As Shabbat wanes

"Mizmor L'David," psalm 23, sung to a waltz tune which is a variant on the one we sang. This recording is the exact tune we used, but the strings and synthesizer give it a feel that's very unlike our evening.

The final hour of Shabbat is gloriously bittersweet. Seudah shlishit -- the ritualized "third meal" of the day, though sometimes the meal consists only of silence and song -- is at once a moment of consummation (tradition teaches that during these last hours of Shabbat, the presence of God dwells most palpably among us in the world) and the beginning of our parting from the Shabbat queen and the neshama yeteirah, the extra soul, which is ours for the duration of Shabbat and is then gone. The moment when Shabbat is most present is also always the moment when Shabbat has begun to depart.

We sit in the dining room where we've just completed dinner. The artificial lights are turned off so that we can experience the organic darkening of the day. We sing songs of longing for God, interspersed with short periods of silence in which each song continues to resonate. We begin with "Shalom Aleichem," a song which welcomes divine messengers or angels, which most of us think of as a Friday evening song but which is also sung on Saturday late afternoons. There's a special extra verse for this time of seudah shlishit. And then we sit in silence, and breathe, and pause before we sing again.

We sing two different versions of "Yah Ribon" by Rabbi Israel Najara (circa 1600.) We sing "Tzama l'Chol Nafshi," a couplet from psalm 63 (lines 2-3, though we sing them in the opposite order: "O God, I have looked for you in the sanctuary, to see your power and your glory / My soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you!") We sing "Yedid Nefesh," by Rabbi Elazar Azikri (the words are 16th-century; Reb Zalman's singable English translation can be found at the bottom of this post, though we sing the poem in the original) using a melody which comes from the Bratzlav Hasidic tradition. (Bratzlaver Niggun 1 [mp3])

We sing the 23rd psalm to a beautiful and plaintive slow waltz melody, asserting in this moment when Shabbat is beginning to leave us that our faith in God endures, and I remember the seudah shlishit at Ohalah in January. The poem "Twilight" from my chapbook Through arose out of the experience of singing the 23rd psalm in a darkening room as Shabbat waned on the day of my miscarriage. I sing it now with my hand resting on my growing belly.

As the hour grows too late to be able to see our song sheets clearly, we shift into singing niggunim, songs of yearning without words. Though I love the songs with words, it's the wordless ones which finally crack my heart open, and there are tears in my eyes. The voices and faces sitting around this room are so beloved to me, and I know I will not see them for many months -- probably a year. My longing for Shabbat not to have to leave us is intertwined with and magnified by my longing not to have to part from my chevre, my circle of teachers and friends. My heart overflows with gratitude for this moment and with sorrow that the moment has to end.

When we are done, although we have not eaten an actual meal, we sing a brief one-line blessing over the spiritual meal of song and silence. Our blessing consists of two words from psalm 23: cosi revaya, my cup overflows. As we sing, we look around the room, and on everyone's face is an awareness of just how true the words are. When we're done, we walk in silence slowly across campus to the place where we will daven the evening service and then make havdalah, the ceremony separating Shabbat from week. When we get there, it's not quite time yet, so for fifteen minutes or so we sing a Hasidic chant about how there is nothing else but God. Hazzan Jack skillfully uses that tune as our impromptu nusach for the evening service, so we sing our whole evening service with echoes of "ein od milvado" ringing in our ears and hearts.

At havdalah, Reb Marcia tells us (in the name of Reb Elliot) that some Hasidim add an extra word to the final havdalah blessing, the blessing which praises God Who separates between holy and profane, Shabbat and workweek, etc. They -- and now we -- bless God Who מבדיל ומגשר, separates and bridges, between all of these binaries. The addition of that one word changes my whole havdalah experience, and also my anticipated experience of departure from beloved teachers and friends. Tomorrow will bring our separation, but even as we part, we're always on our way back together again.

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Taking note of 17 Tammuz

Today is 17 Tammuz, a minor fast day in which we remember the long ago day when the walls around Jerusalem were breached, the first step toward the destruction of 9 Av. It's also considered to be the anniversary of the day when Moshe shattered the first set of tablets upon seeing the Golden Calf -- a different kind of breakage.

I wrote a post about this day two years ago, Reflections on 17 Tammuz. I don't have anything new to add, so I'll just point you there again.

I'm not fasting today, for obvious reasons, but if you are, I hope that your fast is meaningful. May we find a way today to be open to whatever may flow through the places in us which are broken, remembering that our brokenness can be a place where holiness is found.

On a semi-related note, I wanted to point to a new initiative which recently came across my desk: Fast for Gaza. "In Jewish tradition a communal fast is held in times of crisis both as an expression of mourning and a call to repentance. In this spirit, Ta'anit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza is a collective act of conscience initiated by an ad hoc group of rabbis, Jews, people of faith, and all concerned with the ongoing crisis in Gaza." I'm inspired to see so many of my colleagues and teachers already on the list.

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The bonfire of the expansive heart

I ought to be lighting a bonfire tonight, since we've entered the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer. In Hebrew, the number 33 is spelled lamed-gimel; the two letters together are pronounced Lag, and the 33rd day of the Omer is called Lag b'Omer. And on Lag b'Omer, people light bonfires. Why? Well, it depends on who you ask.

One interpretation of the chronology in Torah holds that on this date, manna first began to fall from the heavens for the Israelites in the desert. Lag B'Omer (celebrated with picnics and rejoicing) can be understood as a commemoration of that happy miracle.

Another story (found in the Talmud) holds that 24,000 of the students of the great sage Rabbi Akiva died from a plague during the counting of the Omer because they failed to give one another proper respect (or, in Reb Zalman's interpretation, they failed to see the chen, divine grace, in one another.) Many traditional Jews observe limited mourning customs during the first 32 days of the Omer, in remembrance of that plague; Lag b'Omer marks the day when the plague came to its end, and hence, we celebrate.

An alternate interpretation holds that the students died as part of the Bar Kokhba revolt against Rome. We spend the first 32 days of the Omer mourning their deaths...until the 33rd day of the Omer, when we rejoice that the massacre finally ended. (The killing may have come to an end, but the outcome of the war was pretty bleak; the name Judea was erased from Roman maps, the study of Torah was prohibited, and Jews were barred from entering Jerusalem. Oy.) Fearing of reprisal from Roman authorities, the sages of the Talmud didn't want to mention the failed rebellion by name, so spoke of a "plague" instead.

Some Jews celebrate the yarzheit (death-anniversary) of the sage Shimon bar Yochai on this day; he was a student of Rabbi Akiva's, and it is to him that the Zohar -- germinal work of Jewish mysticism -- is traditionally attributed. In this understanding, we light bonfires to symbolize the way his teachings illuminated the night.

