Innovating, learning, recharging

Innovation retreat 2020

Within moments of arrival we're talking about how fulfilling it is to learn from each other across the denominations. R' Evan Krame (The Jewish Studio, Bayit) has designed an icebreaker wherein we withdraw slips of paper from an envelope, each containing a quote, and relate the quotes we've drawn to our hopes for our time together. One of the quotes I draw reminds me of the importance of collaboration, and how we can build the Jewish future together better than any of us could build alone.

We study design thinking and innovation with Steve Silbert (Bayit). We talk about the needs we're trying to meet in the community contexts where we serve (and how do we even know what the needs are?) We talk about buy-in and safety, how to measure whether innovative solutions are working, iterative change (come up with a solution, try it, measure what worked, refine it, try again), rightsizing our questions. We dream follow-up conversations, workshopping ideas, adapting, trying again.

R' Jeff Fox (Yeshivat Maharat) teaches us mussar (character refinement) and halakha. We learn that our job as human beings is to feel-with others, and to help others carry their burdens. We learn a teaching of R' Simcha Zissel about tension between imagination (flowing freely) and mind (operating within limits). How does the dialectic between flow and limitation drive innovation? How do we operate from the stance that fundamentally what it means to be a Jew is to ease the suffering of others?

R' Mike Moskowitz (Bayit, CBST) brings texts about the tension between individual and community. We learn about when it's okay to delegate someone else to perform a mitzvah, and when we should be wholly present to bring our unique light. We talk about doing mitzvot because we genuinely love the One Who asks us to do so. We leave that session with the framing question "What can I do that no one else can do?" -- a way to prioritize our limited time and energy as we try to repair this broken world.

There are so many conversations. We talk about congregational dynamics, about who we serve, about projections and transference, liturgy and melody, best practices in teaching and b-mitzvah education, our work's challenges and joys. Even aside from the formal learning we're here to do, the immersion in conversations with wise colleagues is impossibly nourishing. I keep thinking of the Mandelstam quote I drew at the start, about how we can build together what we couldn't build alone.

We span all the denominations of Judaism, so early on in the retreat we negotiate how to daven together. Davening in a community like this -- where we all care about the words, and we're all dedicating our lives to serving the Holy and serving the community that serves the Holy -- is the best medicine there is for my heart. Especially when the davening involves harmony and song, which it always does. There is nothing better, for me. It feeds a part of my soul that is not fed in any other way.

Monday morning we read from Torah. At each aliyah, there is a glorious cacophony of words -- some of us using the traditional words, some of us using a more inclusive variation, some of us using the Reconstructing variation; masculine names for God and feminine names for God; all woven into one tapestry of melody and heart. When we sing the words for returning the scroll to the ark, "renew our hearts as of old," my heart cracks open. It's ineffable, it's like water after a long thirst, it's grace.

The change agency panel features R' Debbie Bravo (Makom NY), R' Jeff, and R' Mike. R' Mike talks about trans inclusivity in Orthodoxy and about answering people instead of questions. R' Jeff talks about ordaining women in Orthodoxy, change agency and design thinking, and navigating opposition. R' Debbie talks about values, community, and how to walk our talk on welcoming. We talk about the loneliness of being a change agent, and about where we find practical and spiritual support.

Shoshanna Schechter (Charles E. Smith) teaches about understanding Gen Z (b. 1997-2012) before we teach them, about navigating Jewish learning and screen time, about kids' resistance to prayer across all the denominations and how we work with that. We talk about how increasing anxiety among teens impacts our b-mitzvah teaching, and how we teach Jewish values (especially to kids who may be allergic to that term.) That leads us into a conversation about innovation in b-mitzvah prep.

We spend some time sandboxing #MenschUp values education for b-mitzvah learning. We use design thinking and its built-in iterative processes to begin brainstorming how we might co-create learning tools that would help kids meet some of the challenges they face today. What can we do with the "periodic table" of Jewish character traits to teach kids of all gender expressions? What would it look like to build tools for this work in a consciously trans-denominational way?

Over the course of the gathering we experience deep text study and davening and singing. We experience innovation learning, text learning, best-practices learning. We partake in late-night game play and laughter.  We grapple with how to innovate wisely and well, and how to meet real needs in the real world. After two days together I'm leaving with a re-filled rabbinic tool box -- and maybe even more importantly, a re-filled sense of connection to this calling, and gratitude for the opportunity to serve.

 

Shared with deep gratitude to this year's innovation retreat planning team, on which I served alongside R' Debbie Bravo, R' Jonathan Freirich, R' Evan Krame, R' David Markus, and R' Alana Suskin. Related: last year's innovation retreat report.


To Know God

Hardened-Heart-300x275This week's Torah portion (Bo) begins like this:

God said to Moses, "Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your children and your children's children how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them, in order that you may know that I am God." (Exodus 10:1)

I like the interpretation that Pharaoh hardened his own heart first, which means God just helped him along -- the spiritual equivalent of, "if you keep making that face, you'll get stuck that way." I can understand that as a spiritual teaching about how the choices we make about compassion (or lack thereof) shape who we are and who we become.

