Sufganiyot in the Saturday Poetry Series

Thanks to the Saturday Poetry Series for reprinting my Chanukah poem Sufganiyot (which was originally published in Zeek in 2004.)

I particularly appreciate Saturday editor Sivan Butler-Rotholz's kind comments:

With today’s piece Rabbi Rachel Barenblat elevates these phenomenal holiday treats from the realm of the epicurial to a heightened world where femininity, sexuality, and deep fried delicacies become one...

Read the poem, and her commentary, here: Saturday poetry series presents: Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Happy Chanukah to all!

A new poem for Chanukah


Some days I can enter
the holy of holies
by snapping my fingers:
the door swings open.

Other days I ransack
every pocket to find the key
and when I get inside
the room is darkened.

There's mud on the floor,
the intricate altar
is grimy, askew,
its heartbeat silenced.

I sweep the ashes away
open my thermos of tea
re-hang the tapestries,
great branches arching.

At last I light the lamp:
the glint, the glow
regenerating, the homefire
eternally burning.

Learn to trust again
that this oil is enough
to open my eyes
to God, already here.

In our Friday morning meditation yesterday, in preparation for the start of Chanukah (which begins tonight), I led us in a guided meditation, imagining what it was like to enter the temple which had been desecrated and to rekindle the ner tamid, the eternal light. Then I invited us each to enter into the holy of holies of our own hearts, and to see ourselves rededicating our own internal altars.

This poem came out of that meditation. I offer a bright shiny piece of virtual Chanukah gelt to anyone who recognizes its recasting of images from some perhaps unlikely secular sources!  For more on the idea that we each carry the holy of holies in our own hearts, I recommend Rabbi Menachem Creditor's Within Our Hearts the Holy of Holies, in Sh'ma.

A happy and joyous Chanukah to all who celebrate. May our eternal lights burn brightly, and may we rededicate ourselves at this season to the task of bringing light.

Sfat Emet on Chanukah and on light

What there is to learn from this portion is to prepare yourself during the good days in which holiness is revealed, to set that light solidly within the heart so it will be there during the bad days when the holiness is hidden.

That's from the Sfat Emet -- the Hasidic rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger -- on Miketz, the Torah portion in which we read about Pharaoh's dreams about the fat cows and the lean cows which devour them. We'll be reading Miketz not this Shabbat, but next -- on the Shabbat which falls during Chanukah. Chanukah, when we celebrate the triumph of hope over despair, the triumph of light over darkness.

My dear teacher R' Daniel Siegel recently published, on his blog, a series of teachings from the Sfat Emet on Chanukah. Reb Daniel writes:

The S'fat Emet is, I believe, a uniquely organized Hassidic text because not only do the teachings follow the annual Torah reading cycle, but they are subdivided by the years in which they were given. And what I noticed is that the Gerer Rebbe gave nineteen teachings between the years 1870 and 1903, eighteen of which begin with the same citation from the same midrash and the first, while not citing that particular text, sets the themes for those that follow.

Such a discovery requires sustained reading, and I am so grateful to Reb Daniel for sharing it. How remarkable that over the course of thirty-three years, the S'fat Emet offered nineteen teachings on this week's Torah portion, eighteen of which began with the same midrashic citation. Perhaps -- operating on the theory that one teaches best what one most needs to learn -- this was an idea with which he struggled, and therefore kept turning and turning it to find what was in it.

Year after year, the S'fat Emet returns to this idea that God sets limits around darkness, that darkness will not endure forever. Darkness, which he links with the yetzer ha-ra or evil inclination, has its limits; light, which is linked with blessing and with Torah and with Shabbat, is endless.

Living in the northern hemisphere, I find in this teaching the same message I find in the experience of kindling Chanukah lights: the light is always increasing. The darkness won't be forever. Of course, the darkness in these teachings is always more than merely literal.

The light which was created during the six days of creation shone from one end of the world to the other and was beyond time and contraction. The Holy Blessed One saw that the world wasn't worthy of it because of sin and hid it away for the righteous...Therefore, anyone who needs to attain an enlightenment must first pass through the hiding of the light in darkness.

