Calling all clergy: come write psalms with me!

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

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

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

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

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

Tuition: $180

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

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

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


A video teaching: the treasures hidden in quarantine

I recorded a short video teaching for my congregation, and thought I would share it here too. It begins with a check-in and then moves to a teaching from the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto for this week's parsha that feels especially meaningful to me this year. Here's a transcript if you'd rather read it than watch it.

Shavua tov, friends: a good week to you. I hope that your Shabbat was restorative. As we enter into week six of sheltering-in-place and social distancing, I wanted to check in. How are you holding up?

I miss you. All of you. It’s been a joy to see some of you via Zoom at my drop-in office hours on Mondays, at the Psalm-writing class I’ve been teaching on Fridays, at Friday morning meditation and at Shabbat services. I look forward to continuing to see you on Zoom, or hearing your voices by phone, or receiving your emails and texts, since right now those are the modalities available to us.

Here’s a funny thing that I’m starting to think maybe isn’t a coincidence. At the start of the new Jewish year, back in October, both of my hevruta partners / learning buddies -- Rabbi Megan Doherty, who’s the Jewish chaplain at Oberlin, and my colleagues on the board of Bayit: Building Jewish -- felt called to study a rabbi known as the Piazeczyner, also known as R’ Kalman Kalonymus Shapiro, also known as the Aish Kodesh, also known as the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto.

The Piazeczyner was writing from the Warsaw Ghetto. In a time of profound fear and anxiety, deprivation and illness. And yet he found ways to cultivate hope, even in those terrible times.

This week’s Torah portion is Tazria-Metzora, which offers teachings about how to handle a particular kind of sickness that was observable both in people, and in their dwellings. Both human beings, and their homes, could become “contagious” and needed to be quarantined for a time.

Whoa, that resonates in a whole new way this year.

The scholar Rashi, who lived around the year 1000, says this teaching is really about treasure hidden in the walls of the houses of the Emorites, whom our ancient ancestors conquered when we moved into the promised land. The houses would be marked as having tzara’at, and then they would be demolished, and we would find treasure in them.

The Piazeczyner asks: if the point is that there’s treasure in the walls, why wait seven days? Why not just knock them down? His answer is this: because the waiting helps us cultivate faith that good things will come.

Even in a difficult time, he writes -- “when there is no school for our children, no synagogue in which to pray in community with a minyan, no mikvah (ritual bath)” -- even in a time like that (a time like this!), we need to trust that God can help us turn even the most difficult of circumstances into blessings. We never know, when something difficult is happening, what blessing we might be able to find in it later when we look back on it.

So as we stay quarantined, sheltering in place, socially distancing to protect the vulnerable from the spread of this awful disease: may we follow the advice of the Piazeczyner, and try to cultivate trust that there may be treasure in these difficult days.

Maybe it’s the treasure of knowing that we are protecting each other from illness. Maybe it’s the treasure of coming to recognize what really matters to us -- even if what really matters to us is something that right now we can’t have.

May we live to emerge from this narrow place, and may we connect in person again: speedily and soon, with God’s help.

Thinking of you and sending blessings to all.

 

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog. With special thanks to R' David Markus for learning this with me on Shabbes. For those who want the original teaching, it's the Aish Kodesh on M'tzora 1940 / 5700.


In the wilderness

A d'varling for the end of week five of covid-19 sheltering-in-place.

As we leave Pesach behind we set out into the wilderness, trusting that somehow we're moving toward Sinai, toward revelation, toward connection. The spiritual practice of counting the Omer is tradition's way of helping us link Pesach with Shavuot, liberation with revelation, the constriction we're leaving behind with the expansiveness and covenant we're heading toward.

This year it may be hard to focus on that count because we are doing another kind of counting: how many days we've been quarantined / sheltering-in-place / socially distancing / staying home. How many days and weeks it's been since life felt "normal." And how many weeks it might be before we can return to seeing each other again, being with each other again.

The first thing I want to do is give all of us blanket rabbinic permission to "mess up" the Omer count. It's okay if we forget. It's okay if we miss a day. It's okay if we can't focus on the kabbalistic meanings of the seven qualities we're called to cultivate. A lot of our brainspace is dedicated right now to the news, the pandemic, what we're going to eat, who's sick and who's well.

That's normal. And it's okay. And... that's exactly the wilderness in which we're wandering this year -- as a people, as a nation, as a planet. Which means we're right where our core ancestral story says we should be. In the wilderness. Not totally sure where we're going or how we're going to get there or what losses we'll incur along the way. Maybe uncertain. Almost certainly afraid.

The Hebrew word bamidbar, "in the wilderness," shares a root with the verb l'daber, "to speak." The wilderness can be a place of fear, a place of not-knowing, a place that feels dangerous. And that's exactly the place where we hear God's voice. The place where holiness speaks to us. The revelation at Sinai takes place in a place that no one owns, in the wilderness, in not-knowing.

As I watch the pandemic play out at hospitals around the world, I've been thinking a lot about the time I spent as a student chaplain at Albany Medical Center almost 15 years ago. I remember that hospitals are profoundly holy places -- not despite our fear and not-knowing, but precisely because of it. When our hearts are cracked open, they also open to connection.

It's like Jacob said when he woke from the dream of the ladder with angels moving up and down: "God was in this place, and I -- I did not know!" God is always in the place where we are, when we are there fully. A crisis like this one can focus us. It can make us really present, which may be uncomfortable. And it can open us to God's presence, which may be uncomfortable, too.