But this idea that God "made a mockery of the Egyptians" so that we would know God -- it's troubling, to say the least. It seems to treat the Egyptians as meaningless pawns in our journey of spiritual awakening. How can we redeem this verse?

Talking this over with one of my hevruta partners this week, here's where I arrived. Yes, Torah and the classical commentators show a distressing lack of concern for the Egyptian people who will suffer under Pharaoh's hardened heart. I can't magic that away. I can temper it by saying that this is a natural way for a traumatized people to react to abuse of power, and surely the children of Israel are traumatized at this point in their story.

And, I don't want to operate from a place of trauma. I reject the idea that the suffering of the Egyptians was fine because hey, it got us to a place of knowing God. And, I'm moved by the fact that Torah says that the whole point of this story is for us to know God.

We could even say: the whole point of our being alive is to know God. Maybe the G-word doesn't work for you. In that case, substitute something that does. The point of our being alive is to know love, or compassion, or justice, or meaning, or truth. The whole reason we're here is to connect with something greater than ourselves -- to "know God."

Maybe this means: to have deep spiritual encounters, to live in such a way that our hearts are open to the sacred. Maybe it means to know each other more deeply, because each of us is made in the divine image. Maybe it means to know creation more deeply, because when we delve into the natural world, we can (in the words of poet and pilot John Gillespie Magee Jr.) "put out [our] hand and touch the face of God." Maybe we seek God through Torah study, or prayer, or environmentalism, or pursuing justice. One way or another, our purpose in this life is to connect with the sacred.

And that leads me to the spiritual practice I find in this week's parsha: approaching everything with that lens. It's the first lens in my spiritual direction toolkit: "Where is God in this?" If someone in a position of power has hardened their heart and they're making choices that harm me, how can I harness that experience to open myself to God? How can I choose to center justice and love and hope, even when others are acting unethically -- or especially then?

I love this as a spiritual practice. And... it's really important that it's a practice I'm choosing, not one that's imposed from outside. It's one thing for me to say that I want to respond to a hardened heart by opening to holy connection. It's another thing to say that anyone else has to respond to injustice in the same way. "Your boss mistreated you -- great, what an opportunity for you to know God more deeply!" Um... no. If I were to say that to someone who'd been mistreated, that would be rabbinic malpractice.

Here's the choice I think we each have: when we encounter injustice -- when someone hardens their heart and acts wrongly -- will we harden ours in return, or will we choose to soften and to make space for the ineffable? I'm not talking about softening to an abuser. I'm talking about making the choice to keep our hearts open to God even in the face of injustice and suffering.

Torah says the whole drama of the plagues and the Exodus happened so we would know God. This year, that says to me: whatever's unfolding in our lives -- on a personal scale, on a communal scale, on a national scale -- can be an opportunity to soften our hearts and to more deeply know God... if we choose to use it that way.

Finding God in whatever's unfolding won't erase injustice, but it can give us resilience in the face of injustice. It won't erase suffering, but it can give us hope in the face of suffering. And maybe that resilience and that hope will give us the capacity to create justice: for ourselves, and for everyone.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


The far shore

This is how the year ends.
We've carried your memory, and now 
we dedicate this stone
on the far side of the sea.

We've carried your memory.
Now we look back
from the far side of the sea,
our footsteps washed away.

Now we look back
and blink, disoriented,
our footsteps washed away.
The waves are gentler now.

We blink, disoriented.
I still talk to you.
The waves are gentler now
when I greet your photos.

I still talk to you
in every room
when I greet your photos
as though you were here.

In every room
questions I wish I'd asked
(as though you were here.)
I remember your voice.

Questions I wish I'd asked:
how do we live without you?
I remember your voice.
I don't want to let go.

How we live without you:
we dedicate this stone.
I don't want to let go..
This is how the year ends.

 


Bodies and stones

Tefila-Closed-small

It's been a while since the last time I helped with taharah, the washing, dressing, and blessing of the body of someone who has died. Once I became single, the dynamics of finding childcare for my son on a moment's notice shifted. Also as The Rabbi, when someone dies I'm usually occupied with funeral preparations. I haven't been able to say yes to helping with taharah in a while.

In this case (and this is not usual), I'm not presiding over the funeral -- and the person who died wasn't a member of my synagogue community, either. Before she died, her family reached out to ask whether we would care for her body before the casket is taken to the place where the funeral will be. I'm glad that after considering the ask, my congregants said yes.

There is something poignant about being asked to step in and help with this mitzvah during the days immediately preceding my mother's unveiling (the dedication of her gravestone) over which I will soon preside. I remember a conversation I had at her burial: a man I did not know, telling me that he had sat with the casket overnight so that her neshamah wouldn't feel alone.

This is how the fabric of community is woven. We step up and we do these things for each other, mitzvot that cannot possibly be repaid. We tenderly pray over and wash and dress each body before burial. We sit with each casket so that the soul of the deceased does not feel fear during the tender transition out of this life. We shovel graveside earth with our own hands.

