish ways of understanding the commandment to rest and not do work. One year I taught a lesson about the 39 forms of labor which are traditionally understood to be prohibited on Shabbat, but it was hard to connect those to my students' lived experiences. It's too easy for them to start seeing Shabbat practices as deprivations, instead of as opportunities for connection, holiness, a different state of mind.

I know that most of my students have cellphones. And I'm pretty sure that if I suggested to them that they turn off their phones every Shabbat, they would balk. (As might their parents.) What I wanted instead was to get them thinking not about whether they use technology on Shabbat, but how they use it. For instance: is there a difference between using one's phone to call a friend and connect, vs. using one's phone to play a solitary game which keeps one disconnected from the world?

If nothing else, I thought there might be some interesting fodder for conversation. 

So I decided to make and decorate cellphone bags. Not with an eye toward shaming my kids for using their phones on Saturdays, but with an eye toward shifting how they use those phones on that special day. (And even if they don't actually use the bags most of the time, maybe the act of making them would be a consciousness-raiser.) The challenge was, I don't have a very large education budget, and I didn't want to spend money on fancy cellphone cases which I wasn't even sure the kids would use.

Enter the tube socks.

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String theory

It's a good thing my rabbinic smicha wasn't contingent on my sewing skills. That was the thought which kept going through my head as I struggled with carefully snipping seams (without snipping fabric), placing careful stitches to keep the seams from unravelling further, and then stitching four squares of folded fabric to make reinforced corners. I am not a seamstress, so this pushed the limits of my sewing capabilities. My stitches are far from beautiful or even. But they're functional, and that's what matters. Then I lined up threads in groups of four -- three short, one long -- and pushed them through the reinforced corners. And then I twisted them and tied them.1 By the time I was done, I had made myself a tallit katan.

Next week I'm going to be teaching my fifth-through-seventh-grade class about the mitzvah (connective-commandment) of tzitzit: wearing fringes on our garments. In theory they should already be familiar with this one. They've seen adults wearing tallitot (prayer shawls) in shul. And every Saturday morning, in the third paragraph of the Shema, we pray the verses which instruct us to place fringes on the corners of our garments in order that we might remember the commandments, and the Exodus from Egypt, and our relationship with God. Here's the way I usually sing them (the translation is designed to be singable to the same trope melody as the Hebrew):

And God spoke to Moses saying: speak to the children of Israel and say to them
that they should make tzitzit on the corners of their garments for all time,
and they shall place on the tzitzit a little thread of blue.
And these shall be for you as tzitzit, that you may look upon them,
that you will remember all of the mitzvot of Adonai and you shall do them,
so that you will not go running after the cravings of your heart
or the turnings of your eyes which might take you into places where you should not be!
So that you may remember and do all of My mitzvot, and be holy like your God.
I am Adonai your God,
the One Who brought you out from the land of Egypt to be your God.
I am Adonai your God!

(These verses are part of Jewish daily prayer too, though most of my students have never experienced weekday davenen.) But just because we sing the words all the time -- even given that I sing these particular words in English to make sure they're understood, and hold up my own tzitzit as a visual aid -- that doesn't necessarily mean that my students have ever paid attention, or thought about what the mitzvah means. I want to change that.

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Moments

640px-Omega_pocket_watchThere is only one of me; I can only be in one place at one time. And yet my job calls me to inhabit several moments in time simultaneously. This is the nature of rabbinic work.

On the one hand:  today. This is the day that God has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it! I offer a morning prayer for gratitude, I open up my calendar, I scan to see with whom I am meeting today and what is on my to-do list.

On the other hand: Shabbat. I study this week's Torah portion, I prepare verses to read from the scroll, I think about songs and prayers. I pick up my guitar and my fingers automatically go to the chords for our Shabbat melodies.

On yet another hand: the Days of Awe. Now the machzor is released into the world, and I'm having weekly Skype dates with our student cantor. Every time he sings a line of high holiday nusach, the holidays come rushing in around me like waves.

On another hand still: a funeral which took place many months ago, and the ritual unveiling of the headstone which will take place some months hence. A "then" which is past, and a "then" which hasn't happened yet.

I remember preparing the eulogy for that funeral. I remember standing on the cold winter earth. I imagine what it will feel like to return to that spot with the family to dedicate the stone which marks that spot, which memorializes that life.

One of the names for God which we most frequently use is מלך העולם, melech ha'olam, usually translated as "king of the world" or "sovereign of the universe." But the word olam can mean both space and time (as in l'olam va'ed, "for ever and ever.")

