Postcard

This is a postcard --
oversized, five by seven
and glossy. On the front
a photo of my garden:
look, the half-dead bushes
are gone, and the tangle
of wild mint and weeds.
In their place
tall purple astilbe,
silver-leafed brunnera,
a hydrangea, periwinkle
and columbine, shasta daisy.
On the back -- "wish
you were here" is trite.
Instead I'll write
that the sharp scent
of fresh mulch wakes
me like a shofar. All
around town tractors are
cutting tall grass, turning
summer's verdant beauty
into something sustaining
for when all this life
is gone.


Watch me

"Watch this, Mom, watch me."
My son jumps into the pool,
surfacing to ask "was that

a perfect pencil dive?" Or
"look at this, do I look
like a dolphin," wiggling

through the water, "or more
like a whale?" breaching
and landing with a splash.

If I don't witness, it's
as though it didn't happen.
Sometimes I watch, hungry

for every instant of his
nine-year-old summer, glimmer
of sun-sparkles on the water

and maybe a popsicle after
with hair still dripping wet.
Sometimes behind my shades

I want to roll my eyes: kid,
I can't be there your whole life
to see every move you make.

But what else are these poems
if not me calling out to you
watch this, Mom, watch me?

 


Chrysalis

On my Italian parsley plant:
a fat green stripey caterpillar.

It's a black swallowtail
in fourth instar, readying

for its chrysalis. Unlike
the monarch, predictable

in its cycle of rebirth, these
take an indeterminate time

encased in green or brown
before emerging wet-winged.

Growth has its own pace, can't
be hurried. How do they know

when they're ready to shed
what's protected them

and open, tender, to a world
waiting for them to soar?

 


Boundaries and forgiveness

Barricade-barrier-border-48246In this week's Torah portion, Shlach-Lecha, we find the story of the scouts. Maybe you remember it. Here's the thumbnail sketch: Moshe sends twelve scouts to check out the Land of Promise. They come back bearing a giant bunch of grapes, so big they require two men to carry.

They agree that the land indeed flows with milk and honey. But ten of the men say that the inhabitants of the land were giants, and that they felt like grasshoppers in comparison. The people rebel, demanding to know why God would bring them into a land only in order to be slaughtered by its giant inhabitants. "If only we had stayed in Egypt," they wail. "Let's go back!"

And for a moment there, God is really angry. Moshe convinces God to calm down. And Torah says, ויומר ה׳ סלחתי כדברך / vayomer Adonai salachti kidvarecha. "And God said, 'I pardon, as you have asked.'" And, God adds, none of you will make it into the Land of Promise. None of you are ready for freedom. Your outburst just now made that clear. So you won't be going.

I've written before about how Moshe, in the wilderness, seems like an overtired parent. This time it's God who seems to me like the exasperated parent. God and Moshe are the two-parent duo: when one of them gets angry, the other acts as the balance. Ultimately God is forgiving, and affirming love, even while drawing boundaries around what's appropriate and what's not.

We can quibble with God's parenting choices here -- was that a proportional response? -- but what God is doing here feels entirely familiar to me. Appropriate. Even necessary.

Drawing a boundary isn't a sign of lack of love. On the contrary: it can be precisely a sign of love, love for the other and love for oneself. It's precisely because I love my child that I set boundaries around appropriate behavior.

And if my child were to do something that goes counter to the rules and expectations of our household, I would hope to respond as God does here: I love you; I forgive you; and, here's the consequence for the poor choice that you made.

Earlier this week I had my second voice lesson, as I work on preparing for the Days of Awe. My voice teacher asked me what piece of music most intimidates me, and I said "Kol Nidre," whereupon she brightly said, "Great, let's start there!" So I've spent part of this week singing Kol Nidre.

And I couldn't help noticing, looking at my machzor -- my high holiday prayerbook -- that there's a line from this week's Torah portion immediately following Kol Nidre. ויומר ה׳ סלחתי כדברך are the words that are sung immediately after Kol Nidre.

These are the words our liturgy gives us, from God, in that tender moment of confronting our own failings. And they come from this week's parsha, from this moment in the unfolding of Torah's story. "And God said, I pardon, as you have asked."

The pardon still comes with a consequence. Sometimes a loving parent has to say, "I love you, and the answer is no." If a child does something wrong, and the parent doesn't draw a boundary, the child won't learn about consequences. But the consequences should come hand-in-hand with forgiveness and love.