It interests me that these are the stories we tell about this minor holiday. Today is a day for remembering how important it is that we see the grace in one another, and honor one another's learning. It's a day to remember the dangers of following messianic figures into violent rebellion. And it's a day for celebrating illumination: not just the literal illumination of burning sticks and logs, but the metaphysical and spiritual illumination embodied in the wisdom of Torah and the Jewish mystical tradition.

In honor of that tradition, I want to offer a Hasidic teaching which relates to Lag B'Omer. It has nothing to do with the plague, or the rebellion, or anyone's yarzheit, but it's my favorite teaching about the holiday, hands down. This comes from a Hasidic rabbi called the B'nei Yisaschar (R' Zvi Elimelech of Dinov.) (You can find a version of it in this post The illumination of a good heart; I've learned it from my teacher Reb Elliot.) It's about the importance of having a good heart.

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Exiting Mitzrayim

One more quick Blessing the Sun note: Nava Tehila, the Jewish Renewal community of Jerusalem (about whom I have posted before; here's my review of their latest cd) has posted music for the blessing of the sun. At that website you can stream audio-only or you can watch them perform the tunes via YouTube. Whether or not you're planning to learn their music in time for Birkat ha-Chamah, it's beautiful stuff and well worth a listen.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs has posted a pdf designed to be a haggadah bookmark, which contains a short text about exiting the Mitzrayim (narrow place) of despair in these dark financial times. It's here: Escape from the New Mitzrayim [pdf].

I've been thinking lately about what constitutes the personal Mitzrayim from which I need liberation this year. I want to be liberated from feeling myself constricted by things that are tough: the economy, finances, health problems plaguing people I love. Facing the economic nightmare is difficult. Facing the reality that we live in fragile bodies which don't always work is difficult. When I'm at my best, I think I can respond to these truths with equanimity and grace. But lately I've struggled with overwhelm, which is self-perpetuating. It's hard to wake up with modah ani ("I am grateful before You...") on my lips when I'm feeling like the tough stuff is hemming me in.

Again I return to the distinction between ontology and epistemology, between the way things "actually are" and the way I perceive them to be. The ontology of the situation isn't likely to change anytime soon, and beyond that, it's not under my control. I can't change the world financial situation. I can't change the reality that we live in bodies which break. What I can change is my reaction to things-as-they-are. I can change how I experience them, by committing myself to recognizing that I can feel expansive, liberated, grateful even though the world isn't always an easy place to live.

Everything hangs on that even though. I have to find a way to feel grateful for the innumerable blessings in my life even though other things are tough. I have to find a way to understand (again) that I'm always already liberated, that the freedom we celebrate at Pesach is always real. That's what redemption means. We speak in our liturgy about God Who redeems us from slavery -- that's always ongoing.

In every generation we're commanded to see ourselves as though we, ourselves, had been liberated from Mitzrayim. This year, I think my Mitzrayim is the feelings of overwhelm in which I've allowed myself to become constricted. Pesach offers me a reminder, and an opportunity, to commit myself to breaking free. (If this way of thinking is fruitful for you, I'd love to see others' responses to the question of "from what do you need to be liberated this year" -- as comments on this post, or as posts on your own blogs.)

That said: as much as I love the reading of the Pesach story which holds that we can understand the  Exodus as a parable of self-actualization and liberation from internal constriction, there's a danger in that reading. One can become so absorbed in navel-gazing that one forgets that the entire world is in need of redemption. Rabbi Jill's haggadah insert reminds me of that. She writes:

By giving tzedakah, by working for policies that will create opportunity for everyone, and by helping to create a more just society, we too can make the divine presence evident among us, even – or especially – in difficult times, and will lift ourselves collectively out of the narrowness of Mitzrayim.

The Exodus was a corporate experience. Our story tells us that the Israelites and a "mixed multitude" left Egypt together, fleeing constriction and heading toward a new life of liberation and covenant. My own personal story of liberation each year has to be balanced with an awareness of our communal story of liberation -- and with the obligation to act to help lift others out of constriction, too.

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April 8: Here comes the sun

Winter sunrise. December 13, 2008.

Once every 28 years, the Jewish community celebrates the return of the sun to the place which our tradition says it occupied in the heavens at the precise time and day of its creation. The celebration is called Birkat ha-Chamah -- the Blessing of the Sun.

Twenty-eight years! Last time Birkat ha-Chamah was celebrated, I was six. Next time, I'll be 62. Good thing I'm planning to make the most of it this time when it rolls sunrise on the morning of April 8, 2009, which is the morning of the day which will lead to the first seder of Pesach.

If you've been reading VR for any length of time, you won't be surprised to learn that I understand this not as a scientific celebration, but a metaphysical and metaphorical one. A few times in each life, if we are lucky, we have this opportunity to pause and take notice of the wonder that is our sun. To recite blessings and prayers. And to be thankful for this source of light -- and to the Source of Light which sustains it, and us, every day. How cool is that?

Spring sunrise light. March 18, 2008.

Interested folks can find a list of celebrations around the US and Israel here at Bless the (The list is growing; hopefully folks will add info on celebrations in other parts of the world, too.) I'll be at the 6am sunrise celebration at the entrance to Mt. Greylock Regional High School in Williamstown, sponsored by Congregation Beth Israel. (Sounds like an odd location, I realize, but across the street from MGRHS is an apple orchard which overlooks the Hopper and Mount Greylock. Gorgeous.)

Bless the also offers a listing of ceremonial materials and resources.  Hands down, my favorite liturgy for the ritual itself is written by my teacher Reb Marcia Prager, and is available on that page as a pdf download. It includes both traditional and creative texts in English, Hebrew, and transliteration. I also recommend Masekhet Hahammah, "Tractate Sun," a compendium of teachings and texts about the sun and this celebration which would make a great resource for studying between now and Pesach.

After celebrating the sun, I'll hop in my car and drive to Boston to celebrate Pesach with my sister and her family. I'm excited to see how and whether having begun my day with once-every-28-years sun celebrations shapes how the day unfolds, and how it reverberates into my celebrations of the festival of freedom which begins that night.

How will you celebrate the sun next Wednesday morning?

Summer sunrise. August 13, 2008.