My son sometimes asks me at bedtime where God is, and I tell him that God is everywhere. ("But invisible," my son prompts, and I confirm that yes, he's got that right.) God is also everywhen -- present in every moment. Past, present, and future all at once.

It's my job to be in this moment -- if I am sitting with a congregant for a pastoral conversation, they deserve my full presence. And also to be in that moment, and that other moment -- remembering what has come before; anticipating what's yet to come.


Reflections on a b'nei mitzvah

3260530587_6495049153_nLeading services on a Shabbat when one of our kids is called to the Torah as a bar or bat mitzvah can be an interesting challenge. For one thing, our numbers swell -- from our usual 15-20 to 60, 80, even 100. For another, the people who've gathered for a lifecycle event usually don't all know each other, and they often don't know our melodies, and there are always some -- including the junior high school contingent -- who are not Jewish and perhaps have never been to a synagogue before in their lives.

A particular kind of output of energy is required to lead this kind of kahal (congregation.) In some ways it's more like High Holiday services -- our folding walls folded back, the big sanctuary full of people, my concomitant outpouring of voice and song and self -- than like a "regular" Shabbat morning.

I take pleasure in being able to introduce our liturgy, the rhythms of our prayer, to people (both non-Jewish and Jewish) who may not have much familiarity with these words or the flow of the service. I explain a bit as we go, trying to make sure that my explanations serve as useful guideposts to the service but not obstacles or roadblocks to the way the service needs to flow. I try to make people laugh out loud at least a few times. When I get chuckles from around the room, I know I'm reaching people.

Often I don't know until after the service is over whether it's "worked" for people -- whether it reached them where they are, whether it opened them up to an emotion, whether they are emerging feeling a little bit different than when we began. Often I never find out whether it worked, or for whom. But sometimes after the service people will spontaneously offer me a response, and I treasure those. I love knowing that our morning of worship took someone someplace they maybe didn't expect to go.

Of course, the greatest joy for me is watching one of our kids shine. Watching those years of learning, the hard work of practicing the Torah portion and overcoming the hurdle of reading from an unpointed handwritten scroll, all of the effort that went into preparing a d'var Torah which will teach something about their Torah portion and how it relates to life that they know -- watching all of that pay off. Watching their family kvelling, taking visible pride in their child's lifecycle milestone.

These days I can't help imagining what it will be like when it is our son on the bimah (pulpit). What will his voice sound like at thirteen? What will his sense of humor be like? What will be his passions, his obsessions, to which he will struggle to relate his Torah portion? Will I weep when we offer him blessings? I try not to write scripts. He's only four and a half. We have a long way to go before we get there. I don't want to focus on what's coming and miss what's happening now. But there's a certain sweetness in the anticipation.

Could I have imagined, at my own celebration of bat mitzvah, how much joy I would take in this rabbinic life? I'd like to think that if I could send a message back through time, twelve-year-old me wouldn't be all that startled to hear that this is what I do now, and that I love doing it, every time. I remember aspiring to learn the service well enough that if the rabbi were to call in sick, I would (I imagined) be able to lead the congregation in prayer all by myself. Maybe this is exactly where I was always meant to be.

 

Photo: taken the day before my bat mitzvah. With my maternal grandparents, the rabbi, and the cantor.

 


Spiritual life in the open

Empty-Hospital-BedAt my two most recent poetry readings, during the Q-and-A session, someone has asked me what it's like to live my life so publicly and to expose my heart in my poetry as I do. The truth is, writing poems of miscarriage and healing, or poems of postpartum depression, didn't feel "brave." It just felt ordinary. I make sense of my life through writing. I always have, ever since the adolescent days when I kept a diary in a series of cloth-bound notebooks which I kept proudly on my shelf. Sharing my writing with others who might be walking a similar path has become one of the ways I minister to people around me. I have learned that when I share my experiences (whether sweet or bitter) I feel less alone. And people who read what I write often tell me that they feel less alone when they read my words, too, and that feels like an added blessing.

But I do think a lot about how my openness, particularly my poems of early motherhood, may someday impact our son. I hope and pray that when he is old enough to read Waiting to Unfold, he sees the love which was always a throughline, always present, even when I was struggling to find myself amid the waves of postpartum depression which threatened to drag me down. But I know that as the child of a poet, and the child of a rabbi, he may come to resent the ways in which my openness about my life means that his life is sometimes visible to the outside world, too. Maybe you've noticed that I rarely use his name on the blog anymore -- not because it's a secret, not because it's difficult to unearth, but because I'm becoming conscious that I don't want my life story (in which he is certainly a star!) to overshadow his narrative about himself.