I've only just begun reading and processing these S'fat Emet texts. I should spend the time to pore over each one in Hebrew as well as reading them quickly in English -- I know from experience that going into the Hebrew often gives me a different, a deeper, grasp of the concepts and the teachings. But on a first reading, in English, I'm struck by what I'm finding there. And today, I'm moved by this idea that in order to access the light, one often finds oneself moving through darkness.

For all who feel trapped in darkness right now -- the literal darkness of northern hemisphere winter; the emotional and spiritual darkness of trouble and sorrow -- I hope these glimpses of the S'fat Emet's teaching on next week's parsha may offer some glimmers of light.

Two reprints for these darkening December / Kislev days

Here is what I have to offer: be kind to yourself during these days. Pay attention to what your body is saying, to what your heart is saying, to the places where your mind gets tied in knots. What are the stories you tell yourself about this time of year? What are the old hurts to which you can't help returning, what are the old joys which you can't help anticipating?

Listen to your heart. Discern what awakens joy in you, as you anticipate the month of Kislev unfolding, and what awakens sadness or fear. Tell your emotions that you understand, you hear them, they don't have to clamor for your attention. Gentle them as you would gentle a spooked horse or an overwrought child.

-- A call for kindness during Kislev, 2011

[T]he matter of having enough, or not having enough, is surely an emotional one, as much as or more than it is a fiscal one. Scarcity is a kind of mitzrayim, a narrow place. And the fear of scarcity can be even worse, in the way the fear of a thing is usually worse than the thing itself. Fear of scarcity can be existential, can make the whole world seem constrained.

Fear of not having enough can blur into fear of not being enough. Fear that if we're not smart enough, or rich enough, or thin enough, we won't be valued. Won't be seen for who we really are. Won't be loved.

-- Enough, 2007

Kedushat Levi on seeing God "face to face"

For those who are so inclined, here's a short text from Kedushat Levi which arises out of one line of last week's Torah portion. This was our Torah study text at my shul this past Shabbat. This text can be found on p. 82 in my edition of KL. You can also find KL's teachings on this week's parsha, in Hebrew with slightly clunky English translations, at Kedushat Levi Translations: Vayishlach.

Kedushat Levi is the compilation of Torah teachings from Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740–1809), who was known as the "defense attorney" for the Jewish people because it was believed that he could intercede on our behalf before God. He was known for his compassion for every Jew.

"And he called the name of that place Peni'el [lit. "The face of God"], 'for I have seen God face to face, yet my life (soul) has been spared.'" (Genesis 32:31)

Some people serve the Blessed Creator in order that good things might flow from God because of their service.

This is a great spiritual level to attain: serving the Blessed Creator without the intention of receiving goodness for oneself. As a result of this, one becomes great and in control.

The essence of this is called "face to face," because that person serves the Blessed Creator and receives greatness and control, and God meets that person face to face.

The second way of relating to God is called "face to back," for the blessed Creator faces him with the divine face, and the person, as it were, serves in order to receive goodness upon himself.

This is the second (lower) level of "for I have seen God face to face." At this level, "and my life has been spared" speaks in the language of separation.

This is the hint: that it did not arise upon that one's heart to serve for the sake of something close to his soul, e.g., in order to receive goodness from the blessed God. This is a level of serving for one's own sake, and the other is a level of serving God not for one's own sake.

Continue reading "Kedushat Levi on seeing God "face to face"" »

Drawing (on) our dreams

When I describe
the characters in Super Why
diving into books
to change the story
and save the day

your face lights up:
you've done just that
with your younger daughter
when nightmares tore her
from her sleep

she'd tell you tearfully
about the bad green man
and you'd draw him
on your biggest sketchpad
and then scrawl him out

or adorn him
with silly hats
a feather boa, a banana
her laughter the talisman
that banished him for good

this week the Torah's
bedecked with dreams:
Joseph's dreams
the cupbearer's dream
the Pharaoh's dream

how different
would our story be
if, when Joseph brought
his dreams of the sheaves
bowing down before him

his parents had said
let's draw that dream together
here on this parchment
then write a new story
for you and your brothers

without their wounds
what would have set
the spheres in motion
to bring us down
so we could be raised up?



This Torah poem arises out of the confluence of this week's portion (which is replete with dreams and the interpretation of dreams) and a conversation I had with a dear friend over lunch about ways of soothing a child's nightmares.