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Purim: accepting the highest Torah

You may remember that I'm taking a class called Moadim l'Simcha ("seasons of rejoicing"), a class in the Hasidic sacred year. We're studying the round of the year through the prism of Hasidic texts, beginning with where we are now in the year, e.g. the lead-up to Purim. In last night's class, we read a few short texts by the Sefat Emet, a.k.a. Reb Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter. These are texts about the deep spiritual teachings of the holiday of Purim -- which is not historically a holiday in which I find a lot of resonance, so it's been fascinating for me to dip into these Hasidic teachings which uncover some really beautiful stuff here.

I liked our first text so much I thought I'd share it with y'all. Here's one paragraph from the Sefat Emet on Purim; the italicized material is translation, the plaintext is my own commentary. Full disclosure: many of y'all may find this a bit, hm, esoteric? :-) But I think it's really lovely, and it's giving me a whole new perspective on a holiday I've never liked all that much, so -- if the notion of unpacking a dense paragraph of Hasidic prose-poetry about Purim appeals to you, read on.

We read in the Gemara: "Raba said, it is the duty of a man to mellow himself on Purim until he cannot tell the difference [between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordechai']." (Megillah 7b)

One thing which is lost in translation is that the word I'm rendering as "mellow," לבסומי/lib'sumei, is related to בסמים/b'samim, spices, as in the spices we savor at havdalah to keep our souls intact as Shabbat departs. So while it seems initially that the Gemara is talking about the obligation to drink until one can't tell the difference between the good guy and the bad guy in this story, a discerning reader may suspect that there may be something else going on here.

I've heard words to this effect from the holy mouth of my grandfather, my teacher -- that one must ascend high above the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

His grandfather taught him that this notion of becoming mellowed (or, one might say, spiced or perfumed) is really about ascending to a place above our constructs of good and evil. We're not just talking about getting wasted; we're talking about a kind of mystical ascent to a new level of understanding.

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Resources for Tu BiShvat

My friend and colleague Reb David Seidenberg has a beautiful post at The Jew and the Carrot today in celebration of Tu BiShvat (which begins tonight at sundown): Letting the fruit ripen: the blessings of Tu BiShvat. He writes eloquently about the earth-centered spirituality of the Tu BiShvat seder:

Unlike what we do now to our rituals in too many suburban synagogues, when the Kabbalists turned Tu Bish’vat into a spiritual celebration of the Tree of Life, they didn’t forget agriculture and the earth. Rather, for the Kabbalists, a fruit tree was both the ultimate metaphor and manifestation for both the Tree of Life and for the way God’s blessing is manifest in the world. It was and is an image of God, in the full sense of that phrase, uniting heaven and earth through its branches and roots, giving freely of its energy and gifts through its fruit...

Over at his own site,, there's a beautiful section of resources for Tu BiShvat, including a one-page haggadah, instructions on how to run a kabbalistic Tu BiShvat seder, and a blessing from the first published Tu BiShvat seder, the 17th century text Pri Etz Hadar ("Fruit of a Goodly Tree") accompanied by a meditation and instructions for how to use the blessing.

If you're considering having a Tu BiShvat seder tonight, I want to highlight what Reb David says at the beginning of his JCarrot post: this can be a seder which is "truly free-form and creative, without any rules about what we are supposed to do or say." The idea behind the seder is simple: to eat fruits and nuts, and in so doing, to elevate the act of eating into an act of consciousness of the divine flow which fills the fruits of earthly trees and which runs through the cycle of the seasons.

That said, if you're the kind of person who likes to have a written roadmap for your ritual experiences, here are a few. At NeoHasid there's a one-page haggadah and a double-sided study sheet featuring dozens of texts (Hasidic, kabbalistic, and midrashic), both available at One-page Haggadah plus more links. COEJL (the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life) has a page of Tu BiShvat resources including a sample Tu BiShvat haggadah. And a few years ago I put online my own haggadah for this holiday's seder, which can be downloaded here: Haggadah for Tu BiShvat [pdf].

May our celebrations of this New Year of the Trees inspire us to treasure the trees among whom we live, to experience gratitude and joy as we eat of their fruits, and to become ever more conscious of the flow of divinity which connects us with the tree of life.

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Getting ready for the New Year of the Trees

There's always something a little bit funny to me about celebrating the new year of the trees when the trees where I live are leafless and resting quietly beneath snow. This year we haven't seen the ground since -- oh, sometime in the fall, I don't even remember when! It's been sparkling white for a while now. (My favorite kind of winter. If it's going to be cold, it should be cold and beautiful and crisp, like this.)

Much of the Diaspora literature on Tu BiShvat talks about how at this time of year the almond trees are blooming in Israel. (There's a glorious photograph of almond trees in bloom here at Israel the beautiful.) I grew up in south Texas, where trees will start to bloom soon; I remember the exquisite profusion of mountain laurel blooms in March, sweet as honey. So I can imagine trees flowering now...but only in another climate zone, another world. Not here in New England, where all is white.

But our tradition talks about this as the time of year when sap begins to rise in the trees, feeding them for the year to come, and that feels true to me here. (I just checked my favorite sugar shack to see when they're going to start their annual tradition of maple breakfasts; not this weekend, but next.) All around the Berkshires, trees will start sprouting tin buckets -- and their less-picturesque but easier-to-handle descendant, clear plastic tubing running from tree, to tree, to tree, to a basin somewhere downhill.

And the tradition names this as the time to remember our connections with the Tree of Life: with Torah ("she is a tree of life to all who hold her fast," Proverbs 3:18), with the divine emanations which stream forth into creation (which the kabbalists connected in an organic pattern called the Tree of Sefirot.) These resonate with me at this moment of deep winter. What better time to study the wisdom of our tradition than when we are tucked inside our warm houses like seeds waiting to sprout?

Honestly, I like celebrating the New Year of the Trees when the trees around me are dormant. It offers me a reminder that winter is finite. That spring is coming, subtly, in the hidden rising of sap beneath bark. The hidden rising of shefa, divine abundance, even when the world seems cold and inhospitable, when things long-hoped-for seem far away.

Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees, falls on the Gregorian calendar this coming Sunday night and Monday. Read previous years' Tu BiShvat posts here.

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Mai Chanukah?

This is the time of year when people argue about the meaning of Chanukah.

It's an old question. Mai chanukah? is how the rabbis begin the Talmud's discussion of the holiday: "What is Chanukah?" Maybe the simplest answer is, it's a multivalent holiday; it always has been.

There are of course many ways to tell the Chanukah story and the ways we do are not unrelated to who we are. Every community and generation interprets Chanukah in its own image. For us there are a number of obvious contenders. For American Jews it is most often about religious freedom from tyrants. For Israelis it is about routing the armies of a dominating empire and winning back Jewish sovereignty. For traditional Jews it is about a fight against assimilation. Hasidic Jews take another path and read the story allegorically as a story about seeking one's inner life and rededicating oneself to that small burning candle. Indeed, every generation asks what the Rabbis ask when they open their short conversation on the holiday... "Mai Chanukah?" -- What is Chanukah?