Sometimes the answer we get -- from God, from each other, from the universe, from our lives -- is "you screwed up, so the answer is no." Mature spiritual life asks us to receive that answer when it comes, and to learn from it.

Ideally that doesn't mean self-flagellation. Ideally we remember that even when we've screwed up, we are loved. Ideally we remember that God forgives. (Which doesn't necessarily mean that someone we've wronged will forgive. Forgiveness from human beings isn't guaranteed. Apologizing and doing our inner work and making teshuvah and becoming better people is worth doing even so.)

Life comes with boundaries. We don't get to ignore the rules or what's ethical. We don't get to blithely make bad choices without consequence. But if we can hold on to the knowledge that love and boundaries are two sides of the divine coin -- that God balances chesed and gevurah, and so can we -- we can learn to take comfort both in the tochecha of being told where we've mis-stepped, and the sweetness of being reminded that we are loved.

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Sun

Best hours for sun: ten until two.
You taught me that, sunbathing
on the flat woven chaise by the pool
straps pulled down so you wouldn't mar
any off-the-shoulder blouse
with lines. No one thinks like that
anymore. Here and now even boys
don't swim topless, exposing chests
to the depradations of our star, but
when I walk to the condo pool for a dip
I still notice whether or not I'm in
the good tan window. And later
in the shower when I see my forearms
darker against the soft pale flesh
of my belly, I feel at home in my body.
I don't look like you. But
after an afternoon spent dipping
into cool aqua waters festooned now
with tufts of fluff from cottonweeds,
my warmed skin comforts my touch
the way yours used to do.


The Slonimer on serving, even from within the cloud

The mishkan (the dwelling place for God) wasn't just an external thing our ancestors built in the wilderness way back when. It's also something we're each called to build and maintain in our own hearts. And just as the mishkan was covered with cloud by day and fire by night, our hearts have times of feeling covered with cloud, and times of burning bright. When the cloud lifted, we journeyed, and when the cloud rested, we stayed put. (Numbers 9: 17-19) As for our spiritual ancestors then, so too for us now.

Every life contains times of darkness, times of feeling tested. Authentic spiritual life asks us to serve from that place -- to do our spiritual work from the place where we are, even when that place is darkness or fog. (And when we're in the fog, it's our job to stay where we are -- to be where we are -- not to try to race on to the next thing, but to give ourselves permission to stand still and be with what's happening.) And when the cloud lifts and we can ascend, then moving on and ascending becomes our work.

The thing I really love here is: God is also there in the cloud with us -- heck, God speaks from within the cloud, Torah says so! Life's dark times might feel devoid of God's presence, but they're not. God is there with us in the dark times, and in those dark times, we have work to do even from that fogged-in place. Wherever life's journey takes us, it's from that place (not some other place; not the place where we imagine we "ought" to be; but the place where we actually are) that we are called to serve in love.

 

With thanks to Rabbi Megan Doherty for studying the Slonimer with me. (This teaching is an encapsulation of the teaching titled על פי ה׳ יחנו ועל פי ה׳ יסעו, on pages מז–מח of Sefer Netivot Shalom.)


In your shoes

When I shot up like a weed our feet
stopped matching. Our tastes
diverged too: once I moved out
I chose Docs, clunky Mary Janes.

When you got sick your shoes
languished, replaced by scuffs
and slippers. Two days after
we buried you, your daughters

and granddaughters gathered
in your walk-in closet
for a different kind of memorial.
I chose scarves and beads,

purses and pocketbooks. Didn't
bother with your shoes, those rows
of gleaming heels in leather
and lucite: like Cinderella's

step-sisters, I would've needed
to chop my feet. But one pair
of open-toed sandals beckoned.
Against all odds they fit, but

February is winter here. They went
on a shelf in my closet to wait.
Mom, last night we shared shoes
again. Were you watching as

I walked circles around the house,
relearning how heels swing my hips
playing dress-up in my mother's
shoes, now my own?

 


And our faces, my heart, brief as photos

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I don't know when the doll collecting started. One of the standing dolls has a note on the base that reads "from Brad,  Japan, 1975," which tells me it was a gift from one of my brothers the year I was born. Another bears a piece of tape on her foot reading "Lali and Eppie, Norway, 1988" -- a gift from my grandparents when I was thirteen. Some are porcelain dolls, some are plastic. One is a carved wooden man in a garment of rabbit fur -- I think he is Inuit in origin, and must have come from a parental trip to Alaska -- but the rabbit fur disintegrates in my hands when I pick him up.