I know that many of you, like me, have been avid readers of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer and Rabbi Michael Sommer's Superman Sam blog. They began the blog when one of their four children was diagnosed with leukemia. They posted there religiously about the ups and downs of his treatment; the blog is where where so many of us, me included, got to know their beautiful family and their extraordinary son Sam, may his memory be a blessing. I admire them for that -- and I admire them even more the way they've continued writing about their journey of grief in the wake of their son's death. When I read their blog now, I see them modeling for all of us how to make our way through the murky waters of grief. They are showing us, by example, how to grieve out loud and how to let other people offer care and love in response. They are living their spiritual lives in the open, and they teach me more than I can say.

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Some of this work's greatest blessings

It is a tremendous blessing to me every time I am able to walk alongside someone who is on the mourner's path.

To sit down in someone's kitchen or living room and let them tell me stories.

To give them a safe space in which to open the faucet and let their memories begin to pour forth.

To keep company with the family as they accompany their loved one as far as they can go.

To invite them into the painful and powerful tradition of shoveling earth onto the casket with our own hands.

To bless them that they should be consoled along with the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, and along with all who mourn.

To walk alongside them, to offer a listening ear and a welcoming heart.

To pray with them, letting the familiar cadences of the mourner's kaddish work in and through them.

To remember how precious this life is, and how unknown is the Mystery which follows.

 

I don't do this work in order to be more mindful of my own life, my own loved ones, but I am always reminded.

I remember how fortunate I am that my own loved ones are still here.

It is sobering to glimpse, at a distance, the path we all walk someday.

 

As Shabbat approaches, may all mourners find comfort. May we welcome them into our communities with kindness and understanding. May we tend their fragility more lovingly than we would tend our own.


A communally-written Al Chet for 5774

My first Jewish Renewal Yom Kippur was at the old Elat Chayyim in Accord, New York in 2004. The retreat was led by Rabbi Jeff Roth (of the Awakened Heart Project) and Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg (who was an utter joy to learn with in rabbinic school -- his classes are probably what I miss most now that I'm a rabbi!) One of the practices which moved me most was a practice of collaboratively writing our own Al Chet prayer.

The Al Chet prayer -- "For the Sins (Which We Have Sinned Against You By....)" -- is a laundry list of places where we have missed the mark in the last year. It's written in the plural (though several years ago I wrote a first-person-singular version, which I still daven sometimes.) We recite it in each of the five services of Yom Kippur. (In a traditional setting, it's recited once silently and once aloud in each service, making ten recitations in total!) By the end of the day, the words can feel somewhat repetitive.

At Elat Chayyim that year, we were each handed index cards before the holiday began. We each wrote down, on those cards, anonymously, ways in which we felt we had missed the mark in the previous year. And at each service, the cards were redistributed anonymously, and we chanted them aloud interspersed with the prayer's familiar refrain. I found it incredibly moving and powerful -- especially because almost everything others had written down was something I could have written, too.

For the last several years, we've adapted this practice at my shul. At Selichot services on the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah, midway through the service, I play quiet guitar music while people anonymously write down places where they've missed the mark, things they feel they need to release in order to reach forgiveness on Yom Kippur. And then, a few days before the holiday, I collect the basket of cards and type up what's in it, and that becomes the Al Chet which our cantorial soloist and I will chant on Yom Kippur morning.

For those who are interested, here's my community's Al Chet for this year. I share it in hopes that it might speak to you, too, and might help this prayer come alive for you in a new way

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Creating Community (A sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning)


For the building will be constructed from various parts, and the truth of the light of the world will be built from various dimensions, from various approaches, for these and those are the words of the living God... It is the precisely the multiplicity of opinions which derive from variegated souls and backgrounds which enriches wisdom and brings about its enlargement.

That's Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, known colloquially as Rav Kook. Let me say part of that again:

For the building will be constructed from various parts, and the truth of the light of the world will be built from various dimensions, from various approaches, for these and those are the words of the living God...

We might reasonably ask: what is Rav Kook talking about here? What is "the building"?

Often in Jewish tradition when we hear reference to a building, especially when it sounds like it might be a Building-With-A-Capital-B, the text is speaking of the Temple. The first Temple was built in Jerusalem in 957 BCE, and was sacked by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The second Temple was begun some fifty years later; it was sacked by the Romans in the year 70 (C.E).

But Rav Kook is speaking in the future tense, about something which will be built. He might mean the Third Temple -- for which, I should note, the Reform movement officially does not yearn! But the idea of a rebuilt Temple implies a time when the work of perfecting creation will be complete; the messianic era. Perhaps that's what he's speaking of. Perhaps he means Olam ha-ba, the World to Come.