(So writes Rabbi Steve Greenberg in a d'var Torah which is available online here.)

So what's the story with Chanukah? One answer can be found in scripture -- though not mine. The apocryphal books of Maccabees (written in Greek) tell the story of the Hasmonean dynasty. (These books are considered part of the Catholic Bible, though not the Protestant Bible or Jewish Tanakh.) Anyway: those books tell the story of the wicked Antiochus IV who looted the Temple, alongside the story of the Israelites who assimilated to Greek ways and the other Israelites who slaughtered them. Matthias and his family destroyed illicit altars and forcibly circumcised babies; his oldest son Judah led the rebels to victory.

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A tray of pumpkin challah rolls, rising.

I try to begin and end every day with gratitude: for whatever the day may hold, and then has held. Modah ani l'fanecha: I am grateful before You, living and enduring God. That's the most basic daily prayer I know.

As a fan of ritual I enjoy the many rituals of Thanksgiving in our house, starting with spending Thanksgiving Eve peeling potatoes and baking challah rolls. But beyond that, and beyond the pleasure of setting a pretty table and filling it with family and friends, I love also that we take a day off from our ordinary lives just to focus on being thankful.

And, yes, to eat (widely and well!) and schmooze, to drink wine by the fire, to watch football, eventually to simmer turkey carcasses into soup as the evening wanes. But even more than fine dining or hospitality, gratitude -- thankfulness -- is at Thanksgiving's heart.

I'm thankful for the food we're preparing, for the many hands which labored to bring it forth (and the  hands laboring now to get it the final steps of the way from supermarket to table!) I'm thankful for the sunlight and the soil and the divine abundance that came together to produce every potato and butternut squash and brussels sprout.

I'm thankful for my family and friends, for our home, for our sustenance on every level of being. I'm thankful for my colleagues and teachers, in ALEPH and elsewhere. "For my teachers, and my students, and the students of my students," as we say in the kaddish d'rabanan -- and for the teachers of my teachers, too.

I'm thankful for all of you who read this blog; for those who comment often, and those who comment rarely, and those who comment never at all. I'm thankful for all of you who keep blogs of your own, some of which I read daily and some of which I read from time to time and all of which enrich our world.

Happy Thanksgiving, gang. May your tomorrow (and all the days that follow) be filled with abundance of all kinds.

If you're looking for a creative Thanksgiving prayer of gratitude, Reb Zalman has revised his short and sweet Thanksgiving prayer, which can be downloaded as a pdf from this post on his blog.

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This week's portion: mobius


I want to write the Torah
on a mobius strip of parchment

so that the very last lines
(never again will there arise,

arpeggio of signs and wonders
stout strength and subtle teaching)

would lead seamlessly to
the beginning of heavens

and earth, the waters
all wild and waste, and God

hovering over the face of creation
like a mother bird.

This is the strong sinew
that stitches our years together:

that we never have to bear
the heartbreak of the story ending

each year the words are the same
but something in us is different

on a mobius strip of parchment
I want to write the Torah

One of my favorite moments in all the year comes when we read the solemn last lines of the Torah -- these last words from this week's portion, V'Zot HaBrakha -- and immediately read the opening lines of the Torah. Sometimes we do it with two scrolls. Sometimes we unroll a single scroll all the way from end to end, holding it in gloved fingers carefully in a giant circle around the room so we can see it in all of its complex beauty. We read the ending, and then we read the beginning.

It's the original neverending story. Just as the story of human growth and potential never ends, only spirals onward, so our reading of the Torah never ends but we begin again. For me as a lover of story, this says something important about who we are and how we understand ourselves.

 Every year offers us a chance to begin again. Every year that new beginning is informed by who we are and where we've been. One door closes and another one opens. The last words lead to the first words which will eventually, a year from now, lead us to the last words again. And then, again, the first words. One of my favorite moments in all the year.



Edited to add: this poem is now available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.


Shabbat morning, Italian-style

Two weeks ago I went on a tour of the Conegliano Veneto Synagogue, the Italian Synagogue on Hillel street. Our guide told us that the shul was originally built in Conegliano, between Venice and Padua; in 1398, the government there sought Jews to come and be moneylenders in town, and by 1500 there were about 100 families in the Jewish community. Venice was a metropolis and a center of Jewish printing, and hundreds of Jewish books were printed there each year. A yeshiva opened there in 1604. But soon it became forbidden to learn Talmud in Italy, and the Talmud was burnt in Italian cities. By 1637, the Jewish population was required to live in the ghetto.

The Jews of Conegliano built the synagogue in 1701; in 1900, because there were no more Jews there, the synagogue was closed. The key was left in the care of a local woman. In 1918, during World War I, a group of Jewish Austro-Hungarian soldiers found her just before the Days of Awe and asked her to open the shul; they cleaned it and made it fit for use again, and an army chaplain named Rabbi Harry Deutsch led davenen there during the holidays. Then it was closed again, and remained so until 1952, when the decision was made to disassemble it, ship it to Israel, and reassemble it in Jerusalem.

The ornate golden aron/ark, with ornate parochet/curtain.

I had initially thought the liturgy there was Sefardic, but it's not; they follow their own liturgical rite, Minhag Bnei Roma (a.k.a. minhag Italki.) We had the chance to leaf through a siddur, which was neat; the bulk of the liturgy is familiar, but then there are things I'd never seen before. In the Shabbat ma'ariv aravim blessing (the blessing praising God Who brings on the evenings), the text describes God in words that aren't part of the Shabbat liturgy I know: "אשר כלה מעשיו ביום השביעי. ויקראוהו שבת קודש. מערב עד ערב (התקין) מנוחה לעמו ישראל בקדשתו / Who completed His work on the seventh day; and He called Shabbat holy, and brought on the evening; and gave rest to His people Israel, for His holiness." That language is said to date back to the Second Temple era, but it's new to me. To a liturgy geek like me, that's totally fascinating. So I decided to go to the Italian shul on my last Shabbat morning in Jerusalem.

Continue reading "Shabbat morning, Italian-style" »

Waltzing through erev Shabbat with Nava Tehila

The Nava Tehila leaders in Reb Ruth's living room, singing the "Lecha Dodi" we davened this week.

Nava Tehila, the local Jewish Renewal minyan, meets once a month. This Shabbat I attended my second monthly service there. In many ways it was like the first one, only more intense, and correspondingly more wonderful.