I can't help feeling that the Joseph story needed to happen exactly the way it did in order for all of its outcomes to unfold. But I'm grateful that we have ways of working with dreams to lessen some of the anxious power they may hold.

I don't usually post poems in html tables like this, but I like the visual prosody of the two columns of stanzas playing off of each other. I can format the poem that way in my word processor, but couldn't find a better way to do it in-blog.

All comments welcome, as always.

On beginning a Torah podcast...with my students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

70 faces at Yale on December 5


Remember the 70 faces event which was supposed to happen at Yale last month, but was postponed for congregational reasons? It's been rescheduled for this week, hooray! I'll be giving a reading from the book at 4pm on Wednesday, December 5, at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale. I'm delighted to be bringing some Torah poetry to Yale.

If you're in or near Connecticut and would enjoy hearing me read Torah poems and answer questions about Torah and poetry and how they intersect, please join us. The reading is free and open to the public, and I'll have a few books to sign and sell if you need one or if you've been looking for the perfect Chanukah gift for a Torah poetry fan in your life.


On names and naming

I offered this d'var Torah this morning at the Episcopal church in town. My thanks are due to the rector, an old friend, who invited me to preach about names and naming in Jewish tradition.



There are names that we choose, and names we are given. In the Jewish lectionary cycle, we read yesterday from a Torah portion which contains two important namings.

First, the renaming of Jacob. Jacob is on his way to meet his brother Esau for the first time in years, and he's afraid. The night before their meeting, he sends his family on ahead, and he encounters a mysterious stranger who wrestles with him all night.

Anytime an unnamed messenger appears in Torah, he's understood to be an angel, a messenger of the divine. As dawn approaches, the angel demands to be released, but Jacob refuses to let him go without a blessing. So the stranger offers him the blessing of a new name: henceforth he will be called Israel, one who wrestles with God.

A few chapters later God appears to him directly, and God reiterates the new name. "You who were named Jacob will now be called Israel," God says. In Torah, God too has many names; this time, God says "I am El Shaddai," a name which can be read as having something to do with fertility and compassion and motherliness (shadayim are breasts.)

That's one naming. The other naming comes as the matriarch Rachel is dying in childbirth. Her last act in life is to name her second son Ben-oni, "son of my sorrow." But, the text tells us, Israel names the boy instead Benjamin, "son of my right hand." A name which connotes strength and connection, rather than sorrow.

Continue reading "On names and naming " »

This week's portion: the Face of God

Here's the d'var Torah I offered this morning at my shul.

In this week's parsha, Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles with an angel all night until dawn. In return he receives the blessing of a new name: Israel, one who wrestles with God, for, as the angel tells him, "you have struggled with God and with human beings, and you have prevailed."

Having received a new name, Jacob bestows a new name: he names that place, that bend in the river, Peni'el, literally "the face of God," saying, "For I have seen God face-to-face, yet my life has been spared." In this place, he has an I-Thou encounter. He names this place the Face of God.

Immediately following these verses, Esau appears with his 400 men. Jacob and Esau, remember, have not seen one another since Jacob tricked Esau out of their father's blessing and then fled. The two twins meet and embrace, and they burst into tears.

Then Esau marvels at Jacob's wealth and good fortune. Jacob tries to give him some of what Jacob has, and Esau demurs, saying that he has plenty. But Jacob says --

No, please, if I have truly found favor in your sight, take the offering from my hand; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God.

As dawn was breaking, Jacob realized that the mysterious stranger with whom he had been struggling all night was, in fact, a face of God. That in his wrestle with the angel, he was wrestling with the divine. That's why he named that place Peni'el, the Face of God.

And now he is reunited with his brother, with whom he has struggled his entire life -- ever since they grappled with one another in the womb. And he looks at his brother, and he sees the face of God.

Before long, their old distance creeps between them again. Esau goes one way, and Jacob goes the other. But I like to imagine this as a truly transformative moment. Even if only temporarily, Jacob was able to look at his twin brother -- his lifelong wrestling partner -- and see him as a manifestation of the divine.