But I don't think he has to be speaking about a literal construction project at all. I think he's talking about Jewish community.

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The first Shabbat back home

8667917025_bdf841f59d_mIt's always a little bit hard to come home from the ALEPH Kallah. I love home! I love my family; I love my little shul; I love my smalltown life. But there is always a pang, a twinge, at leaving a community of hundreds of dedicated Jewish Renewalniks who care as much as I do about Judaism, about spiritual life, about healing creation.

This past Saturday morning when Shabbat services began we were only two people. I breathed deeply and told my one congregant that even if it were just us, we would have a perfectly sweet service. It's a beautiful July day; people are on vacation; it can be hard to muster a minyan in a small town in high summer. I know this, and it's okay.

But then another couple arrived. And someone else. And someone else. And then just as we were about to reach the amidah, we broke the minyan barrier and were able to daven the amidah aloud, and to read from the Torah scroll. I got to give blessings for the various aliyot. We said prayers for healing. We recited mourner's kaddish in the comforting presence of community.

We had a glorious kiddush, with fresh strawberries and dill crackers. And then we sat around the table and studied the haftarah reading for last week, Isaiah 1:1-27, and talked about theologies of trauma and teshuvah, and about God as the angry parent, and about redemption, and about how prayer doesn't mean much unless we back it up with ethical living.

It was so beautiful and so sweet! We may not have the combined energy of 600 Shabbat-blissed Renewalniks, but what we're doing is cut from the same holy cloth. I'm so grateful to be serving this community. I'm so grateful that this is what I get to do.


Photo by Len Radin.


Self-care for clergy

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The question was posed on Twitter: what does self-care really mean for clergy? For those of us who dedicate ourselves to taking care of others, it's not always an easy question to answer. But the work of caring for others is never done, and if we allow ourselves to become burnt-out, we're not much help to the people to whom we want to minister. What does it mean to take care of ourselves? This is my list. If you have other items, I welcome them in comments.


Don't forget your own spiritual practices. Prayer, meditation, yoga, walks in the woods -- whatever works. Listen to birdsong. Cuddle with your children. Say thank you a lot.

Make regular time for learning. If there's a particular kind of sacred text which really fills you up, learn that. You need to keep your own wellsprings flowing.

Get enough sleep. No, seriously, I mean it. This really makes a difference.

Cultivate friendships: with fellow clergy who can relate to where you're at, and also with people who have nothing to do with our line of work.

Seek mentors. Be in spiritual direction and in therapy.

Make time for yourself. Also for your spouse/partner and for your child(ren.) But be sure to keep yourself on the list, too.

Treat yourself to an occasional pedicure. (Okay, maybe this one's just me. But I stand by it!)

Love the people you serve. I got this advice years ago from a dear friend when I was just starting rabbinic school, and I return to it often.

And maintain good boundaries. (You may need to keep your cellphone on in case somebody dies during the night, but you don't need to be wholly "on" all the time. If you catch yourself thinking about work at 11pm, notice that, without judgement, and gently push those thoughts aside. They can wait until morning, and you'll return to the work fresher for it.)

Keep a praise file, and when people send kind notes or say nice things, put those things in the file. When you're having a tough day and feeling down about your work, or feeling as though nothing you do makes a difference, reread what's in the praise file.

Be kind to yourself. Even when you feel as though you're not living up to your own expectations. Maybe especially then.

 


Tal Ben-Shahar on cultivating happiness

We can always be happier; no person experiences perfect bliss at all times and has nothing more to which he can aspire. Therefore, rather than asking myself whether I am happy or not, a more helpful question is, "How can I become happier?" This question acknowledges the nature of happiness and the fact that its pursuit is an ongoing process best represented by an infinite continuum, not by a finite point.

That's author Tal Ben-Shahar in his book Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. Intriguingly, this book is the homework for this week's Rabbis Without Borders Fellows meeting. When our cohort of rabbis meets for the final time, we're going to be talking about happiness. I've written before about cultivating joy, but happiness and joy aren't quite the same. This book is the first real reading I've done in the field of hedonics.

What rituals would make you happier? What would you like to introduce to your life?

...In research done by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, those who kept a daily gratitude journal -- writing down at least five things for which they were grateful -- enjoyed higher levels of emotional and physical well-being.

Each night before going to sleep, write down at least five things that made or make you happy -- things for which you are grateful...