The basic structure of the service was what I've come to expect there: pearls from psalms, chanted repeatedly (to original melodies); singing and dancing; space for exultation and space for meditation; and, after the peak which is Lecha Dodi, a short and simple ma'ariv (evening) service. Once again, the service was co-led by the trio of shlichei tzibbur. Alongside them, Father Zachariah in his brown and white habit played violin soulfully; a few talented hand-drummers drummed. But tonight our dominant metaphor was the journey, because this week we're in parashat Mas'ei in which we read about the Israelites' journeying. Reb Ruth invited us, at the beginning, to think in terms of the journey of the evening, and to choose a real journey in our own lives on which to reflect deeply during our davenen. Since I've been on a literal journey this summer (with emotional resonances galore), that was my lens for the night.

So before each psalm in kabbalat Shabbat, Reb Ruth related each psalm to our own internal journeys. Lechu n'ran'na l'Adonai ("let us sing in joy to Adonai"): about getting ready to go, together. Hod v'hadar l'fanav ("splendor and beauty are before God"): about preparing for the journey -- figuring out what baggage we're bringing with us, and which personal/spiritual gifts too. (And so on.) When we reached "Ana B'Koach," which many Hasidim (and Renewal folks) sing after the six psalms and before "Lecha Dodi" which welcomes the Shabbat bride, one of the instrumentalists picked up a digeridoo and its eerie hum accompanied us along with the drum.

This week our "Lecha Dodi" was a waltz, which I loved. (See YouTube video, above.) Soon the whole room was filled with whirling waltzers, who slowly morphed their dance into a three-beat circle dance. It was extraordinary.

After the service was over, we walked to Reb Ruth and Michael's house where a long table was set outdoors. We piled the potluck foods on it, clustered around, and sang for a while: a Shalom Aleichem which I've grown to love during my time here (the song welcomes the angels of Shabbat; the link goes to a page where you can listen to a demo recording of the melody in question, which is another waltz), the blessings over wine and our children and bread. After we ate, people moved chairs indoors, and we clustered into the living room for postprandial good stuff: more singing! We sang new melodies for beloved psalms, again with guitar and violin, sometimes riotous and sometimes gentle.

My friend Nachshon gave the first d'var Torah because he is recently engaged; it's an honor accorded to those who are newly-engaged or newly-wed. He gave it in Hebrew, which meant I couldn't follow all of it, but I followed more than I would have two months ago. More singing. Another d'var Torah, this time in English, from my friend Reb David Ingber: a wonderful story about doubt and about the possibilities opened up in us when we allow ourselves to let go of the need for certainty. We were in stitches as he told us (true story!) about arriving in Jerusalem with a key to a door that doesn't open -- the punchline being, of course, that once he walked 100 feet up the street to the right door, the key worked immediately. How often do we trap ourselves in thinking that because our key is "supposed" to open a given door, we need to stand in front of it and try and try and try, instead of accepting that there might be another place we're meant to be opening?

More singing (Pitchu li sha'arei tzedek, "Open for me the gates of righteousness"), and then dessert. I had the chance to chat briefly with the man I'd spotted last month who I'd thought might be Ghanaian. I'm close; he's from Togo, here studying Hebrew in order to write his doctoral dissertation on the meanings of the word shalom. He was delighted to hear about my connections with Accra. We agreed that surely our paths will cross again, here or in West Africa or somewhere in the wide world.

At midnight, I took my leave, just as the group was gathering to sing again. The walk home would take about an hour; it pained me to leave such a sweet gathering, but I knew I needed to get on the road. Some part of me is already looking forward to my next chance to immerse in Renewal davenen, some months from now. (And clearly, whenever I return to Jerusalem in years to come, I'll want to make sure I'm here over a weekend when Nava Tehila meets.) My deepest, deepest thanks to everyone who co-creates this community, and who welcomed me so warmly into your midst.

By the way, the Nava Tehila gang is working on a cd. Learn more on their blog. I'm glad to know that someday I'll be able to listen to their melodies back home.

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Another Renewal (and renewing) Shabbat

We gathered in the ampitheatre at the Conservative Yeshiva at 6:30 on Friday evening. As I entered (and went directly to embrace dear friends), Dafna -- one of the two musicians who collaborates with Reb Ruth to create Nava Tehila -- was playing guitar and singing a niggun version of "Yedid Nefesh," a love song to God. We sang as others arrived, sparking more smiles and more embraces. My friend Deb; Reb David (of Romemu) and his fiancée; Holly, who -- with my friend Ora, also here this summer -- was part of my mishpacha group at Elat Chayyim in the summer of 2004. And, of course, we were joined by a couple dozen Jewish Renewal college-age kids who're in town this Shabbat, the reason for our gathering in the first place.

We quieted our singing to a gentle hum, and Reb Ruth explained that when the kabbalists of Tzfat invented Kabbalat Shabbat, the service for welcoming the Shabbat bride, they made a point of davening outdoors -- as we were doing in that beautiful breezy twilight moment. But the CY had other physical plans for us, so we continued singing as we moved into the lobby of the hostel and lit candles; we sang as we descended four flights of stairs (ripples of song bouncing up and down the tiled stairwell); and we sang as we entered our windowless basement room deep in the earth, where we proceeded to raise some pretty amazing musical and emotional energy during the two hours of our davenen together.

Last time Nava Tehila met, I was just back from my day trip with ICAHD. This time, Shabbat came right on the heels of a day trip to Bethlehem and Hebron. (A post about that is coming soon.) I'm grateful to have such a warm and sweet community to cradle me through the emotional aftershocks of my dips into the West Bank.

Like last time, we chanted selected pearls from the psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat, to the accompaniment of two guitars and a few drums. Reb Ruth offered a word of teaching before each. Shiru L'Adonai shir chadash, "Sing unto God a new song" -- a chance to become aware of the new songs of ourselves which we are constantly singing to the Divine. B'amud anan yedaber aleihem, "From within the pillar of cloud [God] spoke with them" -- an invitation to enter into the cloud of unknowing, to be open to the voice of God arising out of what we can't see or know. For me one of the most powerful chants was Shame'a vatismach tsion vatagelna b'not yehuda, "Listen and rejoice, Zion, and dance, daughters of Judah" -- I was overcome with emotion watching my three-year-old housemate as she danced joyously around the room.

As we worked our way through the psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat, I was struck by how powerful it is that our liturgy connects Jews around the world and across all sorts of ideological divides. On the right and on the left, we were all turning our hearts toward the Divine and welcoming the presence of Shabbat into our midst with more-or-less the same words. (That's a gloss, obviously; there are places where our liturgies differ substantially. But in that moment on the cusp of Shabbat, the common ground was what was most meaningful to me.) It's both comforting and challenging to have that commonality: with Jews who speak my language, and Jews who don't; with Jews who share my politics, and Jews who don't.