There is the big porcelain doll in an off-white muslin dress whom I remember naming "Suzette" when I was a child, because I thought that sounded French; did my parents get her for me on a trip to France, or did I just think the name sounded sophisticated? There are two cloth dolls that my parents got for me when visiting China in the mid 1980s.  There are two cloth dolls that we bought in Amish country when I was nine, as we were driving to New York for our big year in the city -- they wear simple garb, and their faces are blank because of the Scriptural prohibition on graven images.

Four of the dolls, in varying sizes, are wearing Czech traditional dress. My mother was born in Prague, and returned there several times. Did she bring these dolls in hopes of giving me some kind of connection with the folklore and heritage of the place where she was born? When I was 18, we went to the Czech Republic (by then no longer called Czechoslovakia) with my grandparents. It was their final trip abroad. Their memories were already beginning to fail, but we visited the street where their apartment had been when Mom was born, and my grandfather's medical school alma mater. 

Both of my parents were collectors. My father collected matchsafes, and my mother collected silver napkin rings. I suspect this doll collection was started for me when I was born, though my father won't remember, and I can't ask Mom now. I know that everyplace where they went, and everyplace where my grandparents went, they would bring back a doll for me -- ideally in local folkloric costume -- and sometimes a children's book. I still have some of the children's books on my bookshelves: fairy tales in French, The Little Prince in Polish, a bright sturdy pop-up book in Czech.

Some of these are dolls that seem intended to be played-with. They are made of fabric and stuffed, or made of plastic that is soft to the touch. Some have fragile, breakable porcelain faces and hands and feet: dolls meant to be admired rather than cradled or dragged around by a child. Seeing them all assembled together, I'm struck by their assortment of faces, by their eyes and expressions. They represent probably twenty years' worth of my parents and grandparents thinking of me when they were far away, choosing something to bring home to show me where they had been. 

My parents shipped me the dolls shortly after I married. It didn't feel right to display them in my marital home, so they were relegated to the basement. They've been boxed up for more than twenty years. I wish I could look through them with Mom again now. I wish I could ask her where each one came from, what she was thinking when she chose them, what she wanted them to teach me or to say to me: about the richness and diversity of world cultures, or about the fact that even when my parents were traveling the globe, they were thinking of me at home. But that time has passed. 

We never know what questions we will wish we had thought to ask until it is too late to ask them. 

 

Title borrowed from John Berger.

 


Blackbird

My son's dance performance opens
with a song you used to play.

I weep for how you rolled these chords.
I can still hear you singing

"I need someone to love and
understand me," the way you'd slow

for emphasis on "oh what hard luck
stories they all hand me! Make

the bed and light the light,
I'll be home late tonight..."

But you won't be. Or -- not with us.
Dare I hope that the world to come

feels like home in all the ways
this world sometimes doesn't, that

now you feel loved and understood
in all that you are?

 


Revelation

On the night before Shavuot
I fall asleep thinking
about revelation.

In my dream you give me
a necklace, a cluster
of charms on a long chain.

Some are golden plates
engraved with the words
we'll say about you

at your funeral and shiva.
We both know it's coming.
I ask you before you go

to give me my name again.
We stand in a vast shower
-- warm water flowing,

like a mikvah, like
the chevra kadisha
washing the dead clean --

and you say my name
and I hold you
while you weep.

 


Fragments: digital ghosts, gratitude, and grief

Ripple

1. Digital ghosts

Modern life is full of digital ghosts. Like the google cal popup that appears on my laptop screen to helpfully remind me of "our anniversary!" My ex-husband or I must have input that into google, and for reasons I don't understand, I can't make it go away. As though I could ever forget the date, what it was, what it meant. I didn't need my calendar to poke me in that bruise.

Or the first time I shared a photo of my mother on Facebook after she died. The algorithm startled me by recognizing her face and tagging her in the post. "With Liana Barenblat," the post proclaimed, and the words took my breath away. Facebook thought I was "with" my mother. I will never be "with" my mother again -- not in body, not in life. That preposition made me cry.

 

2. With and without you

I try to experience these automated algorithmic responses as a gift from the universe, a reminder of connections that have shaped me, even when relationships or lives are over. Still, sometimes being surprised by these reminders feels like a gift, and sometimes it feels like a wound is re-opened. Grief is a scar that sometimes unexpectedly becomes an open wound again.