82When I reached this section, in one of the early chapters, I felt a zing of recognition. Gratitude in each day -- articulating gratitude for the day's blessings -- these are among the most central spiritual practices of my tradition. When I say the modah ani each morning in the shower; when I pray the morning blessings (in either the traditional or alternative form); when I lie in bed at night and silently thank God for my home, my spouse, my child, my family and friends, my meaningful work; when I ask our son at the dinner table what was his favorite thing that happened that day -- these are daily gratitude practices. As far as I'm concerned, Ben-Shahar's right on.

This book does a nice job of balancing citations and references with actual practices for cultivating practices. Among the practices, Ben-Shahar suggests meditation, along with exercises such as mapping one's life (how do I actually spend my time) and creating an integrity mirror (a list of the things which are most meaningful and pleasurable to me, annotated with how much time I actually spend on each of these things each month.) He draws both on Freud (who argued that we are fundamentally driven by the need for pleasure) and on Victor Frankl (who argued that we are motivated by a will to meaning, and that striving to find / make meaning in life is the primary motivating force of human life.) He writes:

While the happy person experiences highs and lows, his overall state of being is positive. Most of the time he is propelled by positive emotions such as joy and affection rather than negative ones such as anger and guilt. Pleasure is the rule; pain, the exception. To be happy, we have to feel that, on the whole, whatever sorrows, trials, and tribulations we may encounter, we still experience the joy of being alive.

Whatever sorrows we may encounter, we still experience the joy of being alive. Yes; I resemble that remark. This is more or less my base state; anything other than this is a deviation, for me. (For instance, those months of postpartum depression early in my journey into motherhood.) On the whole, I operate from a place of good will and good feeling, rather than the opposite. Is this why I feel pretty happy, most of the time? Or do I generally feel happy because I'm operating from a place of good will and good feeling? (Or am I able to operate from that place of good will and good feeling because I'm generally happy?) I'm not sure which way the arrow of causality points, and I'm aware that privilege plays into my ability to feel this way (I don't have to deal, e.g., with being short on spoons.) Regardless, I'm grateful to fit Ben-Shahar's description of someone who's happy.

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Reb Zalman on morning prayer

Many of us think of prayer as a religious duty. Some take this seriously, loping smoothly through the well-worn formulas as a daily obligation. Others draw the line at an hour or two of synagogue on High Holidays. Both approaches have lost contact with the original prayer urge, the irrepressible surge of gratitude or the crushing hopelessness that brings forth true prayer. The idea that we ourselves might stand before God and pray from the heart is almost unthinkable.

But our souls accept only one outcome when it comes to prayer: transformation. We do not wish just to spin our mental wheels: We want to be changed. We want to be moved. We want to end in a better place than where we started. Our souls yearn for this. If we really mean the words we say, how can we help but be moved?

That's why davening takes us on a journey. This is especially true in the morning prayers. The Rabbis imagined us starting the minute we swing our feet over the side of the bed. We may wake up stiff and rumpled and bleary-eyed; we might feel cranky and old, already dreading half the tasks we have to do today. No matter: the invitation to prayer says "come as you are." We will start slowly, rise and go deeper, and return in a better frame of mind and spirit. Prayer properly and truly done -- even if we only spend twenty good minutes -- will leave us feeling cleansed and at peace, ready to greet the day with gratitude, energy, and purpose.

-- Reb Zalman (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi), in Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer

When I'm leading prayer at my shul and we reach the round of daily morning blessings -- usually called birchot ha-shachar, "blessings of the morning;" the current Reform siddur calls them Nisim She'b'chol Yom, the Miracles of Each Day -- I usually pause and note that these blessings were originally designed to be said at home, organically, as we're waking up.

We hear the rooster crow (or, more likely, the alarm clock or the footfalls of the small child padding up the stairs) and instead of thinking "oy, time to get up already?" -- or, perhaps, after thinking that! -- we think, "Oh! Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of all being, Who gives the bird of dawn the discernment to tell day from night!"

And then, getting up out of bed and stretching, we think: Oh! Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of all being, Who straightens the bent!

And then, as we take our first steps away from bed, we think: Oh! Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of all being, Who makes firm our steps! And so on, and so on.

"On the off-chance that perhaps you woke up this morning and didn't automatically pray these blessings," (I say, and usually people chuckle, which is exactly what I'm hoping for), "the creators of our siddur wisely added these blessings to the siddur, so that we can say them together this morning, with heart and with intention."