The last psalm before "Lecha Dodi" includes the lines Kol Adonai al hamayim, El hakavod hir'im, Adonai al mayim rabim. ("The voice of Adonai is upon the waters, the God of glory thunders, Adonai over the mighty waters.") That chant rolled like gospel, a call-and-response like the best kind of blues. It was amazing. When it had finally died down Reb Ruth said quietly, "If you've ever wondered what is kavod, what is glory...? What you're feeling in the room right now: that's what it is." Just remembering it, I'm getting chills all over again.

After the davenen, I joined two friends at the Three Arches restaurant at the YMCA (one of the only places I know here that's open on Shabbat.) They had dinner, and I had dessert: an enormous plate of sugar-sweet watermelon, accompanied by dense little bricks of feta cheese. Sublime. All in all: a fitting chatimah (seal) to another week in Jerusalem.

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Coming home: a Jewish Renewal erev Shabbat

A lot of people told me that as soon as I set foot in Israel, I would feel like I'd come home. That wasn't my experience with arriving in the country writ large, but it's how I felt when I stepped into Nava Tehila, the monthly Friday night Jewish Renewal service led by Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan.

One reason I felt at-home was that I ran into almost everyone I know in Jerusalem there. Friends from ALEPH, acquaintances from Ohalah, folks I met last Shabbat morning at the Leader Minyan, folks I've met at school, someone I met at the initial briefing session for the Encounter program last week, even someone I knew from the PANIM transdenominational rabbinic student retreat last year. What an amazing intersection of my various Jewish lives!

Beyond that, I feel at home wherever the music is really good, and the music at Nava Tehilah was great. An excellent drummer, two guitarists, a violinist, three song-leaders, and about 200 people singing with intention and heart. That's pretty much exactly my idea of a good time.

But maybe the deepest reason I felt at home was how the minyan dovetails with my ecumenical sensibilities. I first read about Reb Ruth's minyan in a Jerusalem Post article, Keeping the Faiths, which begins, "A rabbi, a monk, and a Sufi walk into a minyan. It sounds like the set-up to a bad joke circulating by email. But it's a reality every month at Nava Tehilla, Jerusalem's first - and only - 'multi-faith' Jewish renewal gathering." (It's a good article, worth reading.)

To be clear: the service is entirely a Jewish service. The davenen (and extra-liturgical conversation) is in Hebrew (with English translations of the teachings so no one feels left out.) But the doors are intentionally open to members of other faith traditions. I mentioned that there was a violinist? He was a monk in brown and white robes (a member of a French Catholic order called the Beatitudes.) I saw a few of his fellows there, and a nun, and an Indian couple in traditional dress, and someone I could swear is Ghanaian (Ga, if I had to guess, though he vanished after the service before I had a chance to go say hello and see if my Ghana-dar was working right.)

After our opening chant, Reb Ruth offered words of welcome, and reminded us that we are all participants here, welcome to sit or stand, daven full-text or join in the extended chanting of brief pearls from the psalms, meditate in silence or dance with abandon... as long as whatever we choose to do, we do wholly. She treated each psalm during kabbalat Shabbat as a gate into the service, and before each offered a brief teaching from this week's Torah portion (in Hebrew and then in English) which was sealed and sweetened by the singing.

During "Lecha Dodi," when our singing and dancing and bouncing reached a fever pitch, a new bride and groom came into the middle of the circle, and we sang to the Shekhinah manifest in the literal bride as well as to the Sabbath Bride. And then we sang the last verse and my heart cracked right open, and I covered my face and wept. From that moment on, I felt luminous.

Looking around the room at this joyful immersion in kabbalat Shabbat and maariv services, I thought, this is what Isaiah meant when he voiced God as saying, "My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples." In that basement room at Kol Haneshamah, where two hundred people of various faith traditions gathered to welcome Shabbat together, I think that statement came true.

Afterwards most of us walked (beneath the darkening sky and the most amazing sliver of new moon) to Ruth and Michael's (beautiful) home for a potluck supper which began with blessings and schmoozing, and continued after dinner with song and a kind of Torah-teaching open-mike. Meanwhile, other people helped put out and clear up the potluck supper while Ruth and Michael circulated -- which reminded me of our New Year's gathering, actually, the sense that this is a community of friends which feels ownership of the regular gathering so that the hosts don't have to run things.

I didn't stay long -- only until about 10:30 -- because it's been an awfully long first week of class for me, and my Friday was particularly emotionally challenging. (Rewarding in proportion to its difficulty, but difficult nonetheless. More about that soon.) But I'm so grateful to have found my way to this monthly Renewal minyan -- and, in a bigger-picture sense, to have found my way to Jewish Renewal, a home I can carry with me wherever I go.

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A morning at the Leader Minyan

I left my apartment at 8am and started off down Keren ha-Yesod toward the part of Baka called Mekor Hayim. I was pretty footsore by the time I reached the Sudbury Democratic School, the current home of Amika de-Bira, a.k.a. the Leader Minyan. I knew I was in the right place because of the song pouring from the windows -- men's and women's voices together.

I first heard about the Leader Minyan a few years ago, when I read Brian Blum's post Yom Kippur Groupies. What he described -- long hours of spirited davenen -- sounded right up my alley, though I had to admit that even my beloved Y"K services at Elat Chayyim don't run as long as the services he wrote about! Anyway,  I arrived here just in time for their monthly meeting, so I decided to spend my first Shabbat morning in-country with them.

Services begin at 8am and run until 1:30 or two; when I emailed to find out when and where they would be, Avraham told me I was welcome to drop in and out as I wished. When I arrived around nine the kahal (community) was still working their way through p'sukei d'zimrah, the string of poems and psalms that serves as prelude to the formal service. I tried davening along with my little pocket Koren siddur, but realized pretty quickly that they were doing psalms that I couldn't find in my book, so I picked up a siddur from the pile at the front of the room. It too is printed by Koren; the volume contained all of Torah plus the Shabbat liturgy (and plenty more psalms than I had in my edition!) All in Hebrew, naturally.

The minyan meets in a school room. Rows of chairs were set up facing the ark, a wooden closet-type box with a beautiful batik curtain hiding the Torah scrolls. In front of them was a table, dressed in a beautiful white cloth, with piles of siddurim on it. Women sat on the left-hand side of the room, men on the right; between us, as our mechitzah, was a kind of makeshift countertop which was also draped with batik and shawls of many kinds. It was high enough to be clearly present, but low enough that we could easily see one another across it. Women and men had equal space; women and men both sang aloud with fervor; women and men led different parts of the service; and both women and men read from Torah.