The whole world is wandering in the wilderness of this pandemic. We don't know how we'll get to the other side, or how long it will take, or what losses we'll incur along the way. We're not alone in this. We may be alone in our homes, but we're not existentially alone. We're all in this together. The spread of the virus reminds us that we're more connected than we ever knew.

Last Shabbat, in the Torah reading for the Shabbat during Pesach, we heard God say to Moses, "I will go in the lead and will lighten your burden." That verse is bringing me comfort this week: the idea that God is here with us in the wilderness. God is walking with us. God is keeping us company. And our souls are keeping each other company, too, even when we are alone.

May we feel each others' presence in this time of separation. May we feel God's presence in this time of separation. May we hear the voice of holiness speaking to us in this wilderness. May we open ourselves to the voice of love, the voice of justice, the voice of hope. And may we build a world of greater justice and love -- for everyone -- when we make it to the other side.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services via zoom for my synagogue this week (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 

 


For me

At the start of the dream
I float down the Guadalupe
but the current goes backwards.
I emerge into a house
from 1985, and inside

there you are: hair pulled back
into a casual ponytail,
white terrycloth coverup
as though you've just come
from a tennis game or a swim.

You've made dinner. I tell you
about my divorce, but
don't mention the pandemic:
why intrude on your afterlife
with something so terrible?

I wake to more headlines
(the world is dust and ashes) but
for a moment I almost felt
that loss isn't forever, that
the world was created for me.


 

A story tells of Rabbi Simcha Bunim who held two slips of paper in his pockets at all time, to remind him to balance two fundamental truths. In one pocket the paper said "I am dust and ashes," and in the other pocket the paper said "the world was created for me."

On the last day of Pesach we recite Yizkor / memorial prayers. Last year's Pesach Yizkor was the first time I said those prayers since Mom died. She had been gone for only a couple of months and the loss was raw. This year I am grateful for how the passage of time has smoothed over those rough places.

May comfort come to all who mourn.


A part

Furled tufts of red pop
at the tip of every maple branch
bright against a clouded sky.

I know there's blue
stretching above that white ceiling
even when I can't see it,

I know beyond our thin atmosphere
we're cradled in the vastness of space.
Even when I feel stuck in my skin

in the seclusion of social distancing
cloaked in mask and gloves
unable to touch

the maple and I are breathing together
(you and I are breathing together)
even when I feel apart.

 


Four weeks in

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The tree outside my front door, on a blue-sky day earlier this week.

It's been four weeks since life stopped feeling normal. On good-weather days, I leave the house to take walks with my kid. Every so often I leave the house to replenish groceries (wearing a cloth mask and gloves). Otherwise we're home. We see friends via Zoom, which is better than nothing but still frustratingly intangible, especially for my kid. This new normal is not normal.

My kid is grappling with big questions. The other night he asked me why, if God heard the cries of the children of Israel in Mitzrayim and freed us from slavery (e.g. the Exodus), why isn't God freeing us from the pandemic? That sparked a big conversation about what it might mean if God doesn't reach into the world to "fix" things, even if we really want God to.

We talked about how we can find God's presence in the helpers, in the people working toward a vaccine, in acts of kindness. We talked about the idea that God accompanies us and feels our fears with us. And I thought: this is a heck of a way for him to begin to move beyond the little-kid theology that imagines that God will fix everything if we just ask hard enough.

I read the news every day and my heart aches. So many deaths, so much suffering -- it's almost more than I can process. And then I set the news aside and I teach an online class for my synagogue, or I sit with my kid to work on a social studies worksheet, and I am grateful both for my work and for the ways in which homeschooling requires me to focus on what's in front of me.

And even in the midst of this unthinkable tragedy and trauma, there are moments of connection. I led a shiva minyan on Zoom the other day for a friend who had lost a family member (not to covid19.) The screen filled up with friends and family, people from all parts of her life, people of many religious traditions, people in many time zones -- including one in Australia.

And I thought: before the pandemic, most of us wouldn't have held a Zoom shiva minyan so that friends in far-flung places could take part. I still wish we could have gathered in person to comfort this mourner. I hold tight to the faith that someday we will be able to gather in person again, and hug each other. I ache for that. And... I'm grateful for what connection is possible.

Lately I've been gazing at the big tree in front of my condo. Its twigs have sprouted little red tufts. Soon they will unfurl into leaves. I take comfort in that. Spring will come and we don't have to do anything to make it come, or to make its beauty exist. We don't know how long the pandemic will last, or when we will be able to touch each other again, but the seasons remain.

 


New questions

New questions

 

For those who can't read images, or who want to copy-and-paste- a transcription:

How is this night the same as other Passovers in the past or in the imagined future?

What does it mean to experience an Exodus from the Narrow Place when our lives may feel more constricted (by illness, quarantine, economic hardship, or grief) than ever before?

How can the rituals of seder connect us across the chasm between what we're experiencing now and what was "normal" before?

We can't physically invite all who are hungry to come and eat. (Then again, we probably didn't do that last year before the pandemic either.) How can we reimagine that call in this time? What will we do to nourish those in need this year?

Hiding the afikoman reminds us that spiritual life means searching. For what are we searching this year? What hope or healing do we yearn for... and what will we do, during the coming wilderness wandering, to bring our yearnings to pass?

 

Cross-posted from Builders Blog, a project of Bayit: Building Jewish.