Prayer can be a lot of different things. But one of the modalities of prayer which I love best is this one: the chance to imbue ordinary moments with a consciousness of what's holy. The chance to offer gratitude. To rub the crust out of our eyes and thank God Who removes sleep from the eyes and slumber from the eyelids. To say: no matter who I am, or where I am, or what's going on with me today, I'm grateful to have woken up this morning, and to be alive.


At an unveiling, a moment of grace

First I was distracted because I didn't have a cemetery map.

There's a custom in Jewish tradition of having an unveiling of the matzevah, the grave marker / headstone, usually a year after burial. I was privileged to do an unveiling this weekend -- my first, actually, so I'd spent some time in recent weeks reading up on the ceremony and how it evolved. I felt certain that I had put together good materials (including R' Brant Rosen's beautiful interpretation of Psalm 23). But I realized, when I woke this morning, that I wasn't exactly certain where in our cemetery I would find this headstone. I should have thought of it sooner, but I was so focused on the ritual that I forgot to think about the physical place in which the ritual would unfold. Grumbling at myself, I went to shul early to look for a cemetery map.

I thought I knew where such a map would be. I was wrong. And I had just finished my search for the map when my cellphone rang. It was my husband, calling to ask where his carseat was. I clapped my hand to my mouth, realizing all in a flash: oh, no, it was in my car, with me. I had driven away with both carseats. I'd had the spare one in the back of the car in case it was needed for our son's most recent playdate, and I'd forgotten to remove it. And by the time he called, I needed to dash to the cemetery to stroll the aisles in search of the headstone which needed to be dedicated. There was nothing I could do; he and our son would be stuck at home until I was done. I grumbled at myself some more.

When I arrived at the cemetery my distraction took a partial backseat to beauty. We're having a spectacular May weekend. All the trees are bursting into unbelievable chartreuse leaf. The grass at our cemetery is carpeted with tiny violets. I could hear a rooster crowing nearby. The horses stabled across the street whinnied and snorted. And, thank God, I found the headstone right away, and was able to drape it with a white linen cloth before the family arrived. Once people started arriving, I was able to focus on them; the morning's distractions and my exasperation with myself receded into a dull buzz at the back of my consciousness.

But what really shook me out of my distraction and brought me square into the present moment was the music. The daughter of the deceased stood before his stone and sang L'dor vador. "From generation to generation we shall tell of Your greatness..." Her voice was pure and quavered slightly. Time slowed down, and I could feel that moment as a pause, a pearl, strung in a string of moments stretching back to time immemorial and forward forever. The whole world seemed hushed and still, listening. The words come from the daily amidah prayer, and the song evokes our generations -- what connects us to our ancestors, and to our children -- the melodies, the heritage, the love which bind us to each other and to our tradition. By the time she had finished singing, my day was transformed.

It's those little moments of grace which make everything worthwhile. They can't be planned or presumed-upon; they come when they come. I don't know if she knew she was giving me such a gift, but she did. I am endlessly grateful.


The daughter who sang so gloriously was Gloria Lenhoff. She's the subject of the PBS documentary Bravo Gloria; you can hear her on YouTube, though not singing "L'dor Vador." For more: For woman with Williams Syndrome, music was the key.


Things I love about b'nei mitzvah

I love the excited buzz in the synagogue before Shabbat morning services when one of our kids is going to be called to the Torah as b'nei mitzvah.

I love the eager, nervous energy I feel emanating from the family. The parents, caught between the mundane organizational details they were worrying about yesterday and the growing awareness that today is something different, a different kind of time. The younger sibling, if there is one, rolling their eyes but also realizing that this is going to be them someday.

I love standing outside in the field behind our sanctuary, listening to the wild tapestry of birdsong, while the photographer adjusts: you put your arm around her, there, okay, turn a little bit this way, look at me, smile! The family always makes such a beautiful tableau, and I know they'll look at these photographs for the rest of their lives.

I love running through the Torah portion with the bat mitzvah girl one last time before services begin. Her voice is a little bit higher, her pace faster, today than ever before. By now I've practiced chanting this Torah portion with her so many times that I know it by heart, too.

I love the feeling of standing before the assembled community -- members of our congregation; our small core of Shabbat morning regulars; visiting family and friends -- and welcoming them into this place and this moment, this celebration of Shabbat and this celebration of a young person taking their place in our community.

I love inviting anyone who's never seen the inside of a Torah scroll up to the bimah, and unrolling it. Asking them to say, aloud, what makes it different from the books they usually read. It's in Hebrew; it's on parchment; it's a scroll; it's handwritten. Then I point out things they might not have noticed: there's no punctuation. There are no vowels. There are no musical notations.