Continue reading "A morning at the Leader Minyan" »

Shavuot: anniversary of a cosmic marriage

I taught the last lesson of the night at our tikkun, which I called Shavuot: anniversary of a cosmic marriage. I began by talking about two classical ways of imagining Shavuot as our collective wedding anniversary. In one interpretation, at Shavuot we married the Torah (with God and Moses as witnesses) and in another, we married God (with Torah as our ketubah, and heaven and earth as witnesses -- that's the one I've encountered most often.) I talked about what it's like for me to be celebrating two anniversaries this weekend, ten years of marriage and this ongoing relationship with the Source of Blessing, and how the two intersect and interact for me.

Together we looked at a handful of texts, including this one from Zohar:

Rabbi Shimeon used to sit and learn Torah at night when the bride joined with her spouse. It is taught: The members of the bride's entourage are obligated to stay with her throughout the night before her wedding with her spouse to rejoice with her in those perfections (tikkunim) by which she is made perfect. [They should] learn Torah, Prophets and Writings, homilies on the verses and the secrets of wisdom, for these are her perfections and adornments. She enters with her bridesmaids and stands above those who study, for she is readied by them and rejoices in them all the night. On the morrow, she enters the canopy with them and they are her entourage. When she enters the canopy, the Holy One, blessed be He, asks about them, blesses them, crowns them with the bride's adornments. Blessed is their destiny. (Zohar I:8a)

The bride in this context is Shekhinah, the immanent / indwelling aspect of God; the spouse is the Holy Blessed One, the aspect of God that's wholly transcendent. We're the bridesmaids, attending the Shekhinah on the eve of her marriage; all who study Torah on erev Shavuot strengthen her and cause her to rejoice, and in return YHVH crowns us with the Shekhinah's jewels beneath the chuppah at dawn.

We also read this, from Michael Strassfeld's The Jewish Holidays:

One of the most beautiful images of Shavuot of that of the marriage between God (the groom) and Israel (the bride.) Developing this image, Pesach is the period of God’s courtship of Israel, and Shavuot celebrates the actual marriage. Sukkot, then, is the setting up of a bayit ne’eman—a household faithful to Judaism.

Even the midrash’s problematic imagery of God holding the mountain of Sinai over the Israelites’ heads while saying “Accept My Torah or else!” is transformed in this romantic symbolism as the mountain becomes a huppah—a wedding canopy for the marriage.

My handout also included Rabbi Simon Jacobson's essay The Cosmic Marriage (which we didn't discuss, but I wanted to include because it's thought-provoking, if hetero-centric) and The Shavuot Marriage Contract by Philip Goodman which talks about the Sephardic custom of beginning the holiday by reading a ketubah which formalizes the relationship between God and Israel.

We also read and discussed a few of my favorite poems about marriage: a Wendell Berry poem which I posted a few years ago, Marge Piercy's Reshaping Each Other, and Rumi's This Marriage. Each of these was written about a human relationship, but we chose to try reading them as though they'd been written about relationship with God, which yielded some fascinating perspectives. The exercise reminded me of the extent to which our relationships with our human beloveds are always a reflection or refraction of our relationships with the divine Beloved, and vice versa.

We closed by reading Hosea 2:21-22, the verses recited each day as the final twists of tefillin are affixed to one's hand. "I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness, in justice, in lovingkindness, and in compassion." Those are the marriage vows that Ethan and I spoke to each other ten years ago, so I get a little shiver every time I say them. The verse recited upon donning tefillin continues, "And I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you will know God."

The verse is talking about a knowing that inheres in deep identification-with the other. It linked beautifully back to the first lesson of our night, in which we explored the kabbalistic prayer said before the tikkun leil Shavuot begins. That prayer makes clear that our study is undertaken for the sake of the unification of the Holy Blessed Name and the Shekhinah -- a union of transcendence and immanence. During the tikkun we study God's names in all of their permutations (whether via the traditional assemblage of texts, or via the more interpretive dance through Torah in which my liberal community engages) in order to bridge the binary between God-far-above and God-deep-within. That's the kind of knowledge Hosea's talking about.

One of the women in the circle spoke about the leap of faith involved in taking the first step down the aisle when she married her husband many years ago. It's a truth of relationships and of spiritual practice, too: one doesn't begin a marriage by saying, "okay, so, tell me everything that's going to be entailed in this relationship over the next X years, and then I'll decide whether I'm up for it or not." One begins a marriage with an existential yes! Just so in our relationship with the Holy Blessed One -- remember, Torah tells us that the Israelites' response to God was na'aseh v'nishmah, "We will do and we will hear." Action comes first. We take the leap of enacting our relationship, trusting that our understanding of one another and our bond with one another will deepen as the years go by.

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Ten wonderful shiurim!

Chag Shavuot sameach / happy Shavuot to all!

Like last year, my shul and the shul up the road celebrated Shavuot together. We had a really sweet time. This year we began the night with almost forty people present, around an enormous seminar table, and we savored ten lessons over the course of the evening:

  • What are we supposed to be repairing at the Tikkun? An investigation of the kabbalistic creation of the study vigil on the night of Shavuot, taught by Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser

  • What's in a Re-Naming? Another look at the story of Jacob's new name, taught by Joan

  • Shavuot and unharvested fields in Torah, taught by Karen

  • The sounds of prayer and study: how our musical traditions influence our approach to praying and learning as a community, taught by Cantor Bob Scherr

  • Honoring the Image of God: What does Jewish Law have to teach about Torture?, taught by Rabbi Joshua Boettiger

  • Three folk tales about Shavuot, taught by Werner

  • Water, Wells and Words: A Look at Miriam's Relationship to Water, taught by Betty

  • Spaces Between: stringing pearls of Torah into narrative, taught by Elma

  • Musical Settings of Revelation, taught by Cantor Emily Wigod Pincus

  • Shavuot: anniversary of a cosmic marriage, taught by me

I was especially moved by Joan's teaching about Jacob's new name Israel, which drew deeply on an essay called "The Engendered Shema: Sarah-Echoes in the Name of Israel" by Elizabeth Wyner Mark (published in Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought -- I'm psyched to dig up the article next time I'm at the college library.) And Karen's teachings about gleaning led me to consider the ways in which Shabbat and festivals allow us to glean holiness in the margins of our work lives -- how relationship with God is something we harvest best when we sit still. 