The pebble I will place on my mother's grave is smooth and grey. I carried it in my pocket as I did taharah, linking this mitzvah done for a woman I did not know with the same mitzvah that strangers performed for my mother. Tomorrow I'll fly with this pebble to Texas. Sunday I'll place it on Mom's stone, a reminder that she is remembered, a marker of my passage through.

 


Tether

These letters, kite-string
or umbilicus: do they
tether you? When I
stop writing will you
dissolve, a water droplet
rejoining the flowing stream?
Maybe I'm the one
tied to what was,
not willing to disentangle.
When I wasn't looking
this year changed me.
Still homesick sometimes, but
I've learned to sleep
in this strange bed
where sometimes, I know,
I will see you
in dreams. Gone but
still here. Almost enough.


The weather

Things I can't know,
a partial list: how cold
the cemetery will be this time

how bruised my heart will feel
-- or not -- and most of all
would you wear sandals?

I don't think the dead
pull climate strings, but
if it were up to you

you'd want Texas to put on
her prettiest face
when we remember you.

You'd want our grief
to melt like thin ice
in morning Texas sun.

 


The world is our kin: lessons from Moshe about being an upstander

וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֗ם וַיִּגְדַּ֤ל מֹשֶׁה֙ וַיֵּצֵ֣א אֶל־אֶחָ֔יו וַיַּ֖רְא בְּסִבְלֹתָ֑ם וַיַּרְא֙ אִ֣ישׁ מִצְרִ֔י מַכֶּ֥ה אִישׁ־עִבְרִ֖י מֵאֶחָֽיו׃

Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. (Exodus 2:11)

UpstanderI always imagined that Moshe didn't know, growing up, that he was an Israelite. He grew up in Pharaoh's household as though he were a grandchild of Pharaoh. Surely Pharaoh didn't know the baby's origins -- he wouldn't have let his daughter adopt a Hebrew baby when he'd just ordered them all drowned, right?

Along with that, I've imagined a dramatic moment when Moshe discovers that he wasn't originally part of the ruling family. A moment when Moshe learns that he was born into a slave household rather than the royal one. But Torah here calls the Hebrew his kinsman. In this moment, it seems that he knows.

Two enticing possibilities flow from that. One is that Pharaoh's daughter told him, in secret, where he came from and who he really is. Maybe he's always known that he is secretly part of his nation's most oppressed people, rescued only by miracle, and that his destiny would be to help his people go free.

Or maybe he grew up as an Egyptian royal kid, having no idea that he was different from the rest of his adoptive family... and when he saw the overseer mistreating the slave, he knew in his bones that the man being oppressed was his kin, because all human beings are kin, and mistreatment is never right.

The commentator known as Ramban says that someone told Moshe he was a Hebrew, so he went out to the fields to see what kind of life his kinsmen lived. The commentator known as the Sforno says he was moved to strike the overseer because of a feeling of brotherliness -- he felt that the slave was his kin.

This year I'm moved by the idea that maybe Moshe didn't know his origins. Because in that case, his choice to be an "upstander" -- to step in and protect someone powerless who was being harmed -- was based not in a sense of loyalty to "his own," but in the sense that oppression is wrong, period.

Maybe I'm drawn to that interpretation because I want us to be like that Moshe. I want us to open our eyes to unethical behavior and oppression and abuse of power. I want us to step up and say: that's wrong. The world shouldn't be like that. As a human being, it's my job to protect the vulnerable from harm.

Earlier this week, my son attended an assembly at his elementary school about systemic racism. He came home deeply upset, having learned about the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. Three hundred were killed. Ten thousand became homeless. It's a horrific story of white people slaughtering black people.

My son wanted to know, how could human beings treat other human beings like that? He was shocked and angry and full of grief. I know that his surprise at the horrific viciousness of racism is a sign of his privilege. Through no merit of his own, he's been able to grow up mostly oblivious to racism.

My job now is to help him grow into awareness that we who have privilege are obligated to use our power to help those who don't have it. Because oppression is wrong. Which Moshe knew. And he knew in his bones that the man being beaten was his kin; Torah calls him "kinsman" twice to make that point.

Now, I don't recommend Moshe's methods here. (Killing the overseer: not the way to go.) But Moshe's apparently immediate knowledge that this person who was experiencing systemic oppression is his family, and that therefore he has an obligation to act -- that's Torah's role model for us this week.

Who experiences systemic oppression in our world? I'm not talking about individual acts of mistreatment, but about the systems and structures that give some people an inherent advantage and others an inherent disadvantage. Oppression expressed in the practice of social and political institutions.

[Harvest answers from the room]

Here are some of my answers: Immigrants. Refugees. People of color: at increased risk of unfair sentencing, and of being shot by police because of unconscious bias. Trans people: at increased risk of suicide because of prejudice and mistreatment. Women. Non-Christians. Those who live in poverty.