Our online spaces can connect us in profound ways, but they can also isolate us, or activate us, or evoke our grief. So often we perform happiness in digital / social media spaces: look how beautiful my life is! As a result, we're sharing a skewed vision of who we really are. We're erasing or eliding the people who are missing. The aches of divorces and deaths and endings.

 

3. Making waves

I understand the appeal of the carefully-curated digital footprint. It allows us to share the life we wish we had, a life of only sweetness. I try hard to cultivate gratitude, for this recipe or that sunset, that moment or this friend. I like sharing glimpses of those kinds of things, in part because doing so helps me cultivate mindfulness and a heightened capacity for gratitude.

But I also want to be real. I don't want to pretend that life is picture-perfect, and I don't want to use spiritual practices as a crutch to help me in that pretense (or any pretense). Life is beautiful, and life is painful -- both of those are always simultaneously true. And grief is not a linear journey. Sometimes a stone gets tossed into the heart's pond, and makes waves.

 

4. Its own reward

So how can I react to these digital ghosts and the griefs they awaken: online reminders of my wedding, or of my mother who has died, or of friendships that evaporated or hopes that didn't come to pass? The only answer I have is to feel whatever I feel -- the sorrow, the wistfulness, the regret -- and to thank my heart for its capacity to feel both the bitter and the sweet.

And I can choose to be real, even in digital spaces. Even when what's real is a hurt or an ache, a memory or a sorrow. Because I think being real with ourselves and one another is what we're here for in this life. Because I think spiritual life asks our authenticity. Because life is too short for pretense. Because being real comes with its own blessings, its own reward.


See you at Sinai

Jordana-Klein-mount-sinai-receiving-the-Torah-1"See you at Sinai!"

That's how I end a lot of my emails to friends and colleagues right now. Because Shavuot is coming, and at Shavuot we all stand again at Sinai to receive.

We've been counting down the 49 days to Shavuot ever since the second night of Pesach. In a few short days that Omer journey will be complete. We will again have made the inner trek from freedom to revelation, from Pesach's new beginning to the relationship-with-the-Holy that we took on at Sinai.

It's a relationship that we continue to take on. No relationship can be sustained with one moment of agreement. Our covenant with God is evolving and ongoing, as our relationship with God needs to be evolving and ongoing.

(If the G-word doesn't work for you, substitute something else: truth, meaning, love, justice, hope, transformation. "God" represents all of these and more.)

And our relationship with Torah is ongoing. Shavuot is called zman mattan Torateinu, "The time of the giving of our Torah." Not the time when it was given, but the time when it is given.

Torah is still being given. Revelation is ongoing -- as Reb Zalman z"l taught, the divine broadcast is perennial, and we receive on the channels where our inner spiritual radios are attuned.

Torah is still being given. Shavuot is a time of opening ourselves to receive what's coming through.

Midrash teaches that we were all present at Sinai. All of our souls were at Sinai for that experience of connection with our Source: every Jew who has ever been and will ever be. (Yes, including those who choose Judaism! If you join yourself with the Jewish people, then your soul was at Sinai too.) We were all there at Sinai in that moment of mythic time.

And we'll all stand together at Sinai again on Shavuot. On Shavuot we can seek to open ourselves to this year's revelation, to the wisdom that this moment asks of us. And when I close my eyes in meditation on Saturday night or Sunday morning, I will imagine all of us together bamidbar, in the Wilderness, at the foot of the mountain: "and you were there, and you, and you..." 

So I'll see you in three days, as the holy time of Shabbes gives way to the holy time of festival.

As our Omer journey ends, and our covenant with the Holy is renewed.

As we open ourselves to the Torah that needs to come through this year. As we open ourselves to transformation, and encounter, and awe. As we open to revelation, sweet and sustaining like milk and honey.

See you at Sinai.

 

Art by Jordana Klein.


Making Everyone Count at Builders Blog

The book of Bamidbar (“In the Wilderness”) begins with instruction to take a census. Literally, the Hebrew instructs Moses to “Lift up the heads” of the whole community. (Well, sort of: the original instruction was to lift up the heads of men capable of bearing arms. Today we have different understandings of gender and who counts.)

“Lift up the heads” colloquially means to count people numerically, and also implies uplifting heart and spirit so that everyone counts and knows that they count. This twin meaning has profound implications for building the Jewish future.