Continue reading "This week's portion: the Face of God" »

Second step

When we first greet one another, it's clear that we're both trying a little bit too hard. We trade one too many "how are you"s. Conversation stutters and starts.

But soon we settle into a rhythm. He received the bedtime shema prayer I sent, and the small pamphlets about Jewish prayer and about forgiveness in Jewish tradition. I show him the JPS Tanakh I brought for him (though I won't be able to give it directly to him; I have to leave it with the corrections officer for inspection, and it will be forwarded to him with the evening mail) and the copy of Anita Diamant's book Choosing a Jewish Life. He seems surprised and grateful.

We talk a little bit about what the journey to choosing Judaism usually looks like. I describe the general course of study, the usual timeframe, the mikveh immersion. Ordinarily, I tell him, I would ask a potential Jew-by-choice to start coming to services and experiencing Jewish life in community, but that's obviously not an option for him until he's out of jail. He tells me he might be out some months sooner than originally anticipated, and that he can't wait to try services.

We chat about how the Christian sabbath day became Sunday, about what "kosher food" means (and doesn't mean), about a friend of his in the jail who is Catholic and enjoys friendly argument about scripture and prayer. I tell him that friendly argument is a very Jewish mode of Torah study, in certain ways. I tell him about the Jewish weekly lectionary, and show him the dog-eared page in the book which marks this week's Torah portion. He asks me what Jews think about Jesus, and we talk about some different ways of understanding Jesus: as a Jew, as a teacher of Torah, as a rabble-rouser, but not as divine.

I ask him about what holidays are like, in this local house of corrections. He tells me a little bit about Thanksgiving, about a fellow inmate who gathered a group of them to eat together and who said they were like his family. He tells me he's never connected with Christmas and doesn't anticipate that he'll miss it. I tell him about Passover -- he's never been to a seder -- and I wonder aloud whether I might be able to orchestrate a seder here.

Over the course of our hour, I learn a little bit more about what his life is like here. He tells me that more than anything else, it's like a retirement community in there. Little foam couches, tables where guys play cards, two televisions (with headphones for the sound.) It's really quiet, he tells me. Most of the guys are taking classes through the local community college. The place is empty enough that they closed down one of the pods and had to let several COs go.

There are only fourteen women in the local jail right now, he tells me, and I think: wow, what would it be like to be one of those fourteen? What an insular little community that must be. The communal dynamics must be fascinating, and probably not easy to navigate. While we're chatting, a man in orange walks through the visiting room and he and my inmate (who is wearing navy blue) smile and exchange greetings. The orange jumpsuit means he's still awaiting sentencing. The two of them knew each other, before.

I depart with a promise to provide a Jewish calendar, and to return in a few weeks with thoughts on what we might study together. I still don't know where this relationship will lead, but I feel blessed to have the opportunity to find out.

Winter blessings to a medieval carol tune

Several years ago, Ethan and I saw Richard Thompson and his merry band (the acoustic version thereof) perform a 1000 Years of Popular Music show at the Iron Horse. One of my favorite tracks from that night was a medieval Scots carol called "Remember O Thou Man," often attributed to Thomas Ravenscroft, though Ravenscroft may only have collected or updated it -- some suggest it predates him, too.

Richard told us that night that this melody is often considered to be the source of what we now know as God Save the Queen, though this carol is in a minor key whereas that anthem is in a major one. (The footnotes to that Wikipedia entry on "God Save the Queen" confirm that this is a popular theory, though no one seems to be able to prove it one way or another.)

Anyway, the melody stuck with me. I love it. Here, watch Richard and two friends play "Remember O Thou Man" in the back of a English taxicab:

(If you can't see the embedded video, you can go directly to it at YouTube.)

I associate this melody with the darkening days of deep autumn turning toward winter. Maybe because I first heard it in early November. Maybe because the original lyrics have a kind of wintery darkness to them -- "Remember, o thou man, thy time is spent..."