And, of course, one can be many of these things at once. This week I see Moshe's choice to stand up against the oppression of that Hebrew slave as Torah's lesson for us. Our world contains systems of oppression too, no less than the Mitzrayim ruled over by this Pharaoh who didn't remember Joseph.

Those who are oppressed are our kin, and it's our job to stand up for them as we are able, as Moshe stood up for his kin in the field. Not necessarily because we see ourselves in their faces, though maybe we do. But because oppression is wrong, and Jewish tradition calls us to pursue justice with all that we are.

 

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


Come write with me!

I couldn't be more delighted to announce that I've been named in the Liturgist-in-Residence for the National Havurah Committee's Summer Institute 2020, which will be held from July 27-August 2 in Hartford, CT.  Here's the text of their official announcement:

Liturgist-In-Residence 2020: Introducing Rachel Barenblat!

Rachel Barenblat, the “Velveteen Rabbi,” is an American poet, rabbi, chaplain and blogger. She is a founding builder at Bayit: Building Jewish, and serves Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, MA.  In 2016, The Forward named her one of America’s most inspiring rabbis. She has previously served as co-chair of ALEPH with Rabbi David Markus, and as interim Jewish chaplain to Williams College. In 2013 she was named a Rabbis Without Borders fellow by Clal, the Center for Learning and Leadership. Her blog, Velveteen Rabbi, was named one of the top 25 blogs on the Internet in 2008 by Time Magazine. Rachel has written several books of poetry, and has edited / compiled / contributed to a Passover haggadah, a machzor, and a book of prayers and poems for mourners.

Rachel will be teaching three workshops throughout the week:

  • Session 1 – Psalms of gratitude and praise. We’ll talk briefly about what makes a psalm, explore some psalms of gratitude (from Tehillim / the Book of Psalms, and from contemporary poets), and talk about ways of talking to / about the Holy. Our first writing exercise will serve to “prime the pump” and get words flowing; our second writing exercise will invite a stream of words about gratitude. Then we’ll revise / reshape those words into the first draft of a psalm. We’ll share psalms with each other aloud, and close with a niggun to send us on our way. 
  • Session 2 – Psalms of sorrow. We’ll begin by establishing shared vocabulary around psalms, poems, and spiritual practice. Today’s focus is psalms of anxiety and fear. We’ll explore some of these psalms (both classical and contemporary) and then shift into writing together. Our first writing exercise will prime the pump, and our second will invite words from a place of fear, sorrow, grief, or anxiety. We’ll revise those words into psalms, and those who wish can share them aloud. This session requires particular care because these psalms can evoke or activate difficult emotions. We’ll close this session with a meditative and musical practice designed to help us release our emotions and return to a sense of spiritual safety, and I’ll make myself extra-available after this session for anyone who wants to talk.
  • Session 3 – Psalms of wholeness. In this session we’ll explore psalms of wholeness and Shabbat. We’ll enter into Shabbat psalms (both classical and contemporary) and then do the week’s final two writing exercises. The first will prime the pump for our creativity (in a way that by now will be familiar to repeat participants), while the second will invite reflections on a hope for Shabbat or a memory of Shabbat. We’ll reshape those words into the first draft of a new Psalm for Shabbat, and will close with a niggun that evokes Shabbat, now on its way! 

Participants will have an opportunity to share their original psalms and poetry with the community during the week.

Stay tuned for more information about the roster of classes that will be offered at this summer's institute. For now, save the dates and plan to join us!

 


Pebbles

I know I must have talked with you
after unveilings for relatives

or friends, but I don't remember
what you had to say. Probably

we talked about shopping or haircuts
or Shabbes dinner, what Marie Howe

called "what the living do."
When you drove out of a cemetery

you moved on, but part of me still
hasn't left where we buried you.

Soon we'll gather to bless the slab
that marks the spot. Did you know

the tradition that says we stop
saying kaddish after eleven months

because only wicked souls require
a full year of kaddish to ascend

and we wouldn't want to imply
you weren't righteous? I think

you'd laugh and say whatever works
for us is fine by you, then ask

where we're going for lunch after
and what kind of shoes I'm planning.

Almost eleven months now I've been
writing to you, each line a monument

to memory. These poems,
the pebbles I leave on your stone.

 


Cooking Iranian food with a prayer in my heart

9565d065d0aa94196cb7ee23e02cde88I don't think it was a conscious decision. Consciously, I was thinking: I brought dried limes home from a recent trip to one of the markets in Albany. What can I do with them? Oh, I know. Samin Nosrat talks about dried limes in Persian food; I'll make something Persian! A few days of comparing recipes led me to this slow cooker Ghormeh Sabzi / Persian herb stew recipe.

But once I was cooking -- inhaling the scent of onions and garlic and turmeric, and then leeks and bunches of parsley and cilantro and last summer's frozen chives chopped and sautéed -- it occurred to me that I was making Iranian food. And I wonder whether the pull toward this recipe came from somewhere deeper than just "what can I make with dried limes."