In a physical building context, a general contractor must know how many people are on the build team. Even more, she needs to know each individual builder’s talents, and how to uplift each person to best deploy the skills most needed for each building task. It’s a simple pair of instructions that asks heart, care, and curiosity.  Who are our potential collaborators? What are their skills and gifts, their passions, the unique contributions to the work that each of these people is uniquely well-suited to make? How can we, in our build teams, “lift up each head?” ...

That's the start of my latest d'var Torah for Builders Blog at Bayit: Building Jewish -- with sketchnotes by Steve Silbert:

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The post goes into questions of leadership and service, the story of Reb Zalman z"l and the rotating "rebbe chair" (and how that inspired Bayit's leadership structure), and implications for the Jewish future. Read the whole thing at Builders Blog: Making Everyone Count.

 


Walking in God's Paths, Everywhere We Go

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אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְאֶת־מִצְותַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָֽם׃

If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments,

וְנָתַתִּ֥י גִשְׁמֵיכֶ֖ם בְּעִתָּ֑ם וְנָתְנָ֤ה הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ יְבוּלָ֔הּ וְעֵ֥ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה יִתֵּ֥ן פִּרְיֽוֹ׃

I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit...

These are the opening lines of this week's Torah portion, Bechukotai. If we walk in God's paths and keep God's mitzvot, then we will receive rains in their season. If we walk in God's paths and keep God's mitzvot, then kinds of blessing and abundance will flow. And if we don't listen, and we don't keep the mitzvot, then all kinds of curses will ensue. (Torah goes into some detail here.)

This is the kind of problematic theology that caused the early Reform movement to remove the second paragraph of the Shema from our siddurim. Because we all know that following mitzvot is not a guarantee of prosperity and blessing, and that scarcity and tragedy are not signs of someone's wickedness. We all know that bad things can happen to good people and vice versa.

But I want to look more closely at the parsha's opening words. "If you walk in My paths..."

The Hebrew word for "My paths," chukotai, shares a root with one of our words for mitzvot, chukim. That root means engraved or carved, which is why chukim is sometimes translated as engraved-mitzvot, or "commandments that engrave themselves on us." So "if you walk in My paths" can also be rendered as "if you walk in My pathways that engrave themselves on you."

My friend Rabbi Bella Bogart understands this verse to mean that if we walk in God's pathways and let those pathways engrave themselves on us, then we will necessarily follow the mitzvot, the connective-commandments. It's not that we walk in God's ways and follow mitzvot and then blessings come; it's that when we walk in God's ways, we can't help following the mitzvot.

And when we can't help following the mitzvot, we receive blessing, because we will experience blessing in whatever unfolds. If we walk in God's chukim, if we let God's chukim engrave themselves on us, then we will experience blessing no matter what happens in our lives. It's a matter of epistemology rather than ontology, how we feel rather than "what measurably is."

Every week I study the writings of the Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet with my Bayit colleagues, and this week I was struck by a riff on this verse. The Sfat Emet cites a midrash about King David, that wherever he intended to go -- be it to somebody's house, or off to war -- his feet would carry him to the synagogue or the beit midrash, the house of study.

Now, on first blush this might look a little bit ridiculous. Because know that there were no synagogues or houses of study -- at least not as we now understand them -- in King David's day! It's as though the rabbis, who cherished the shul and the beit midrash, were trying to impose their own frame on a Biblical figure who didn't know what either of those things were.

But the Sfat Emet quotes our daily liturgy to argue that God's greatness and goodness fill the world. He says that God's "greatness" refers to the ten utterances with which Creation began, and God's "goodness" refers to the ten utterances we received at Sinai. To say, then, that "God's greatness and goodness fill the world" is to reference both creation and revelation.

And Rabbi Art Green notes, in his translators' notes, that there's an unspoken conclusion to the Sfat Emet's teaching. If the whole world is full of God's glory, then every place we go can become a place of holy encounter with Torah and with God. King David, in this midrash, becomes our model for recognizing God's greatness and God's goodness wherever our paths may lead.

We can find God everywhere our paths take us. What a radically transformative idea that is. Every place we go -- to work, to the grocery store, running errands, karate class, dance rehearsals, you name it -- can become a place of holy encounter with Torah and with God. That's what it means to walk in God's engraved paths, and to let God's paths engrave themselves on us.

When we let God's paths engrave themselves on us, that changes how we experience the world around us. Then suddenly the gas station and the hardware store and our workplaces and our homes become the synagogue and the beit midrash, places of learning and places of prayer. Because we carry that lens of learning and prayer with us, wherever we go.