It ocurred to me, one cold and rainy day earlier this fall, that I might see if this melody works for any of the blessings of my winter season. (This isn't my first experiment with setting Hebrew words to Richard Thompson's melodies -- see A Richard Thompson Modah Ani.) So I tried putting the Chanukah candle blessing to this tune. You have to slightly rush a few of the words, but it works reasonably well:




I tried, also, setting the Shehecheyanu -- the blessing sanctifying time, which is recited on the first night of Chanukah -- to this melody, and it worked perfectly. (No elision or rushing necessary.) So maybe this melody works better for the Shehecheyanu than it does for Chanukah candles. Here it is:




I'm not sure how actually useful this is -- what are the odds that anyone reading this will want to sing either the Chanukah blessings, or the shehecheyanu, to a medieval Scots melody? -- but I figured I'd share, just for kicks. Chanukah is approaching (we light the first candle on the night of December 8), so the timing seemed appropriate. Enjoy!


Three gratitudes

I'm grateful this morning for colleagues who pause our phone calls to make the blessing for Torah study, mindful that the words we're going to exchange are themselves Torah; who remind me to pay attention to the movements and signals of my own heart; who urge me to recognize and to honor both the act of stretching my comfort zone, and the act of remaining safely within it; who offer their own stories and experiences to match mine.

I'm grateful this morning for students who offer me the key to unlock their enthusiasm; who ad-lib interviews with Biblical characters, giggling wildly as they insert cows into scenes where, truth be told, cows were never meant to be; who earnestly ask permission to skip Hebrew this week so they can spend more time with the Torah story; who laugh and shout so loudly I know the whole building must be listening to their glee.

I'm grateful this morning for recordings of my beloved friends singing the morning prayers, with heart and harmony; for their presence, real with me again through the miracle of praying together across the miles and the months; for their reminder that I am most wholly the person I want to be when I take the time and space to enter into our liturgy, to be washed by its waves, to be rooted in its soil; for this ineffable togetherness.

Three responses to this week's Torah portion

As we enter into parashat Vayishlach, I wanted to share links to a few of the divrei Torah I've posted over the years which arise out of this week's portion:

Encounter, 2008, a Torah poem. "When Esau saw him he came running. / They embraced and wept, each grateful / to see the profile he knew better than his own..."

Beyond binaries, 2006. "Jacob earns the new name because he's open to transformation, but that transformation is neither instantaneous nor irrevocable; it's something he has to continue working at, a process rather than an endpoint. As a result, he's continually oscillating between his two sides, the part of him which lives in duality (Jacob) and the part of him which lives in continual awareness of the presence of God (Yisrael.) In a sense, his real new name is the back-and-forth between the two sides of who he is."

Blessing myself, 2010. "With whom did he wrestle? The text tells us that he was alone, and that he wrestled with a man. Jacob wrestled with himself: with the part of him that regretted cheating his brother, with the part of him that missed having a relationship with his twin, with the part of him that wanted a different ending to their story."

All feedback welcome, as always.


Rodger Kamenetz's the lowercase jew

Lowercase-jew-webA book of poems nine years old still deserves to be written about and to be read. This is true as a general statement, I think, though I'm saying it now with a specific title in mind: Rodger Kamenetz's the lowercase jew.

Maybe you know Rodger Kamenetz's book The Jew in the Lotus, the true story of the group of rabbis who went to Dharamsala, India, to meet with the Dalai Lama and offer him wisdom about surviving as a people in Diaspora. (When I first read that book, some 20 years ago, I remember thinking: wow, they took a poet along to tell the tale! I want to grow up to get that job.)

Maybe you know his The History of Last Night's Dream. (I interviewed him after that came out -- Dreaming with Rodger Kamenetz, Zeek magazine, 2008.) Or his more recent Burnt Books: Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav and Franz Kafka. But unless you're a lover of Jewish poetry -- which, given that you're reading this blog, you might be -- you may or may not know his poetry. And you should know it, because it's really good.

I read his The Missing Jew: New and Selected Poems years ago, I think shortly after getting out of college. (I thought I'd reviewed it somewhere, but can't seem to dig up a link; I guess I just wrote about it in my paper about what makes Jewish literature Jewish, back when I was getting my MFA at Bennington.) But somehow I failed to pick up a copy of the lowercase jew until this fall. Nu, the good news is, poetry ages well. So it came out in 2003 and now it's almost 2013 -- big deal. The psalms were written God-knows-how-long-ago, and we still read them, don't we?