There's so little I can do about the actions of my nation's government. I know that refreshing the New York Times and the Washington Post and my Twitter stream as often as I habitually do is probably not good for my mental or emotional or spiritual wellbeing, and yet... And yet I do those things anyway, on days that are not Shabbat, and therefore my heart keeps being broken.

My heart is broken by the state of America's body politic. By disinformation and misinformation. By fake news and propaganda. By threats and bluster. By fear for what this administration might do. By the knowledge that war is not an abstraction to military families -- nor to innocents who will be traumatized, or will die, simply because they're in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And I can't do anything about any of it. Sure, I can write to my Congresspeople, and I can volunteer toward electing a president whose values align better with mine, but neither of those will help now. But I can hold the people of Iran in my heart -- and the people of Iraq too, for that matter. I can pray for them (and us) to know hope and connection, health and prosperity.

I would love to visit Iran. To taste the food, to wander the markets, to see the Pink Mosque, to see the ruins of Persepolis, and most of all to meet Iranian people. I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon. But I imagine that if I were able somehow to make it there, people would be warm and welcoming. People are warm and welcoming everywhere I've ever been.

I remember traveling in Jordan the year before the Iraq war began, fearful that people would be angry about the actions of my nation's government. And yet when I acknowledged where I'm from, every single person I met welcomed me. Some of them indicated that they weren't fans of President Bush (hey, neither was I!) but none of them held my nationality against me.

When we meet each other as human beings, with curiosity and openness, we can learn so much about each other -- and also about ourselves. That's why travel is so broadening. And even if we can't travel, we can seek to meet others in the places where we are. My understanding of my religious tradition calls me strongly to welcome the immigrant, the refugee, the stranger

There's so much brokenness in the world today. It breaks my heart that my nation now accepts fewer refugees than ever before. And that this week my nation veered close to the brink of war with Iran.  And that we are living in times of rising xenophobia in so many places. I can't fix any of these. Today all I can do is cook Persian food and hold the people of Iran in my prayers. 

 


Vayechi: angels, memory, blessing

Golden_Haggadah_Jacob_Blessing_Ephraim_and_Manasseh-1This week's Torah portion, Vayechi, begins with Jacob on his deathbed. Joseph comes to him with his sons Ephraim and Menashe, and Jacob marvels: he hadn't expected to see Joseph again, and now here he is with Joseph and the next generation too! He blesses the boys with a verse (Genesis 48:16) that became part of the liturgy of the bedtime shema -- "May the angel who kept me from harm, bless the ones who come after," in Reb Irwin Keller's beautiful translation that we sang this morning.

The syntax of this verse is unclear. Rashi reads it in a literal, non-mystical sense. He thinks Jacob is talking about the angel whom God sent to wrestle with him at the banks of the Jabbok. But many translations capitalize Angel, because the way the sentence is phrased makes it seem as though Jacob is referring to God as an Angel, both a protector and a source of blessing. As Reb Irwin writes, "So he could mean a guardian angel, or he could mean God, or he could intend the ambiguity, knowing that angels are just a face of the Divine anyway."

Reading these verses this year, I couldn't help remembering last February when I took my son to Texas to say goodbye to my mother. I knew when we flew down that it would be our last time seeing her alive.

While we were there, she soaked up every moment she could with her youngest and final grandson. She managed to get out of bed once to sit with him while he ate dinner. I remember that she asked him about his favorite cartoon -- an anime called Pokémon, which was completely foreign to her, but he happily told her all kinds of details about the various Pokémon and their evolutions. And -- this is a story I told in my Yom Kippur sermon, Come... and Prepare to Go -- she came downstairs for that final Shabbat, and heard him sing the words of the kiddush over wine one last time.

My mom didn't use the language of "blessing" each other, and angels were not part of her Judaism. They were as foreign to her as Pokémon. But I think her presence with her generations that Shabbat was the blessing she was able to give us from her deathbed. She spent the last of her strength making it to her wheelchair to come downstairs for Shabbes dinner because celebrating Shabbat with her children and grandchild mattered to her. She showed us with her actions that family and Jewish tradition had been a blessing for her that she hoped would continue to be a blessing for us.

Her unveiling approaches in two weeks. I still think of her every week when I make challah, remembering that she tasted my homemade challah on that last Shabbes of her life and declared it good. And my son remembers her when we make kiddush on Friday nights, because he was proud of being able to sing those words where she could hear. In these ways she's still with us even though she's gone. Sometimes I imagine that she peeks in at our Shabbes table each week, like the two angels described in Talmud who seem able to say only one thing: "May next week be just like this one." Even on the weeks when we only spend a few minutes over candles and wine and challah, I like to imagine that she feels joy when she sees us carrying this tradition forward. 

Before he dies, Jacob reminds Joseph that he wants to be buried in the same place where his parents are buried. Joseph gets Pharaoh's permission to travel, and then Joseph carries Jacob's bones back to the Cave of Machpelah before returning to Egypt. 