We are exactly where the Pesach story calls us to be

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This is going to be a Passover unlike any other. I wrote a long paragraph of reasons why that is so, and then I deleted them. You are living in this world too. You don't need me to tell you any of the reasons why this year is different from any other year that any of us have ever lived through. You don't need me to tell you what's strange or scary or overwhelming or unknown, or why it feels so weird to be approaching Pesach in this moment when life feels both empty (of normalcy) and over-full (of fear).

The story of the Exodus, the story we re-tell each year during the seder, is the story of how our spiritual ancestors left Mitzrayim, "The Narrow Place." The Pesach story -- our national story as a people -- begins in tight constriction. It begins in dire straits. It begins in a time and place of profound inequality, when there was an unthinkable gap between rich (Pharaoh) and poor (the ancient Israelite slaves). It begins with plagues, darkness, sickness, death, and leaving behind everything that was familiar. 

The tradition says each of us is to see ourselves as though we ourselves had been brought out of Mitzrayim. I don't know about you, but the idea that we are living in Mitzrayim -- the Narrow Place; tight constriction; dire straits -- feels very real to me this year. If we are feeling constricted, anxious, afraid, uncertain, maybe newly-aware of some of our society's fundamental inequalities and the harm they cause to the most vulnerable... then we are exactly where the Pesach story calls us to be.

When we left that Narrow Place, we didn't know where we were going. We didn't have time to fully prepare for our journey of transformation. We didn't know where we were going or how we would get there. We left the Narrow Place anyway, because it had become clear that staying where we were -- staying with the status quo -- meant death. If we are feeling unready, unprepared, maybe thrust into a journey we don't know how to take... then we are exactly where the Pesach story calls us to be.

In Talmud (Pesachim 116a) we read that מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח - one should begin the recounting of the Exodus story with degradation, and one should end with praise. That's the spiritual journey encapsulated and recapitulated in the seder. The haggadah moves from the degradation of "we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt" to the praise songs of Hallel on the far side of the sea. The haggadah takes us from despair to redemption, from constriction to freedom, from mourning to dancing.

Right now we are at the beginning of the story of the covid-19 pandemic of 2020. We begin in "degradation" -- in this Narrow Place, in this fearful place, in this grief-stricken place. Our task is to trust that this is only where our story begins, not where it will end. Our work is to stay home, help those whom we can help, and cultivate our ability to hope. May scientists' labors toward a vaccine bear fruit, so that someday this slow-motion global tragedy will end and we will dance on the far shores of the sea.

 

If you're looking for resources for a home-based seder this year, here's a post I wrote for Builders Blog: Resources for Seder in a Time of Quarantine.

 


Crying out and compassion

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As this week began I studied a text from the Piaceczyner, aka the Aish Kodesh, aka R' Kalman Kalonymus Shapiro, the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto. He teaches that as human beings, when we feel one another's pain -- when our hearts break for each others' suffering -- when one of our fellow human beings calls out, and we listen with open heart -- we empower the angels on high. .

Calling out to each other is part of how we share each others' burdens. And the Piaceczyner cites an old Aramaic translation to connect calling with receiving. It's connective, relational. This becomes a metaphor not only for how we imagine the angels interacting with each other, but even how we imagine God interacting with us. We call out to God, and God calls out to us.

That's how this week's Torah portion begins: with God calling out to Moshe. The Piaceczyner draws on midrash to say that God is like a human being who cries out to a friend, "help me carry this burden?" The burden that God wants help in carrying is our human suffering, which God feels-with-us. Even God takes comfort, when bearing a burden, in not having to carry it alone.

When we're in relationship with each other, when we call out to each other, when we feel-with one another and seek to lessen one another's pain, that's a gift we give each other. And because we're in relationship with God, when we cry out to God and God cries out to us, we are (as it were) giving that gift to God, and God is giving it to us in turn. What an amazing idea that is.

This is a time of immense suffering in the parts of the world where the pandemic has already crested. Here where I live, we are braced for what seems to be the near-certainty of immense suffering here too. There aren't enough ventilators for those who will need them, and there isn't enough protective gear to protect the doctors and nurses who risk life in caring for the sick.

As human beings, we have the choice of feeling each others' pain, or numbing ourselves to each others' pain. We can exercise compassion -- literally feeling-with-another -- or we can turn away. There are those who shrug and say that deaths are inevitable and shouldn't halt the economy. To me, that response is barbaric and inhumane. I think the Piaceczyner would agree.

The Piaceczyner was writing from the Warsaw Ghetto. The Jewish community to which he ministered there was in profound crisis, and things were about to get much worse. His response to that was: compassion. We must feel-with each other, cry out to each other and to God, carry each other's burdens... as God cries out to us, carries our burdens with us, feels with us. 

When we cry out and also receive the cries of others, we strengthen our compassion. I learned a different text from the Piaceczyner recently about faith. Faith is the soul's way of knowing and seeing. Faith is like the heart, beating even if we're not conscious of it -- and we also need to exercise it. I think the same is true of compassion: we need to choose to use it, often.

Cry out! Because if we numb ourselves to grief, we also numb ourselves to joy. Because crying-out is relational, and in the connection between crier and listener there is holiness. And open your heart to the cries of others who are suffering or afraid. Because hearing each other in this time is how we exercise compassion, like the One in Whose image all are made.

 

With gratitude to R' Megan Doherty, and to my hevre at Bayit: Building Jewish, with whom I studied this text this week.

The primary text I'm drawing on here is the Aish Kodesh on Vayikra 5700 / 1940. The second text, the one about faith, is his writing on Parshat Ha-Chodesh 5702/ 1942. Deep thanks to R' David Markus for learning that text with me.