And when we carry learning and prayer with us wherever we go, then all the world is our beit midrash where we can marvel in awe and wonder at how much there is to learn -- in Richard Levy's words that we prayed this morning, "how much Torah unfolds from each new flower!" And all the world is our synagogue, where we can pour forth our hearts in prayer.

And that's how the blessings promised in this week's parsha come to pass. When we walk in God's engraved pathways, when we let God's engraved-pathways carve grooves of gratitude and wonder on our hearts, then all the world becomes our house of prayer and study, and everywhere we go becomes a place where we can encounter the Holy. Kein yehi ratzon.

 

This is the d'varling I offered this morning at Shabbat services at my shul (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Offered with gratitude to my Bayit study buddies, especially (this week) R' Bella and R' David!


The old new, and the new holy - a d'varling for Kabbalat Shabbat

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One of the verses in this week's Torah portion, Bechukotai, says that if we walk in God's ways and keep the mitzvot, we will find ourselves in a position where we need to clear out the old grain to make room for the new. (Lev. 26:10) I'll say more tomorrow morning about what it might mean to walk in God's ways. Tonight I want to stay with this one little half-verse about grain.

Rashi explains that this verse means that the old grain we've stored up will stay good and sweet and healthy. It won't turn rancid or go bad. Even years after its harvest, it will still be nourishing and delicious. And eventually we'll have to move it out of our granaries to make room for the new grain, because the prosperity and abundance are going to just keep flowing.

A whole bunch of other subsequent commentators follow in Rashi's footsteps. Everyone seems to agree: this verse means we'll have more grain than we need, and miraculously it will not rot, and we'll need to clear it out to make room for the new harvest.

Okay, so what? Most of us today are not farmers. We don't have granaries. But if we read this verse metaphorically, I think it offers a deep teaching about spiritual life. The first promise I think Torah is making to us is that old grain -- old traditions, old pathways, old teachings, old ideas -- will still nourish. Our ancient texts and traditions remain rich and full of sweetness.

The Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet notes, in his commentary on this week's Torah portion, that when we immerse ourselves in Torah we may only "get" 1/1000th of its meaning. And that's okay! What matters is that we're immersing. What matters is that we're learning, delving into the traditions and seeing how they shape us. They are old grain that still nourishes.

And the second promise I think Torah makes here is that the abundance of Jewish wisdom, the abundance in spiritual practice, the abundance that comes from tending our spiritual selves through learning, study, mitzvah, ritual, prayer, poetry, text and tradition -- that abundance doesn't stop. On the contrary, it keeps flowing. It is still flowing. It will always be flowing.

And sometimes we have to move the old ideas and teachings and practices to the side in order to make way for the new. Just as our priestly ancestors once moved the ashes off the altar so the eternal flame could continue burning, sometimes we need to let go of old interpretations or practices in order to make space for new ones that meet our spiritual needs in this hour.

Does this sound far-fetched? Am I stretching too far to find meaning in a verse that on its surface is about literal grain?

Rav Kook -- the first chief rabbi of what would become the State of Israel -- offered the teaching that "the old shall be made new, and the new shall be made holy." In Hebrew, הישן יתחדש והחדש יתקדש / ha-yashan yitchadesh v'ha-chadash yitkadesh. And that first word, ha-yashan, "the old" -- is the same word we find in this week's Torah portion, the word for old grain.

Rav Kook found in ancient teachings about storing and using old grain a powerful teaching about renewing modern spiritual life.  Old grain, old ideas, old practices will be made new. We can renew ancient spiritual practices and make them alive in our hearts and souls. We can (I would argue we must) turn to that old grain and find sustenance in it!

And we can also sanctify new ideas and teachings and practices. We can make the new holy. That's the work of spiritual practice writ large: making the old new, and the new holy. Turning to the "old grain" that's already in our granaries, while also trusting that the "new grain," the new ideas and teachings flowing now, are also a source of spiritual nourishment and plenty.