I love seeing one of our kids shine. Hearing them read from Torah, and offer blessings, and teach something of what they've learned to the entire congregation.

I love hearing the blessing the parent(s) offer. Without fail, hearing the earnest words of love and pride they offer to their child is one of the most moving moments of my day, and reminds me of my own place in the chain of generations, between my parents and my son.

And I love chatting with people after the service, finding out what moved them and what spoke to them. It can be hard for me to gauge, when a lot of people have assembled who maybe aren't necessarily singing along, whether the service is reaching them. But every time, I hear from someone who didn't expect to be moved, or who didn't expect the service to be accessible, and was pleasantly surprised.

Mostly I love knowing that we've co-created a beautiful memory for the new young adult and for their family, and that our community is now one adult Jew richer.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being, who has kept us alive, and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this moment.


Accompanying mourners, with gratitude

When I walk out of a mourner's home, having spent an hour or two listening to stories about the person who has died, I feel unspeakably lucky to be doing this work.

It's an incredible honor to be able to walk beside people in their mourning. To bear witness to their emotions and their memories.

Sometimes we look at old photographs or newspaper clippings. Sometimes one story leads to the next and suddenly everyone's talking over each other, eager to reminisce.

Sometimes the relationships were healthy and sweet, and the grief has the flavor of mourning something beautiful which has moved into memory.

Sometimes the relationships were painful or broken, and the grief has the flavor of mourning something which wasn't what it needed to be.

I try to take notes as unobtrusively as I can, asking questions -- if I need to -- to spark more stories. Bit by bit, anecdote by anecdote, a picture emerges.

Sometimes people ask me about Jewish ideas of the soul and the afterlife, wanting to know where (I think) their loved one is now, what comes next.

Sometimes people tell me stories about being present at the moment of death, the luminous quality that may accompany that transition into what we can't know.

Always when I make my farewells, even if I feel daunted by the task of writing a eulogy which will live up to their memories, I'm grateful to be able to try.


Happy Purim / חג פורים שמח!

Drew at CBI me as McGonagall

 

We had a sweet little Purim shindig at my shul tonight. A few folks decorated masks beforehand with the markers and stickers which Drew and I had purchased at the art supply store. Then we all adjourned into the sanctuary for our Purim Spiel, ably written and directed by my friend David Lane.

I chanted a handful of verses from the megillah, and our Purim players retold the Purim story in fine style. Then we adjourned for hamentaschen (and tiny cupcakes, Drew's favorite) and, for the adults, a few celebratory nips of slivovitz. And then I brought Drew home while the party was still going on, because it was already well past his bedtime.

I came home to a beautiful Purim poem by my friend Kate Abbott. It's called Mordechai -- scroll down to reach the poem on that page. I love her imaginative insights into what it might have been like for Mordechai to rear the orphan Esther.

Whatever your Purim may hold, I wish you ora v'simcha, light and joy.

 

Professor MacGonagall and her son say: Happy Purim to all!

 


For more images from our Purim celebration, don't miss the Purim, 13 photoset at my congregation's Flickr account.

(The individual photos, above, are from that photoset, and were taken by Len Radin -- thanks, Len! The one of Drew and me is a cameraphone photo, but I love it anyway.)


Rehab

What moves me, right away, is the gentleness. They're standing a few feet apart, two adults younger than I am, each of them coaching someone elderly. They help them rise from their wheelchairs, stand with relative stability, and toss a bright plastic ball back and forth, back and forth. Each of the patients wears a wide striped belt for the therapist to hold onto.

After the game of catch, they work with cones. Each plastic cone is slightly smaller than a soda can, and each is a different vivid color, red and green and yellow and blue. Each physical therapist holds a cone somewhere just out of reach, and prompts their patient to reach for it, to stretch or bend as needed, and then to hand it to her or his counterpart. Back and forth.

Afterward I chat with the woman I am there to visit. She praises the physical therapists: they're young, she agrees, but they know what they're doing. She tells me that she's gotten to know everyone there, at least enough to greet them and say hello. And when someone is in really bad shape, she says, and they manage something they hadn't been able to do -- that's inspiring.

It has the feel of a kind of strange private club, though not a club anyone particularly wants to join. Its accoutrements are so determinedly cheerful they remind me of preschool. My son would love the mats, the cones, the ball. I wonder how many of the people there wrestle with frustration at needing to practice things like balance, or grasping, or bending down.

What fragile things these bodies can be. Thin skin and delicate bones and so many places that can hurt. I want to bless the hands and heart of every doctor and nurse, every physical therapist, every orderly. Afterwards I take myself out for a quick Chinese lunch. I warm my hands on a teacup. I whisper prayers into my tea.