The new normal

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My synagogue, set up for precisely a minyan, with social distancing.

 

Yesterday was my forty-fifth birthday. I began it doing a few of the things I love most: leading others in prayer and song, and welcoming a new adult into the Jewish community. That's been the plan for March 21 for more than a year now. Of course, it didn't quite happen the way we had been envisioning it.

That was the last service that will be held in our sanctuary for some time. Attendance in person was limited to a minyan, who had to sit six feet apart. When we called up grandparents for an aliyah, we carried an iPad up to the amud (Torah reading table) because grandparents were attending digitally

From now on, our Shabbat morning services will be offered via zoom. We'll daven together from places that are apart. I don't know what we'll do about upcoming celebrations of b-mitzvah. There are so many things that I don't know, and can't know -- none of us can. Welcome to rabbi-ing in a time of pandemic.

I'm slowly settling in to the rhythm of this new normal. Much of last week was dedicated to figuring out what it will look like to homeschool my kid. He's out of school for three weeks (as of now), but I'm bracing for schools to be closed until next fall, as is already the case in several other states.

We set up our school space at the dining room table, and I worked on synagogue things -- reaching out to congregants, researching whether our chevra kadisha can safely do taharah during a pandemic -- during the quiet moments while my kid was doing social studies or reading a book or solving math problems.

At night I shifted gears between comforting my kid (not surprisingly, he's been wrestling with "difficult thoughts" and anxiety -- who among us isn't?) and offering pastoral care via all the distance modalities I know. I anticipate a lot more of both of those in the weeks (and probably months) to come.

I wrote to my synagogue community Friday that even though we are apart in physical space, we are together in heart and spirit. And we are only at the beginning of the journey through the valley of covid-19. We will all need to learn ways to feel, and to strengthen, those connections of heart and spirit.

I don't know how to end this post. My literary training suggests that this post needs to go somewhere, but I don't know where anything is going right now. I trust that we will eventually make it to the far side of this pandemic -- we who survive. I hope that I am among the survivors; I hope that you are too. 

But I don't know what after will look like, or whether this will be only the first pandemic of many in this strange new world, or how my parenting (everyone's parenting) will have to shift in response to pandemic and a possible new Great Depression, or how my Judaism (everyone's Judaism) will have to shift too.

I did my best to have a Shabbes. I'm doing all the things I know how (in isolation) to connect my heart and spirit with others, with my traditions, with my Source. (I even baked myself a birthday cake.) I know that the new week will ask a lot. In Robert Frost's words, "there's no way out but through."


Like a fiddler on the roof

This is the message I sent to my synagogue community today. I thought it might speak to some of y'all too. Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.

Not long ago I was preparing to take my son to see the national touring production of Fiddler on the Roof, in which my niece Noa Luz Barenblat plays Chava. My son asked me, “what does the title of the play mean?” I told him here’s how I understand it: Life is precarious, but we still need music. We still need art and beauty and melody. We still need our traditions and what connects us with each other and our generations and our Source. Even when we feel that life is as precarious as a fiddler balanced on a rooftop. Maybe especially then.

The fiddler on the roof in Anatevka represents the miracle of the human spirit: singing out sometimes in pain and sometimes in joy, making music and marking holy time, even when life feels precarious. I find a deep teaching about spiritual resilience there — especially now.

For many of us, the covid-19 pandemic is awakening a sense of precariousness. None of us knows what tomorrow will bring. Of course, that’s always true, pandemic or not… but most of us don’t live with constant awareness of the fragility of our lives and the lives of those whom we love. How can we best navigate this time?

I have two answers: take care of ourselves, and take care of each other. And I think we can learn something about how to do that from the Jews of Anatevka.

The Jews of Anatevka were materially poor, but they were rich in community and traditions. We too have community — even when circumstances obligate us to connect via phone or zoom instead of in person. We too have traditions — even when circumstances obligate us to celebrate those traditions in slightly different ways for a while. Music and prayer can still uplift us, even if we’re feeling anxious and uncertain — or maybe especially then.

My friend and colleague Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg writes that now is a great time to double down on our spiritual practices… and if we don’t think we have any, now is a good time to develop some! Whether that means prayer, meditation, yoga, making art, listening to music: we should lean into whatever sustains our hearts and souls in this time. Because we’re going to need every ounce of strength and compassion and rootedness we’ve got in order to take care of each other.

One of the ways we’re taking care of each other is by pulling back from physical contact. The temporary closing of colleges and theatres and houses of worship is a step that’s being taken in order to protect the whole of our interconnected community. The hope is that these closures will slow the spread of the virus so that our hospital can keep up with the pace of infection. What higher aspiration could a community seek than to care for each other in these ways?

And, there are other ways that we can take care of each other, even at a distance. Even when we have to close down services for a while, we can gather via zoom. And we can call and email and text and Facetime and Skype and zoom with each other. It’s not the same as being together in person as a community — and, it’s still real human connection that can uplift our hearts.

Please do check up on each other. Reach out in all the modalities that the modern world offers. Take care of each other… and take care of you, too.

May our connections with each other, and with our traditions, and with our Source, sustain us through the pandemic and beyond.


The tiniest spark of joy

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We read in the Tikkunei Zohar that Purim is like Yom Kippur. This is hinted-at in the way that on Yom Kippur, one must fast and do teshuvah (repentance / return) not only if one feels like it, but whether or not one wants to do it. This is an enduring decree from the Holy One of Blessing. Rejoicing on Purim is similar. One is obligated to rejoice on Purim, not only if one is happy in oneself, or is in a situation where it's easy to feel joy. On the contrary: even if one is in a low place and completely broken-hearted, body and spirit laid low, it's still an obligation to seek out whatever tiny spark of joy is possible, and welcome that spark into the heart.