May this Shabbes nourish us with wisdom both ancient and modern. May we drink deep from the ancient well of sacred time and traditional practices, and also from the newly-flowing stream of new traditions and translations and ideas. And in so doing, may we nourish our hearts and souls so that we can return to the new week restored and renewed in all that we are.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul tonight at Kabbalat Shabbat services. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Pedicure

I got a pedicure the day you died.
I was numb and shocky, couldn’t bear
to bury you without looking as good
as I knew you'd have wanted me to be.
In the chair I blurted out, "I'm going
to my mother's funeral." Today 
I took that polish off my toes, replaced
with periwinkle, luminous and bright
like your big string pf pearls you do not know
are mine now that you’re gone. I can’t text you
the nail polish emoji as a way
of showing where I am. But hi, Mom, from
the temple of appearance, holy place:
in making myself shine, I honor you.


Walking the Walk at Builders Blog

IMG_0878

...Actions and choices have consequences. Spiritual building isn’t about “deserving,” but about wisely preparing for the immense power of consequences. What we do matters. How we act matters. How we treat each other matters. They shape who we are.

How do we build this awareness of consequence into the holy work of spiritual building?

Our answer is this: we must teach, over and over again, that the path itself is the goal. How we walk that path shapes where the path leads – and who we become on the way...

That's from this week's Torah post at Bayit's Builders Blog, co-written by me and by Rabbi Bella Bogart, with sketchnote by Steve Silbert. Read the whole thing here: Walking the Walk.


Ring

It's a simple circle
of pink coral, set

mid-century modern
in silver and gold.

There's a spiral
of tape on the bottom,

wound around and around
to shrink the band.

Most of your rings
had that, artifact

of fingers growing thinner
with illness and age.

Today my sundress
is navy and aqua,

turquoise and lime,
banded with coral

to match the ring
that used to be yours.

I wish I'd asked you
about its origins.

Look, Mom, I'm
wearing colors. I'm

emerging from mourning,
from winter's long grasp.

 


Peonies

After your mother died
you used to visit her
on her birthday

with flowers,
Texas yellow roses
you'd leave on her grave.

Were they her favorite
or just local color?
I wish I'd asked.

You loved peonies best:
their big, blowsy
spectacular faces

too tender to grow
in the hot south
where you were planted

but you knew
the best florists
would have them...

I'm too far to visit
and anyway you're not
there in the ground.

For your birthday
I put peonies
on my dining table.

The tight buds stand
straight like
young ballerinas.

The bigger blossoms
bend over,
already flirting

with the fragrance
of decay. Nothing
lasts for long.

 


Making Time Holy - a d'var Torah for Emor

Holytime

There’s a story about three umpires discussing their trade. Maybe you’ve heard it. There are these three umpires, and they’re each bragging a little bit, showing off. They’re each claiming to be the best at what they do. The first one says, “I have a good eye, and I call it like I see it.” The second one says, “that’s nothing -- I have a good eye, and I call it like it is.” And the third one just shakes his head, and after a long pause he says, “it ain’t nothin’ ‘til I call it.”

Why am I telling you this?

מוֹעֲדֵ֣י ה' אֲשֶׁר־תִּקְרְא֥וּ אֹתָ֖ם מִקְרָאֵ֣י קֹ֑דֶשׁ׃

“These are My fixed-times, which y’all shall proclaim, declaring them holy.” (Lev. 23:2)

That’s from this week’s Torah portion, Emor. The verses that follow offer an outline of our festival year in its most ancient form. First and foremost is Shabbat. Time and again, weekday and workday consciousness gives way to Shabbat, which tradition calls “a foretaste of the world to come.” That’s the weekly rhythm, the flow and ebb, built into the fabric of creation. And it serves and supports a bigger oscillation, the annual rhythm of the festival year.

At Pesach, in the emerging spring, we celebrate liberation from narrow places. The Omer leads us to Shavuot, when we receive revelation. At Rosh Hashanah the universe begins anew -- Pesach is the anniversary of our Exodus, but Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of all creation. At Yom Kippur we answer for our souls. At Sukkot we move outside, celebrating the harvest and recognizing impermanence. And then, after a fallow time, Pesach comes around again.

Now, Torah could have just said that God declares certain times to be holy. Let it be God’s job to declare what’s holy and what isn’t, what’s a special time and what’s ordinary. I mean, God speaks the world into being, right? But instead Torah says that we proclaim holy time. We declare its holiness. We have a role to play in making our sacred times what they are. The questions for me are, how and why do we do that? And what happens in us when we do?

Torah and the rabbinic tradition are full of “how” and “why.” We declare a time to be kadosh, set-apart, by lighting candles or blessing the fruit of the vine: kiddush, which shares a root with kadosh. Or we build a sukkah, or wave a lulav. Or we set time apart by not-doing things. On Shabbat and festivals, Torah instructs us to cease our working, our rushing to make and create and do. Or we refrain from eating and drinking, as many of us do on Yom Kippur...