It makes me really happy that our two congregations celebrate Shavuot and Simchat Torah together. There's a wonderful energy in our togetherness. When we first began our short festival maariv (evening service) the wave of song and impromptu harmony swept me away. We opened the evening with the blessing for Torah study, in order that our every interaction from then on -- the formal learning, and the informal conversations over espresso mocha milkshakes -- would be a form of engaging with Torah. And we closed the evening a hair before two, the seven final stalwarts standing in a circle in the sanctuary and passing the Torah around. Each of us receiving and giving.

I'll post later today or tomorrow about the lesson I taught. For now, I'm having a sweet slow day -- after several wonderful days of houseguests and anniversary celebrations of various kinds, I'm pretty beat! -- and feeling really blessed.

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A tale of two seders

"You're surprisingly mellow for someone who's hosting a seder for thirteen people tonight," my sister said. She'd come bearing matzah and macaroons from Clear Flour Bakery, and two kinds of haroset (the Ashkenazic recipe we grew up on, plus a Persian version which we all loved), and side dishes in an insulated carrier. She and her family set the dining-room table while I hard-boiled eggs and whisked matzah balls together (and spent a while nattering with Scott, a reporter from the local paper, toward this lovely article; thanks, Scott!)

It made me happy to greet the seder objects I hadn't seen in a year. The sturdy ceramic seder plate and matching Elijah's cup which my aunt gave me when I got married. The cup I use for Miriam, a china kiddush cup given to me when I became bat mitzvah. (It was customary in our community for boys to receive kiddush cups, and girls to receive candlesticks; in hindsight, the delicate china cup painted with flowers seems like a radical gift.) Everything we placed on the table had a story to tell.

The seder was sweet. Our table was full. Everyone sang the Four Questions together; we took turns reading stanzas of R' Lynn Gottlieb's poem about cleaning out hametz; my seven-year-old nephew led us in a few verses of Dayenu. Over dinner we talked about baseball and science and travel. We sang the beginning of the traditional Birkat Hamazon and I remembered, again, that my sister and I know the same harmonies and syncopations. During Hallel we read some traditional psalms, and some decidedly non-traditional -- Hopkins, ee cummings. At the end of the seder we raced through "Had Gadya" at lightning speed.

On Sunday we set the breakfast table with our everyday pottery, and filled it with friends. Early in the seder, my friend Daniel asked why our bracha over wine featured the term ruach ha-olam ("breath of all life") instead of the more familiar melech ha-olam ("King of the universe"), and Ethan joked that he'd made my night. He kind of had, actually. I derive such pleasure from explaining the valances of different God-language, and why I like to use multiple metaphors for God (Who is beyond all language anyway.)

There are parts of the haggadah which we read on both nights, of course, either because they're central to the experience or because someone wanted to read/sing them or because I just love them. But there were a lot of readings we did on night 2 which we hadn't done on night 1 -- poems by Jay Michaelson and Martín Espada, a few classical texts with creative interpretations, and so on. The counting of the Omer, that first tentative step toward Shavuot.

Our second seder wound up both more serious, and goofier, than our first had been. I offered an impromptu explanation for the ladybug crawling on our seder plate ("it represents the Israelites who, when their bondage became too heavy, 'flew away home.'") We established that The Ballad of the Four Sons (written by Ben Aronin in 1948) can be sung to any 4/4 tune (not only "Clementine" but also "The Yellow Rose of Texas," "Ode to Joy," the Gilligan's Island theme....) When it came time for the egg course, in a nod to my San Antonio heritage (Fiesta began this weekend), we cracked cascarones on each others' heads.


I am so grateful to be able to fill two seder tables with family both given and chosen, and to be able to celebrate this festival of freedom with so many people I love.


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Reb Zalman on setting your seder free

I am here to free you from the Maxwell House Haggadah, to free you in your Pesach celebration!

...[Y]ou are not just free to use better Haggadahs, (the ones with good translations and more openness), you are also free to use the material as a jumping-off point for playing, for elaboration.  Like the Siddur, the Haggadah is a kind of a cookbook filled with recipes.  You can't eat a cookbook, even ones with the tastiest, the most nourishing recipes.  You must do the cooking to turn recipes to dishes.  And it's similar with the Haggadah:  You make the words three-dimensional, four-dimensional. 

That's my teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in his post Toward Freeing the Seder, which is excellent. He takes the fifteen steps of the basic seder structure and offers creative suggestions for making each of them one's own.

For instance, on the Four Questions:

Use your pencil and paper to jot down your four questions.  What are they?

Or your four questions about Judaism.

In other words, if I want to get some answers to my questions this night, what are my real questions, the ones I want answered?

Mah nishtanah halyla hazeh?  Why is the night different?  And what about life?  Why is life different from what I expected?  Jot down four "Differents," four "It isn't as I had thought it would be"-s.

Imagine using those four questions in your seder, questions that arise out of who you are this year, in this moment, as this festival unfolds! How would that change your experience? He offers suggestions for how to understand the idea of leaving Mitzrayim (hint: it has something to do with transcending dualities.) Also smart thoughts -- a little funny, a little painful -- about what it means that we're called to do the work of freeing ourselves from the slavery of old patterns around a table with our families, surrounded by the very emotional structures which may need to be transformed and redeemed.

The Seder is filled with ritual and symbolism. Why do we do each of the things tradition dictates that we do? Reb Zalman offers some explanations, but he also offers this response: "I won’t say, because it is important that at each Seder there be a totally new reason for these things we do. Just because someone once in the thirteenth century gave a reason, why should that remain the only reason forever?" I love that, even steeped in traditional wisdom as he is, he so strongly values the individual insights each of us brings to the spiritual journey we're on.

Of course, for some of us -- me included -- there can be deep attachment to the traditions of seder, the familiar words and songs. The ritual creativity Reb Zalman's suggesting may feel too far-out. Maybe we're reluctant to deviate from the text we know and love, or from the well-known patterns of what seder used to be for us. There, too, Reb Zalman has a suggestion:

There are two Seders, so for one of them, you could do it the way the family did it, the way bubbe and zeyde did it, with the old tricks you want the kids to learn, the same, old melodies.  That was the form you received, and that is the form you have to transmit.

But it is also very important to make a Seder that is new happen, one that is your own, one that is a leaving of your own Mitzrayim.

That feels to me like Renewal in a nutshell: transmit the old forms and honor the old ways, and (in the words of poet Ezra Pound) "make it new," do the spiritual work you need to be doing. That's what I try to do with my Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach. I hope it's what you try to do this year with your seders, too, whatever form they may take.

Many thanks to Reb Zalman for putting these teachings out there.

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