On both of these holy days, there's a flow from on high to us here below. Just as Yom Kippur itself atones for us, even if our teshuvah feels inadequate (according to Talmud in tractate Yoma), just so on Purim. Even if a person isn't feeling joyful the way one's supposed to, and therefore one's service of God doesn't feel whole, even in that case the salvation and joy of Purim will flow -- and that potential is open to us even now.

-- The Piazeczyner aka The Aish Kodesh aka R' Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, Purim 1940

 

Last year, Purim happened a scant few weeks after my mother's death. I was shellshocked. I was in a fog. I scarcely remember the holiday at all. But I remember taking comfort in a text that R' David Markus taught me over the phone. The text said that Purim itself would do its work in me and on me, as Yom Kippur does, and that even if I couldn't access real joy, there would still be a flow from on high that would come through me to those whom I serve.

This year I sat down twice to study this short text from the Aish Kodesh, once with my Bayit hevre, and once with my other hevruta R' Megan Doherty. And only today, on Purim itself, did I realize why this text resonates with me so deeply and why it feels so familiar: this is the teaching R' David shared with me last year when I was in the pit of grief. And, in fact, it turns out this is a teaching I had shared with him a few years prior and had forgotten!

What jumps out at me in this text this year is the idea that we are obligated to welcome into our hearts whatever tiny spark of joy we can find. This isn't spiritual bypassing. This isn't "put on a happy face." This is the spiritual practice of opening our hearts even in difficult circumstances, so that some measure of blessing can flow in. The Aish Kodesh was writing from the Warsaw Ghetto; he knew something about difficult circumstances.

 

God would like us to be joyful
Even when our hearts lie panting on the floor.
How much more can we be joyful
When there's really something
To be joyful for?

-- To Life, To Life, L'Chayim / Fiddler on the Roof

 

I thought of this teaching a few days ago when I was blessed to see the national touring production of Fiddler on the Roof. "God would like us to be joyful / even when our hearts lie panting on the floor" -- Tevye might have been citing the Piazeczyner! Even when our hearts lie panting on the floor, Purim invites us to open our broken hearts to a spark of joy. Even when our circumstances (individual or collective) are dark, our tradition invites us to open to joy.

And when there is within reach "something to be joyful for," in Fiddler's words -- maybe a birth, or a wedding, a friendship, a sign of hope, a Shabbes -- we've got to seize that joy with both hands. Because joy is part of what fuels us. Because without joy, we can't go on. And the world needs us to go on, because there's a lot of work we need to do to bring justice and hope and ethics and opportunity and peace to everyone everywhere, and that's what we're here for.

So if today we're in the narrow straits of a personal grief, a loss or an illness or a sorrow... or if we're in the narrow straits of communal anxiety about the election, or the economy, or the pandemic that is sweeping the globe... we shouldn't kick ourselves for not being able to fulfill the mitzvah of rejoicing. Instead, let's open our hearts the tiniest crack, and let the tiniest spark of joy and hope come in -- and trust that the day itself will do the rest. 

 


Engraved on our hearts

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One artist's rendering of the stones for Aaron's shoulders, engraved with the names of the 12 tribes.

 

In this week's Torah portion we read about the instructions for making special garments for Aaron, brother of Moses: the first High Priest. We read about blue, purple, and crimson thread; about exquisitely decorated vestments; and about Aaron being declared "Holy to God." What leapt out at me this year are the two precious stones engraved with the names of all the tribes of Israel. (Ex. 28:9-12) Aaron carried the names of the whole community on his shoulders, or at least, the names of the twelve tribes that together represented the whole community. Because to serve the community means to serve the whole community.

Today we welcome a beautiful little girl into our community. And I can't wait to find out who she'll grow up to be. Maybe she'll want to put on costumes and star in our Purim play. Maybe she'll sing the Four Questions at the community seder. Maybe she'll make friends in our Hebrew school. And yet she isn't just joining this little rural shul, this smalltown community. Because we're part of something much bigger. We're connected with Jews around the world, on every continent. And we're connected with our spiritual ancestors stretching back thousands of years, and hopefully stretching forward at least as long.

To serve the community means to serve the whole community -- and to join the community means to join the whole community. I point this out over and over to those who join the Jewish people as adults: they're not just joining this shul, they're joining the entire Jewish people! They're joining Jews of every denomination, Jews of every race and skin color, Jews of every sexual orientation and gender expression. Rationalists and mystics, theists and atheists. Jews who express their Jewishness in so many different ways: through prayer, or poetry, or study, or feeding the hungry, or working for justice, or so much more. 

There hasn't been a High Priest in thousands of years. But as I sat with this Torah portion this week, here's what came to me: what if all of us together could make the choice to engrave the names of the whole community -- not on our shoulders, but on our hearts? Those names now include the name of the newest member of our community, to whom we are now responsible. It takes a village to raise a kid, and our shul is now part of her village. May we engrave her name, and each others' names, on our hearts. And in that way, may all of us together be "holy to God," as Aaron was, so very long ago. Shabbat shalom.

 

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


Sketchnoting for b-mitzvah students - at Builders Blog

49196384207_3326151379_c-300x300The first time Steve Silbert sketchnoted one of my divrei Torah, I was enthralled. The things he chose to highlight showed me what he found interesting in what I had written. His images uplifted my ideas in a new way. His sketchnote, rooted in my d’var Torah, was also its own piece of Torah creativity. That first sketchnote was my introduction to the spiritual technology of Visual Torah, now one of the tools Bayit offers for building Jewish life and practice. 