Continue reading "Rodger Kamenetz's the lowercase jew" »

Another one from the archives: Kol Nidre poem

This poem was first published in What Stays, my second chapbook of poems (Bennington Writing Seminars Alumni Chapbook Series, 2002.) It has been used in congregations and independent minyanim during Kol Nidre services.



My people break our promises publicly.
We stand and say "Hey, God, you know,

you can't hold us to anything really,
I mean we're creation, right?" We declare

all vows, promises, and oaths
of the year to come -- all vows we're too silent

or too weak or forgetful to uphold --
null and void in advance.

We say, "God, you're listening, right?" We say,
"Don't worry, God. We still feel guilt."

We are like wild grapes.
We are beautiful, and we are sour.

Forgive us, and forgive
the stranger in our midst.

Continue reading "Another one from the archives: Kol Nidre poem" »

A Blessing for the Thanksgiving Meal

American Thanksgiving is almost upon us! The Thanksgiving category on this blog features a variety of Thanksgiving prayers and poems I've posted over the years, from the one by Reb Zalman (always a favorite of mine) to others by contemporary poets. Here's my own humble offering for this year, which you are welcome to use and/or to share if it moves you. Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate!

(For those who wish: here's a downloadable pdf containing Reb Zalman's prayer, my prayer, and sheet music for a one-line grace after meals, cross-posted to my congregational From the Rabbi blog: ThanksgivingTrio [pdf])

A Blessing for the Thanksgiving Meal

by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Source of all being, we thank You
for the meal on this table before us:

for the earth from which this food emerged
and Your blessing which sustains that earth

for the hands which planted and weeded and watered
and tended animals with loving care

for the drivers who ferried ingredients to our stores
and the workers who stocked the shelves

Continue reading "A Blessing for the Thanksgiving Meal" »

Prayer for the Children of Abraham / Ibrahim

For every aspiring ballerina huddled
scared in a basement bomb shelter

    For every toddler in his mother's arms
    behind rubble of concrete and rebar

For every child who's learned to distinguish
"our" bombs from "their" bombs by sound

    For everyone wounded, cowering, frightened
    and everyone furious, planning for vengeance

For the ones who are tasked with firing shells
where there are grandmothers and infants

    For the ones who fix a rocket's parabola
    toward children on school playgrounds

For every official who sees shelling Gaza
as a matter of "cutting the grass"

    And every official who approves launching projectiles
    from behind preschools or prayer places
For every kid taught to lob a bomb with pride
And every kid sickened by explosions

    For every teenager who considers
    "martyrdom" his best hope for a future:

May the God of compassion and the God of mercy
God of justice and God of forgiveness

    God Who shaped creation in Her tender womb
    and nurses us each day with blessing

God Who suffers the anxiety and pain
of each of His unique children

    God Who yearns for us to take up
    the work of perfecting creation

God Who is reflected in those who fight
and in those who bandage the bleeding --

    May our Father, Mother, Beloved, Creator
    cradle every hurting heart in caring hands.

Soon may we hear in the hills of Judah
and the streets of Jerusalem

    in the olive groves of the West Bank
    and the apartment blocks of Gaza City

in the kibbutz fields of the Negev
and the neighborhoods of Nablus

    the voice of fighters who have traded weapons
    for books and ploughs and bread ovens

the voice of children on swings and on slides
singing nonsense songs, unafraid

    the voice of reconciliation and new beginnings
    in our day, speedily and soon.

And let us say:




On "every aspiring ballerina huddled," see Twenty minutes in a Tel Aviv bomb shelter, Jewschool.

On children distinguishing bombs by sound, see A message to Israel's leaders: Don't defend me – not like this, Ha'aretz.

On "mowing the grass," see Israel, Gaza, and the patterns of the past, Washington Post.

On "projectiles / from behind preschools or prayer places," see Dealing with Hamas's human shield tactics, Jerusalem Post.

"Soon may we hear..." is a reference to the final blessing in the set of Sheva Brachot / Seven Blessings recited at every Jewish wedding.

Edited to add: this prayer benefited tremendously from the suggestions of rabbinic student David Markus, who read several drafts and offered substantive feedback. Thank you, David. The prayer is stronger for your contributions.


This is meant to be prayed in community as a responsive reading.