 

 


5 ways to celebrate Purim

Now that Tu BiShvat is behind us, the next festival on our radar is Purim. In preparation for our coming holiday of masks, costumes, food, and merriment, I've shared a post at my congregational blog about five things you can do to celebrate Purim wholly this year. It's here: How to Celebrate Purim in 5 Easy Steps.

A few of the items on that list are geared toward my local community. For instance: the first one is "listen to the megillah," and if you're local to me, you are welcome to do that at my synagogue on Saturday night February 23! And the second one is "give to the needy," and it happens that Purim afternoon coincides with the one Sunday a month when my community cooks meals for 100+ homebound senior citizens in North Adams, so if you're local to me, you are welcome to come and help out with that. But these five ways of celebrating Purim are possible no matter where you live.

Anyway, if you're looking for tips on how to make Purim fun and meaningful, check out the post over there. Shabbat shalom, y'all.


On beginning a Torah podcast...with my students

Last week was the most fun, and possibly the most successful, week in my Hebrew school teaching career. And in some ways, I didn't even teach: I just set the stage, and let the kids roll.

I can't remember how the idea came up. Maybe it was when I asked my students -- I teach the fifth through seventh graders in our b'nei mitzvah prep program -- whether any of them might be interested in recording our services from time to time for those who are homebound. I think that's when the kids asked if they could make a podcast as part of their learning with me, and I said sure. This year we're studying Torah, writ large, so the podcast would have a Torah focus.

After that, they asked pretty much every week: can we make a podcast now? So I spent some time looking at the syllabus I'd put together for the year, and pondering when might be the right time to scrap the roadmap and go somewhere new. I decided the podcast should center around the story of Joseph. Working on it now is seasonally-appropriate (we'll start reading it in shul on December 8), it's a rich and multilayered story, and it's substantial enough to give them a lot to dig into.

Over the Thanksgiving break I asked the kids to read the Joseph story. (And some of them actually did.) When we returned to Hebrew school, I outlined the process I had in mind. The podcast would take place in four acts -- a structure I admit I borrowed from This American Life. Act One: the kids would retell the Joseph story in their own words. Act Two: midrashic explorations of the Joseph story, staying in the Biblical milieu. (They might write scripts where they explored one character's motivations, or another character's emotional reactions.)

Act Three: they could take the story as far-out as they wanted to go. Set it in a science-fiction future, make Joseph into Josie or Josephina, set it on a planet where everyone is a cow (yes, they actually suggested that last one): up to them. I knew that this was the part they were really excited about. When I asked them to write something creative about lulav and etrog, a while back, one of my kids wrote about a Quidditch game where Harry was riding on a lulav to chase the golden etrog. I knew they would find some goofy way to relate to Joseph.

The podcast would close with Act Four, in which I would interview them about what the process had been like and what they had learned from the experience of immersing in their own creative takes on the Joseph story.

We started last week with Act One, the retelling of the Joseph story. I asked them to tell me the story of Joseph, prompting them occasionally if they seemed likely to skip over an important plot point. I transcribed their words, printed copies of that script, and handed it around the room. We recorded the script together in class. For Act Two, I had anticipated that they would want to work in pairs or small groups to write short scripts which explored aspects the Joseph story in their own ways, but to my surprise, they wanted to work all as a single group, and to find their own responses in realtime, as a kind of improv theatre. So I pressed "record" and let them roll.

I spent a few evenings last week doing some technical work: going through each recording and boosting the sections of the audio which had been too quiet, finding a theme song through the Free Music Archive's list of Creative Commons-licensed material available for remix and reuse. (I chose a track by the Boston-based Debo Band - "Aderech Arada (Kiddid Remix)" -- you can learn more about the band and about the track here at the FMA.) This afternoon in class I'm planning to work on Acts Three and Four. Then I'll have some more editing work to do, and we should be able to release the podcast right around the time that congregations around the world are reading the Joseph story!

I'm not sure this podcast will be a major contribution to the world of Jewish commentary on Joseph. But the process of making it has gotten my students excited about Torah and excited about Hebrew school, and as far as I'm concerned, that's priceless. And their insights, and phrasings, are fresh and often surprising. (Did you know that Joseph's brothers failed to recognize him, when they met him as Pharaoh's vizier, because he was all decked out in bling?) I'm proud of my kids for embracing this Torah story, even if they're embracing it with silliness.

And I can't wait to see what they come up with next.

 

Edited to add: if you're curious, you can listen to the first Ne'arim podcast here at my congregational blog.