In 2019 Steve came to Bayit’s rabbinic innovation retreat to teach the art and spiritual practice of Jewish sketchnoting to a denominationally diverse group of rabbis, most of whom insisted that we couldn’t draw. Steve taught us that sketchnoting is about ideas, not art, and that anyone can do it: even us. By the end of that session, all of us had taken a crack at sketchnoting… and I had a vision of using sketchnoting to uplift my Hebrew school teaching. This year, I invited Steve to join my b-mitzvah class remotely, to teach the basics of sketchnoting to my students...

That's the beginning of my latest post for Bayit's Builders Blog -- about bringing Steve Silbert, sketchnoting, and the spiritual technology of Visual Torah into my b-mitzvah classroom. I'm excited to be able to share this write-up of this innovation -- what we did, how we did it, whether it worked, and how we know whether it worked! Read the whole post at Builders Blog.


Preparing for Pesach in a time of covid-19

ESVqeXEWoAI0SzsI've been reading a lot of posts and articles about why we should be stocking our pantries and medicine cabinets against the possibility of illness, quarantine, and/or disrupted supply chains. The most compelling piece I've read thus far is this one in Scientific American by Zeynep Tufekci. She argues that being prepared is our civic duty and is something we can do as a favor to those who cannot prepare. "We should prepare," she writes, "so that we can help lessen the risk for everyone."

One suggestion that a lot of people are making is: stock up on dried foods, and on the things that members of your household like to eat. This way if you become ill (or if there is a quarantine, or if you are staying home to avoid infection or to reduce strain on grocery workers who may be ill, or if supply chains are disrupted because of widespread illness) you'll have what you need. My kid's favorite foods include bagels, pasta, and toaster waffles. Oh, and granola bars. And buttered English muffins. 

And on the Jewish calendar we're five weeks away from Pesach, when it's customary to remove all of the leaven from one's home. So should I be trying to "eat down" all the hametz in my home in the coming month to make it easier to clean for Pesach in the ways that I want to do? Or should I be picking up an extra box of pasta, an extra box of blueberry Eggos, and an extra box of shells and cheese every time I go to the grocery store, so that we're well-prepared in the event that we need to stay home?

I can argue that Jewishly I have a civic obligation to do what is best for the most vulnerable in the general population (that's the thrust of Torah's repeated injunction to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.) That may mean making sure I have two weeks' worth of shelf-stable food on hand, and stocking up on the things my kid will actually eat -- because as Tufekci argues, preparing is "one of the most pro-social, altruistic things you can do in response to potential disruptions of this kind." 

I can also argue that Jewishly I have a religious obligation to remove hametz for Pesach: that's a practice I've taken on in recent years and it matters to me both practically and spiritually. So I'm laying in a store of the wheat-filled foods my kid likes to eat... and during Pesach, I will move them to the extra freezer in the garage so that they are not in my home proper, and I will "sell" them to a non-Jewish friend, and will declare them temporarily not mine. It's a legal fiction, but this year a very useful one.

Intellectually I know that selling my hametz means there's no problem here. But emotionally I'm finding this jarring.  It feels truly strange to be stocking up now on foods that in any other year I would be trying to consume and not replace. One way to understand Pesach is as a spiritual call to leave familiar constriction and go, even if we don't feel ready. Buying extra stuff to have on hand is the opposite of "drop everything and go" -- though the "not feeling ready" part still holds. 

It feels weird to be buying extra hametz when Pesach is little more than a month away. But I accept Tufekci's argument that preparing for the possibility of staying home (if I can afford a few extra groceries every time I shop, which I can) is my civic obligation, and I think it's a Jewish obligation as well. I'm willing to live with some cognitive dissonance in order to fulfill that obligation, even as I also prepare to fulfill a different obligation that will temporarily make some of these foods not-mine.

Tradition says we left Egypt as a mixed multitude; it wasn't just we who fled Pharaoh. An illness that spreads like this one is a powerful reminder that we are always a "mixed multitude." As a society, we are only as healthy as those who are most at-risk. Preparing now is what I can do to lessen the strain on the system later, and thereby to help those who may be harder-hit than I expect to be... even if that means I'll be schlepping an extra few boxes of pasta into and out of storage this year.


Come and learn in Oregon this summer!

Hello, (US) west coast folks: I'm coming your way in early June! Along with my dear friend and colleague R' David Markus, I'm scholar-in-residence for a Shabbaton in Ashland, Oregon, over the weekend of June 5-6. I hope you'll join us!

Official promotional materials appear below...


Flyer5Havurah Shir Hadash announces a weekend of spiritual learning and transformation with nationally-recognized rabbis Rachel Barenblat and David Markus over the weekend of June 5-6, 2020. The weekend, “Prayer, Poetry, & Politics: renewing the call to bless and repair the world,” will feature spirited, musical and participatory prayer in the innovative style of Jewish Renewal, and opportunities to learn with Barenblat and Markus about public affairs, mysticism, blessing, ethics, poetic liturgy and the ethical path of spiritual innovation. 

Rabbi David Zaslow, the spiritual leader of the Havurah since 1996 says, “This weekend of prayer and learning promises to be spectacular. The gifts that Rabbi Barenblatt and Rabbi Markus will bring are at the cutting edge of the new and emerging forms of Jewish spiritual practice.”