Later in Torah, this carrying of bones will be recapitulated. Moshe will take Joseph's bones out of Egypt when the children of Israel depart. The word used in that verse (Exodus 13:19) is etzem, which means both bone and essence. I see a deep truth in these two parallel stories. No matter where our forebears are buried, we carry their essence with us. Like Joseph, and like Moshe, we carry our forebears with us. Sometimes their physical features reverberate through the generations. Sometimes their traumas, their memories, and their stories live on in us. And that's true whether or not those whom we remember were good to us, whether or not they could be be the parents or grandparents we needed them to be. We carry both the bitter and the sweet. 

May the memories of those whom we carry -- in our minds and hearts, and sometimes also in our DNA -- be the blessing that we need in our lives. May they inspire us to live up to our best selves. May they help us shed any baggage, any hurts, so we can grow beyond them and not transmit them further. May we experience their memories as a blessing for us... so that we can transmit that blessing in turn to those who come after, our children and the children of our children. Or in the rabbinic reinterpretation, our students and their students and the students of our students. So that all of us can experience ourselves as part of a chain of generations and a chain of blessing, watched-over by that same angel (or Angel) whom Jacob evoked so long ago.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul on Shabbes morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Image from the Golden Haggadah.

 


A video teaching on "in-between" times and spiritual practice

When we were in Cuba, the rabbis on the trip asked Cuban Jewish communities what they most needed from us. They asked for regular video teachings. That led to Bayit's latest initiative: monthly video teachings, translated into Spanish, for the Jewish communities of Cuba and anyone else who's interested.

Our first Spanish-language teaching went live in December, featuring Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer of Cuba America Jewish Mission teaching about Chanukah. You can find that teaching on Builder's Blog here. Our second teaching is now live; this one features me, talking about in-between times, spiritual life, and spiritual practice. Unlike R' Sunny I'm not fluent in Spanish, so my "vort" is recorded in English. Rabbi Juan Mejia is graciously translating our work into Spanish, so my video has Spanish subtitles!

If you're interested, you can watch the video here: 

Palabras del Torá / a "vort" of Torah - R' Rachel Barenblat from Bayit: Building Jewish on Vimeo.

Or, if you'd prefer to read the teaching, the text is available online in Spanish and in English -- just click through to Builders Blog.

 


A year ago

A year ago you kept falling. Bloodied from landing,
bruised as though beaten. Dad couldn't lift you, so one
night you slept on the carpet until morning. Did you know
your children were scheduling frantic conference calls?
There was no knowing how much worse it might get.
When you consented to hospice, you texted us, "if my decline
troubles you, have your doctor prescribe a happy pill."
I laughed until I cried. A year ago you were still alive.
This month I keep saying that, like a mantra.
Soon I'll never be able to say it again.


Vayigash: choosing again

ThinkstockPhotos-177537390In this week's Torah portion, Vayigash, there's a poignant moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers.

Last year I was struck by the beautiful Hebrew word להתודע, "to make oneself known" or "to reveal oneself." This year what leapt out at me is the precursor to Joseph's revelation of self. Before he could make himself known to his brothers, he needed to know that they had changed. He needed proof of their genuine teshuvah, their repentance, their turning-themselves-around.

But how could he get that proof? He couldn't exactly ask. So he demanded that they abandon their youngest brother Benjamin in Egypt. Judah's response -- "I promised our father that we would keep him safe. He's already lost one beloved son; if he lost this one too, it would kill him; take me instead" -- proves to Joseph that Judah, at least, is different than he once was.

Judah has learned from the brothers' mis-steps. He understands now that their scheme to get rid of Joseph caused incredible harm to their father... and presumably also to Joseph, though he doesn't yet know that he's speaking with the brother they sold down the river. Presented with the opportunity to make a similarly damaging choice a second time, Judah chooses differently.

Heraclitus famously wrote that one can't step in the same river twice. But Rambam argues that we can. In fact, that's precisely how he says we can tell if our teshuvah -- repentance and re/turn -- is genuine. When we are presented with the same opportunity to miss the mark, and we choose differently, then we know that we've really made teshuvah. We've done the work to actually change.

Conventional wisdom holds that "[w]hen someone shows you who they are, believe them." In general I think that's a good rule of thumb. Our actions and choices show who we are, and sometimes they reveal realities we might not want to admit. We can say all kinds of pretty things about who we imagine ourselves to be, but when push comes to shove, our actions will speak deep truths about who we are.

If someone says they value kindness, but they act in ways that are unkind -- if someone says they are truthful, but they act in ways that are mendacious -- if someone says they are ethical, but they act in ways that are power-hungry or abusive -- I'm inclined to say, then believe them. Their actions show who they have chosen to be. It's reasonable to expect their choices to continue.

And yet -- Judaism stands for the proposition that change is always possible. As is written in the CBI Board covenant, which is posted in our social hall, "We acknowledge that things can always change; can always be better than they have been." Things can always change. People can always change -- if we put in the hard work that's required in doing so. But we have to choose to change.