What interests me most is not so much the things we do or don’t do, but the internal dynamics behind the doing or not-doing. What does it feel like to consciously refrain from working? What does it feel like to kindle a candle and feel something internal shift thanks to its flickering light? What opens up in us as a result of that doing and the feeling that flows from that doing? Beyond that, what opens or changes in us when we do and feel those things together?

Because that’s another thing I notice about this verse in Torah: “These are My fixed-times, which y’all shall proclaim, declaring them holy.” Now, I’m saying “y’all” because I grew up in south Texas, and even after 27 years in the Northeast I remain convinced that the English language needs a plural form of “you,” and “y’all” is the plural form of “you” that I like best. But I’m also saying y’all because that’s what Torah’s syntax suggests. This is a communal instruction.

Notice the tension between individual and communal. The how and the why of making time holy are communally-agreed-upon, or at least communally-discussed. The internal dynamics of making time holy -- what awakens in us when we take this work on -- are personal. What happens in me when I kindle candles is not necessarily transferrable. And it shifts over time as I change and grow. Making time holy has a profound impact on who and how I become.

The sage known as the Aish Kodesh teaches that festivals have an innate quality of holiness. (Writing about Purim, he says that even if one is grieving on Purim and can’t fully inhabit the holiday’s requisite joy, the day itself will work its magic. I found that deeply meaningful this year when Purim fell during shloshim, the first month of mourning, for my mom.) He’s not alone in that viewpoint. There’s a strong view in tradition that our holidays themselves are holy.

When it comes to Yom Kippur, our sages teach, the essence of the day itself is what enables us to atone -- together with our acts of teshuvah, yes, but the day itself has a unique quality that helps us get there. And yet there’s also a sense that holiness is something we create. In Heschel’s words, we “learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals.” We consecrate not space but time.

We consecrate. In instructing us to set holy time apart, Torah implies that something happens when we declare holy time. Maybe something happens in us when we set holy time apart. Experientially, that feels true to me. There’s a difference between being handed something, and making it myself. There’s a difference between being told that a day is holy, and making it holy with my actions and words -- and most especially with my heart and my intention.

It matters to me that we do this with our own hands and hearts. The Judaism that sets my heart afire and tingles my toes is a participatory Judaism. It’s a Judaism that doesn’t outsource our sense of holiness. It’s a Judaism that presumes that every one of us has a role to play in building the Jewish future. A Judaism that encourages every one of us to learn enough about the tradition that we can turn our hearts and hands to building the Judaism that comes next.

In Talmud (Brachot 64a) we read, “our children will be taught of God.” And then our sages creatively read “our children” as “our builders,” recognizing that every successive generation has the responsibility and the opportunity to build the Jewish future, rooted in our own encounters with holiness. The life's work of building Judaism isn’t just for “the rabbis.” Building Judaism belongs to all of us, just as sanctifying time belongs to all of us.

There's something profoundly democratic here, in the lower-case-d sense. God gives us the flow of the festival year, but it's incomplete without our participation. Our spiritual ancestors give us a vast library of texts and traditions, but they're incomplete without our participation, too. They're the recipe, but you can't eat a cookbook. It's our energy and attention, our investment of hands and hearts, that transforms the recipe into nourishing food for the soul.

Judaism asks us to balance what we've received, and what the future asks us to build. Sometimes we build in new ways, through new spiritual technologies, new ways of learning, new texts and prayers and melodies to enliven our experience of ancient texts and festivals and practices. And sometimes we build in ancient ways, letting those ancient practices (like sanctifying time) do their work in us as we open ourselves to becoming and to change.

In the instruction to proclaim the festivals, Torah is telling us that even something as fundamental to Jewish life as holy time is a partnership between us and God. Our sacred times have power, and that power is magnified when we make the choice to declare those times to be set-apart and holy. And when we consciously set time apart, we open ourselves so that holiness can flow through us into the future that is yet to be. Shabbat shalom.

Shabbat shalom.



 

This is the d'var Torah I offered this morning at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo where I am (with Rabbi David Markus) Halpern Scholar-In-Residence this weekend. Deep thanks to the Halpern family for bringing us to western New York!

Written with gratitude to my co-founders at Bayit: Building Jewish.