Rabbi David Markus’ perspective on faith in public life reflects his unique position as North America’s only pulpit rabbi simultaneously holding a public oath of office.  His teachings on spiritual channeling will offer ways to give and be a blessing.  Rabbi Rachel’s perspective on spiritual creativity reflects her position at the intersection of professional poetry and rabbinic leadership.   She will teach on balancing artistic authenticity with healthy ethical boundaries, and share some of the poetry for which she was named one of America’s “most inspiring rabbis.” 

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat is known nationally for her writings as The Velveteen Rabbi. She says,  “Religion and spirituality, at their core, are about building a wise, loving, and ethical future together." Rabbis Barenblat and Markus serve together as senior builders at Bayit: Building Jewish (a Jewish innovation incubator).  Rabbi Markus says, “We learned this Jewish path from the legacy of Reb Zalman as a continuing call that our increasingly fractured world especially needs now.”

Rabbi Markus is the nation’s only pulpit rabbi simultaneously holding a public oath of office.  In spiritual life, Markus serves as rabbi and music director for Temple Beth El (New York, NY), and seminary faculty at the Academy for Jewish Religion.  In secular life, Markus presides in New York Supreme Court as part of a parallel public service career that has spanned all branches and levels of government – from presidential campaigns to legislation to environmental affairs.  Markus has won numerous awards as an “innovator in public service” (Harvard University).

Rabbi Barenblat is one of “America’s most inspiring rabbis” (Forward 2016).  Barenblat serves as rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel (North Adams, MA); her Velveteen Rabbi blog was rated as one of the top sites on the Internet (Time Magazine 2008).  Barenblat is an accomplished poet and narrator of Jewish spiritual life: her collections include Texts to the Holy (Ben Yehuda 2018), Open My Lips (Ben Yehuda 2016), Waiting to Unfold (Phoenicia 2013) and 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia 2011).

Learn more and register at the Shir Hadash website.


Whose heart so moves

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Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.... And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. (Ex. 25:2, 8)

I recently gathered a bunch of paperwork to bring to the person who helps me with my taxes. Maybe you're doing something similar as spring approaches. Here's the thing about taxes: they are not optional. They are not "gifts" that we give to the government out of the goodness of our hearts. And we don't only have to give them if we happen to feel moved to do so.

We may or may not feel moved by the need for roads and hospitals and schools. I mean, I think we should feel moved by those things! But regardless of whether or not our hearts resonate with the need for working traffic lights and decent pavement and safe places to educate kids, we pay taxes to support those things, because that's how our society works.

But when it came to the building of the mishkan, the dwelling place for God, it wasn't a matter of taxation. It wasn't a matter of "dues." It was a free-will offering from everyone whose heart was so moved. And a few verses later, God says "Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them." Or, in my preferred translation, "that I may dwell within them."

I see a connection between the freewill nature of the offerings, and the indwelling presence of God within and among us. If a place is built out of dry obligation, or God forbid with coercion, then it's not a place where holiness can dwell. The way we make a place where God can dwell is by opening our hearts. Not by asking "what have you done for me lately," but by giving.

Later at the end of the book of Exodus we'll learn that so many people brought contributions that Moshe had to tell them to stop. But we're not there yet. This week, we're at the point in the story where God tells Moshe to tell the children of Israel to bring gifts. And they bring all different kinds of gifts. Materials for building, for weaving, for metalworking...

One of my favorite ways to read Torah is as an inner road map to becoming the people we're called to be. I believe that these verses aren't just about "them back then" but also about us now. Which raises the question: what are the gifts we can bring? What skills, what talents, what passions can we bring to the building of this community so that holiness will dwell within us?

Sometimes our presence is a gift -- when we show up to pray, to learn, to experience holidays, to celebrate and mourn. Sometimes our skills are a gift -- whether needlework or baking, carpentry or grant-writing. Sometimes our time is a gift.  And of course sometimes our money is a gift. "Ein kemach, ein Torah," the Talmud teaches: without food, there is no Torah.

What matters isn't how much we give, or in what form. What matters is that we feel moved to give in the first place. Because the more of ourselves we give, the more we receive in return. The more of ourselves we give, the more connected we feel with whatever we're giving to. And lack of connectedness is one of the most profound sorrows afflicting the world today.

Robert Putnam wrote about it twenty years ago in his groundbreaking book Bowling Alone. He described how Americans have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, even from the structures that sustain our democracy. The best antidote to disconnection is to show up and connect. And giving connects us. Especially when we give of ourselves. 

Torah has different names for different kinds of offerings. The word that gives this week's Torah portion its name is terumah, sometimes translated as a "lifted-apart" offering, or an "uplifting" offering. As Torah describes, those whose hearts lifted up in generosity brought what they could. Or maybe: those who brought what they could, found that their hearts were lifted up.

So that's my prayer for us today. May our hearts move us to give. May our giving connect us. And may our souls be uplifted on giving's spiritual updraft. 

 

 

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

 


Remembering on two calendars

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My mother died during a leap year. I don't mean a Gregorian leap year, where we get one extra day in February. Jewishly speaking, a leap year happens seven years out of every nineteen. When it's a Jewish leap year, we get an extra month. The month of Adar happens twice.

Because Mom died during a leap year, the disjoint between her secular death-anniversary and her Jewish death-anniversary this year is profound. Maybe the disjoint is always profound, but this first anniversary feels especially so. I live by two calendars. I have two death-anniversaries to feel.