Change isn't easy. Our actions and our choices carve grooves of habit on heart and mind, and it's difficult to become someone new. Difficult, but not impossible. Authentic spiritual life asks us time and again to do what Judah did: to face our mis-steps, to apologize and make things right, and when our lives lead us to the same river again, to choose other than we did before.

Judah's teshuvah leads to their family becoming whole again. It leads to plenty and prosperity instead of famine and sorrow. I believe that doing the work of teshuvah can open us to abundance too. Not necessarily a full pantry and a family reunited -- but surely the comfort of knowing that we're doing the work and "walking our talk." That we are living up to who we say we are.

I have the sense that the coming year will challenge us, repeatedly, to do our inner work -- and to live up to the values we say we hold dear. What are the values we want to embody this year... and what tools can we use to keep ourselves honest, so we're not just paying lip service to Jewish values but actually taking action to live them, every day? 

 

 

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

 


Light in the darkness

This is the message I sent to my congregational community this morning. I wanted to share it here also, in case it speaks to any of you.

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Dear all,

I woke this morning to news of yet another antisemitic attack during Chanukah — this time a stabbing at a Chanukah celebration in Rockland County, New York. This is the eighth such incident I’ve seen in the news since Chanukah began. I expect that many of us are reading these news stories this week. And I expect that in response many of us are navigating a mixture of fear, anxiety, sorrow, and more besides.

As I was sitting with today’s news, I received a text from a member of one of the Cuban Jewish communities that we visited earlier this fall. She asked if we are all right, and said that they are concerned for our safety. In an instant, her heartfelt expression of care shifted my morning. And in assuring her that we are all right, and that though these are dark times I know that light will prevail, I reminded myself of what I know to be true.

In recent months the CBI Board has upgraded our security system so that we can be safer when we gather together in our synagogue for learning, for prayer, and for community. The best response to antisemitic attacks around the nation, and the best response to whatever arises in us because of those attacks, is precisely that — gathering together. As we move into 2020, may we continue to come together in our sorrow and in our joy.

And when we come together in 2020 for Shabbat and festivals, Hebrew school and Take & Eat, baby namings and funerals, may we bring our Christian and Muslim and Buddhist and Hindu and atheist and secular friends and neighbors along, too. Invite a friend or colleague who isn’t Jewish to services, or to seder, or to a Shabbat meal in your home. Because the better we know each other, the more we can stand together.

When we form connections across our differences, the northern Berkshire community is strengthened. Attacks like last night’s are rooted in fear of difference. The best antidote to that fear is to break down the barriers of not-knowing each other. And the best antidote to our own fears is to remind ourselves that we are not alone. That others care about us and will stand with us. That we are stronger together than we are alone.

(And — if these incidents are arousing fear and anxiety in you, please take care of yourself before you work on building bridges. “Put on your own oxygen mask first,” as airline flight attendants teach. I can recommend good therapists in the area if you are in need, and I am here if you want to talk about any of this. My hours will become more predictable once the school year begins again in a few days, but if you need me, reach out; I am here.)

At the City menorah lighting last week I said that to me the real miracle of Chanukah is the leap of faith. Someone chose to kindle the eternal lamp even though there wasn’t enough sanctified oil to last, and then somehow miraculously there was enough. The eternal light didn’t go out. It’s still burning. The light of our tradition still shines — in us. The light of hope shines in us too. In the words of Proverbs, our souls are God’s candles: it’s our job, with our actions and our mitzvot and our choices, to bring light to the world.

In the words of my friend and colleague Rabbi David Markus, “Where there is darkness, we ourselves must be the light.” These feel like dark times. We must be the light that the world needs. And when we shine, together our lights are more than the sum of their parts — like the blaze of the candles on a fully-illuminated chanukiyah, shining in our windows and across our social media feeds, proclaiming the miracle even now. Especially now.

May our chanukiyot shine brightly tonight. And may they illumine our hearts and souls so that our lives and our mitzvot and our actions in the world will shine ever-brighter.

With blessings of hope and light to all —

Rabbi Rachel

 

Originally posted at my From the Rabbi blog.


Chanukah gift

The closet in my study
holds picture frames, half-empty
boxes of stationery, old books,

pillows and blankets
for the guest bed. And tucked in
amid all of these, a small box

emblazoned Priority Mail,
addressed in your handwriting,
postmarked two years ago.

It slipped behind the quilts
and the crates of journals,
unseen and forgotten.

As I slice open the packing tape
I can scarcely breathe.
A letter you wrote to my son

for the last night of Chanukah
and some old coins -- a poem
and gelt, though I know

what in this box is truly gold.
Your words, your memory --
the oil that keeps on burning.

 


On silence, and speaking out, and bringing a better world

This morning with my Hasidut hevruta, R' Megan Doherty, I read a beautiful teaching from the Aish Kodesh (R' Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the rabbi of Piaseczno, Poland -- later the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto.) Joseph's dream, in this week's parsha, depicts his brothers' sheaves bowing down to his in the field. But the Aish Kodesh reads it through a different lens. He draws on a Hebrew pun between "sheaf" and "muteness," and he explores what it means to be silenced. This speaks right to my heart. 