As a mother, as a human being, as a Jew, and as a rabbi, this prayer/poem is the best articulation I can offer of what my heart and soul are feeling right now. I pray for God to heal the hearts of all who suffer: Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and non-Jews, "us" and "them," combatants on both sides, those who fear on both sides, those who mourn on both sides, those who benefit from the existing systems in place and those who struggle within those systems. Please, God, speedily and soon.

I welcome comments. (If you are a new commenter, please read the VR comments policy before chiming in.) And all are welcome to share and to use this prayer in your community if it speaks to you, as long as you preserve its origin / attribution.

A pdf file is available for download if that's helpful: PrayerForChildrenOfAbrahamIbrahim [pdf]

A visit to Sagrada Familia

Gaudí's Sagrada Familia is amazing. I've never seen a cathedral like it. And I have seen a fair number of cathedrals. (I guess it isn't technically a cathedral; it won't be home to a bishop. But what else can one call such a grand and soaring Christian religious space?)

Beams of light.

It's a bit as though an art deco - modernist worship space had been built in Tolkien's mythical Lothlorien. I think it's the giant soaring columns modeled to look like plane trees, holding up the exquisite skylight-riddled roof, which put me in mind of golden elvish Mallorn trees. It's almost as though the columns (several different shapes and diameters, each made of a different stone) grew organically from the floor to create the ceiling. Which I guess would be one explanation for the wonderful and whimsical finials on the roofs which look like unearthly fruit.

Seen from outside.

It is enormous. Mind-bogglingly enormous. It can hold thousands of people. In the way of cathedrals, it has already taken well over a century to build. Most of the main building is complete, and there are three extraordinary towers (into which visitors can ascend) -- though the plan calls for a total of eighteen towers, so there's a lot more left to build. When Gaudí died in 1926, only a quarter of the project was complete.

Pillars and light.

There are spiraling staircases and great openings and amazing light. There are sculptures which tell stories. At the top of the many spire / tower roofs there are the kind of giant and fanciful mosaic fruits I saw on the roof of a Gaudi-designed mansion the day before. One side of the church (known as the Glory facade) has exterior pillars which appear to rest on a giant tortoise and a giant turtle -- symbols of land and sea. This is a structure which praises God through lifting up aspects of nature, aspects of creation, in their beauty.


When I was there on a Friday morning, they were piping in choral music which completed with the sounds of construction continuing overhead. As I sat in a chair in the huge and spacious nave, and quietly davened some morning blessings to myself, I heard the strains of Duruflé's "Ubi Caritas," one of my very favorite Christian sacred pieces to sing. Where there are charity and love, there, one finds God -- yes indeed.

Crane at work.

I wandered the building in a daze, dodging other tourists who, like me, were attempting to capture the ineffable on film. I took an elevator up to the top of the tower named for the Passion, and marveled at the views of Barcelona, and then slowly, slowly, walked the 425 steps back down to the ground. I trailed my fingers along the narrow staircase as I went, and marveled at the work of all of these combined human hands.

Light on columns.

I always love visiting sacred spaces. Even if they're not "mine" in the sense of being Jewish sacred spaces, I feel an affinity for them because they are someone's idea of holy; because they are built for community and prayer; because they are meant to reflect a tiny fraction of the glory of the Infinite. I'm really glad to have spent a morning in this one.

(For more images from our few days in Spain, including a few more of Sagrada Familia and a few of a mansion designed by Gaudí called Palau Guell, here's my Barcelona photoset on Flickr.)

One from the archives: morning blessings poem cycle

Around 2002-2004 I worked on a series of variations on some of the traditional morning blessings. These were among my first experiments with creative work meant to be experienced both as prayers and as poems. This poem cycle includes the prayers known as Elohai Neshama, Asher Yatzar, Nishmat Kol Chai, and Baruch She'amar. The "Asher Yatzar" poem was first published in Zeek magazine, spring/summer 2005. (ETA: if you like these, you might also like Daily miracles, a poem/prayer variation on the birchot ha-shachar / list of morning blessings.)



My God, my
own, my breath
that you have given me
is pure
she is clean, clear
like mikvah waters

the spark
which makes me more
than automated clay,
than cells
sprouting cells
is holy

Continue reading "One from the archives: morning blessings poem cycle" »