I knew that on February 26, Facebook would remind me of the photo montage I posted last year when she died. (I had been selecting favorite photos during the days of her dying, reliving memories of when she was vibrant and alive.) I've been bracing myself for that cheery FB reminder.

Honestly, even if FB didn't remind me, I would remember anyway. Significant dates stay in my memory -- a first kiss, a last Shabbat together -- and when they roll around again, I feel their echoes. Their imprints. They are stones cast into the heart's pond, and these are their slow ripples.

As Mom's yahrzeit begins on 21st Adar / March 16 I'll light a 24-hour candle. I'll say kaddish in community. I will learn and teach and dedicate my study that day to her soul's ascent. But what might I do to mark February 26, the secular anniversary of her departure from this life?

I put the question to Twitter, and was moved by the responses I received. Some mark a secular death-anniversary with a visit to running water -- or go out for a special meal -- or give tzedakah in their names -- or do something creative -- or keep the day open so there is space to feel...

Before today arrived, I thought about how I might mark the day. I wondered whether I would be brave enough to watch a clip of her playing the piano, or listen to a recording of her voice. I hadn't tried either since she died, knowing that hearing her voice or her music would sharpen the ache of missing her.

I also know that it is an ache I am fortunate to feel. Because it means she is a person worth mourning, and this is a relationship worth mourning. There is a bittersweetness there. And the ache has shifted over this first year. It has a different quality now than it did when her death was new.

The days leading up to the anniversary felt poignant too. During last year's February break from school, my son and I went to Texas to tell Mom goodbye. (She died three days after we returned home.) This year at that time I spent a few days in New York with a friend and our sons.

I brought one of my mother's jackets to the city with me. It is plush, deep red, and adorned with lines and colorful squares. Mom loved Manhattan. I remember her wearing that jacket in the city when I was a kid. So I wore it there in her memory. A way of bringing her with me.

I remember her especially on this day that marks one year since she died. But there is an intimacy now that wasn't present when she lived. I carry her with me wherever I go, in a way I didn't need to do (and maybe couldn't do) while she lived.  That's what I hope she knows, wherever she is. 

 


Two great reviews of Beside Still Waters

Bsw-smallTwo fantastic reviews of Beside Still Waters were published this week.

In the Berkshire Jewish Voice, Rabbi Jack Riemer -- whose liturgical work I have often used and admired -- writes:

...Ours is a death-denying culture, in which we are taught to ignore the oncoming of death so as not to make those around us feel uncomfortable. And so it is good to have a few different versions of the Vidui here, which is the prayer that we are supposed to say before we die.

Ours is a culture that tries to repress pain and anger, and so it is good to have a prayer to say in memory of someone who has hurt us, and whom it is hard to forgive.

Ours is a society in which most of us stand before the yahrtzeit candle with no idea of what to say, and so it is good to have a meditation for this sacred moment that can help us give expression to the feelings that we have inside....

Read that whole review here.

And for the Association of Jewish Libraries, Fred Isaac writes:

...This small book is filled with wisdom, both ancient and modern. It is meant specifically for spiritual leaders, i.e., rabbis, Chevra Kadisha staff, prayer leaders, and counselors. But its readings can provide comfort for mourners at all stages of the process. It should be considered for every Jewish library...

Read that whole review here.

I'm so grateful to everyone who contributed their work to this volume, to my hevre at Bayit: Building Jewish, and to our publishing partner Ben Yehuda Press, for midwifing this book into being with me.

Buy Beside Still Waters from your favorite bookseller or directly from the publisher. Single copies cost $18. (Discounts are available for bulk orders of 10 or more at the publisher’s website.)


When we are tired

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"How are you," I ask. Often these days the answer is, "Tired." Tired of headlines about the end of democracy, or rising antisemitism, or miscarriages of justice. Tired of the million micro-aggressions of systemic misogyny or racism or xenophobia. 

Tired of wondering whether the 2020 elections will be hacked by Russia (or anyone else). Tired of wondering whether the weaponization of intentional misinformation, designed to sow discord and erode public trust, has done irreparable damage.

Tired of anxiety about the climate crisis, and how the over-focus on individual consumer choices ("did I remember a reusable grocery bag?") keeps our collective eyes off of the real prize of systemic change, sustainable change, meaningful change.

There are horrific injustices happening in so many realms. Sometimes it feels like the constancy and the omnipresence and how the injustices intersect make the fury and the outrage add up to more than the sum of their parts. Of course we are tired. 

I'm thinking a lot about how people have maintained hope in other difficult times. I'm slowly delving into Torah teachings from the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, and I've just started rereading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

We have an ethical obligation not to give up. We have to hold tight to hope that we can make the world better than this. When we can’t access that hope, we need to find someone who feels it, and let their hope shine for us too until we can feel it again.

We have an ethical obligation to help. Make a donation, canvass for a candidate, volunteer some time, bring a can of soup to the food pantry.... each of us will know what we can do. Whatever that thing is, we have to do that thing. And then another.

My best tool for preventing burnout is keeping Shabbat, giving my soul a break every week. It can feel self-indulgent, sometimes, when the world is burning. But this is my tradition's ancient practice for staying whole even in times when my soul feels tired.

It's okay to feel tired. It's okay to feel anxious and afraid. It's okay to take a break and put our oxygen masks on. And then I think we need to roll up our sleeves and keep trying to build a better world -- and looking for joy along the way as we do.

I think joy is integral, actually. Joy can coexist with sorrow, even with deep grief. Joy can be a kind of defiance. Audre Lorde called it "a form of energy for change." Joy intertwines with hope. And hope can fuel us to act. Even when we are tired.