Think about the difference between holding one's silence, and being silenced by an external force. There's a huge difference between holding silence for whatever reason(s), and having one's spirit be so broken by external circumstance that one cannot even begin to speak. Our job, in times of struggle, is to wait until our anger passes. And then we can say to ourselves: okay, I feel silenced by this circumstance, but I can still communicate. Even someone who has no (literal) voice can still communicate.

When the suffering of a whole community is such that everyone feels crushed and broken (in today's language, we might say traumatized or suffering from trauma), that's when we reach the circumstance alluded to in Joseph's dream of the sheaves. All of our sheaves are "bowing down," all of our souls feel silenced. But if one person can find the capacity to speak, then everyone else's silencing is lessened. If one person can find the inner strength to speak, everyone else can be strengthened thereby.

Righteous people want to seek serenity or tranquility in this world (notes Rashi) -- that's natural; of course we want and need to seek our own sense of peace. (Without some degree of peace and equanimity, we can't persist in times of sorrow or suffering.) But seeking inner peace isn't enough. God urges us not just to rest in the satisfaction of trusting that everything will be fine in the future somehow. Instead, we need to work to arouse heavenly mercy. We need to cry out to God to bring a better world.

That's what I took from the Aish Kodesh this week. And maybe, because we're not living in the Warsaw Ghetto like he was -- we have power to act in the world in ways that he didn't have -- we need to do something more external than pleading with God for a better world. We need to turn our hands to bringing "heavenly mercy" into the world. We need to act to create a world of safety, a world where no one is ground down by injustice or prejudice or unethical behavior, a world where no one is silenced.

Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be so, speedily and soon, amen.

 


Dear Mom (as Chanukah approaches)

Mom, you're on my mind as the the shortest day approaches. A few years ago you commented to me that it was almost the solstice and that you couldn't wait for the day when the balance would shift and we'd be moving into longer days. I was surprised and moved to hear you say that. It's something I never realized we had in common: a visceral dread of the darkest days of each year, a feeling of inchoate relief when we could tell ourselves that the sun is slowly returning. Probably we both carry some version of seasonal affective disorder in our bones, though you would never have claimed that label. You never wanted to call yourself sad in any way. You didn't even want to call yourself sick, even when the disease that claimed you had fully settled in.

Mom, you're on my mind as Chanukah approaches. A kaleidoscope of memories: the giant plexiglass dreidel you one year asked me to decorate, and the cornucopia of gifts that spilled forth from it. The year I wanted to light the Chanukah candles myself for the first time but got scared by the match, and dropped it, and left a burnt spot on the dining room carpet. Singing Maoz Tzur beside the flickering candles.  Fast-forward: the year your father died during Chanukah, while I was in college. I had an a cappella concert that night, and the harmonies of "In Dulci Jubilo" brought me to tears. Fast-forward: the year my son was three and we first lit Chanukah candles together over Skype. Your visible sense of wonder at sharing that with him from afar. 

It's so strange to me now: for all those years when I could have spoken to you any time I wanted, I so often didn't feel the need. And now that you're gone, the fact of your absence is a constant presence in my life. The fact that I can't tell you things -- or I can, but you can't answer. Maybe I'll be blessed with a dream. But it's not the same as the immediacy of being able to pick up a phone and tell you a story and hear your response. Every day when I go to send a photo of my son to his grandparents, my fingers want to type your email address first, even though you've been dead for nine months. We hadn't celebrated Chanukah together in ages. But the fact that you're not in this world anymore makes the approach of Chanukah feel different, this year. 

What would you say if you could hear me? You'd tell me not to be maudlin. You'd point out that you're not suffering anymore. You'd remind me to enjoy what I have. You'd urge me to make hay while the sun shines, and to light candles against the season's darkness. To pour a glass of something tasty, and toast whatever sources of joy I can find. To set a pretty table at Chanukah, and gather friends for celebration. To enjoy my child's glee at opening gifts, winning at dreidel, unwrapping (and eating) chocolate gelt coin by coin. Mom, in your honor and in your memory I'm going to bring out the giant wooden chanukiyah that my brother made years ago. Its big bold tapers will blaze, just like they did in your house, and every night we will welcome more light. 


New essay in Transformative Works and Cultures

I'm delighted to have a short piece in the latest issue of Transformative Works and Cultures. This issue (Vol. 31) is dedicated to the subject of fan fiction and ancient scribal cultures, and I'm looking forward to reading my way through it.

My piece is called Gender, voice, and canon. It explores classical, medieval, and late 20th-century feminist midrash as well as late 2oth-century Western media fandom. Here's the abstract:

The Jewish tradition of midrash (exegetical/interpretive fiction) parallels the fannish tradition of creating fan works in more ways than one. In the twentieth century, both contexts saw the rise of women's voices, shifting or commenting on androcentric canon—and in both contexts today, that gender binarism is giving way to a more complicated and multifaceted tapestry of priorities and voices.

And here's the article in html format for those who are so inclined. Deep thanks to the TWC editors for including my work!