In praise of Sundays

cup of coffee

The thing I missed most about American life, the summer I was living in Jerusalem, was Sundays. (The thing I missed second-most was American-style coffee, which is to say, coffee made in a drip coffeepot. I never came to be a fan of Nescafé -- though I'm entertained by Shoshana Kordova's deconstruction of the brand-name into the Hebrew for "miracle coffee.")

The Israeli weekend is Friday and Saturday, which makes preparing for Shabbat much easier -- you have all day on Friday to do your shopping or cooking, get the house ready, and be in a position to be wholly relaxed and celebratory by the time the sun goes down on Friday night. It's an awesome luxury on a spiritual level. And it's also a practical necessity, since if you're in West Jerusalem -- which is where I was -- pretty much everything is closed on Saturdays, in deference to Shabbat. But by the time Shabbat is over, on Saturday night, there isn't much time for anything -- and first thing on Sunday morning, the work-week starts again.

I was only there for a summer. It wasn't long enough to adjust to this uniquely Israeli rhythm. I loved being in a place where Shabbat was built into the fabric of weekly life, and I loved the luxury of getting Fridays off to prepare for Shabbat -- but I always felt strangely cheated on Saturday night when it came time to go to bed early, and on Sunday mornings it was always a struggle to drag myself out of bed to go to school. Something in me yearned for the lazy experience of a morning I could use to do whatever I wanted. I could sleep in and laze around on Saturdays, if I wanted to -- but there were so many different synagogues and minyanim in Jerusalem where I wanted to daven, so Shabbat mornings usually meant waking up early and setting forth with my map and a pair of good walking sandals to find a new community with which to pray.

That whole summer when I was living abroad, I really missed lazy Sundays of reading the New York Times and drinking giant bowls of coffee with milk. And I missed the luxury of having a day to do whatever I pleased after the experience of Shabbat. There's something different about having the day of relaxation after Shabbat, rather than before -- since on Fridays, knowing that Shabbat was coming, I tended to be running around like crazy to arrange for everything before the stores closed.

Sundays have changed since we had a kid. Gone are the days of sleeping until 10 or 11am and then settling in to the couch with the Sunday Times until early afternoon! These days if we get to sleep until 7, that's a rare gift. And the mornings are likelier to include Kai-Lan cartoons and playing with the marble run toy than reading the Times. (The giant cups of American-style brewed coffee are, fortunately, still available.) But I'm still grateful for the simple pleasure of this weekly day of downtime -- a kind of downtime that's different from Shabbat, but still sweet.


I sat down to write a little bit this morning, and this was the natural subject which came to me -- though once I'd drafted the post, I suspected I might have written about it before. Sure enough, I had: Thank God for Sundays, 2008.


D'var Torah for Terumah: God Dwelling In Us

Here's the d'var Torah for last week's Torah portion, Terumah, which I offered yesterday at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


This week's Torah portion contains one of my favorite verses in Torah: וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם / "Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell within them."

We're diving deep this week into the description of the materials used to build the mishkan, the portable tabernacle the Israelites built in order to carry the tablets from Sinai with them in the wilderness. Some interpretations hold that the mishkan is built on a mystical blueprint which matches the blueprint of creation itself. Others see the mishkan as a temporary, portable "first draft" for the eventual Temple in Jerusalem.

The mishkan is a big deal. We'll spend weeks reading about its construction. But the Torah offers up what is arguably the most important detail at the very beginning of all of the descriptions: the reason why the Israelites are building this sanctuary in the first place.

The word "mishkan" comes from the same root as the word Shekhinah, the divine Presence which dwells in creation. You might imagine, therefore, that God would dwell within the elaborate structures of gold and acacia wood, tanned skins, and woven tapestries of blue and crimson and purple which the Torah describes. Or that God would eventually dwell within the Temple, when we reach the point in our history when that structure is built, all shining white limestone atop one of Jerusalem's hills.

But God dwells everywhere. As our liturgy reminds us, מלוא כל הארץ כבודו / the whole earth is full of divine glory! The reason the Israelites built the mishkan was so that God would dwell within them.

Like our ancestors, we too build religious structures in our lives. Some are literal, like this beautiful building of cement and copper and wood and glass. Some are metaphorical, the structures of practice and ritual and prayer. But the purpose of all of them is to invite God to dwell within us.

You've heard me say something like this before, in introducing the ashrei. Rabbi Phyllis Berman taught me to understand that prayer's first line -- "happy are they who dwell in Your house, they will praise You forever" -- as an invitation for us to be joyous dwelling in our own bodies. This body, this heart, is God's house.

When we create beautiful places with the intention of opening ourselves to holiness, God takes root in our hearts. When we engage in beautiful practices with the intention of opening ourselves to holiness, God enlivens us. We are the mishkan, the tabernacle, the temple, where we seek for God to dwell.

Why do we need to build the structures -- the buildings, the practices? Why can't we just invite God in? Well, we can; but that doesn't always work. Just saying, "hey, God, I want to open myself up to you" -- what does that really do? For most of us, it isn't enough. A better way to cultivate holiness in our lives is to enter into the practices, to take on the work, of building something together.

We don't have a mishkan to build anymore, but we can enter into the work of building our synagogue community. Show up to make a minyan; mix meatloaf for Take and Eat; plant a synagogue garden in the spring; join the Hesed committee and visit our members who are homebound or sick. We build our community in a million little ways, and when we do, we invite God to dwell within us.


Bedtime prayers and the alphabet

Bedtime2My mother taught me to say my prayers before I went to sleep. She would sit by my bedside, and every night, I would recite "God bless Mom and Dad, Lali and Eppie" -- my grandparents, of blessed memory, who were then living -- and then go on to mention all of my siblings (and, in time, their spouses), and Eloisa (one of my childhood caregivers), and "my aunts, and uncles, and cousins, and friends, and everybody else, amen." And then I would say, or sing, the one-line shema.

I didn't know then that what I was doing had a formal name and was part of daily Jewish practice. Saying my prayers before bed and ending with the shema was a shortened version of kriat shema al ha-mitah, the traditional liturgy of the bedtime (or "in bed") recitation of the shema. That's something I've come to know in adulthood, as my study of Judaism has deepened. All I knew, when I was a kid, was that this was what I did every night, with my mother sitting by my bedside.

(I've posted about my favorite prayer from the bedtime shema liturgy before. If you want a beautiful downloadable rendering of that whole set of prayers, with transliteration and meaningful English, you can find one at the end of Rabbi Daniel Siegel's post The Cycles of T'shuvah.)

Saying my prayers before going to sleep was such an ingrained childhood tradition that I've never stopped doing it. Even on my tiredest nights, when I climb into bed, I silently thank God for people in my life, for the blessings of home and bed and enough to eat, and I say the shema. The tradition is more or less unchanged since my mother gave it to me -- though some of the people I used to bless have died, and others (most notably our son) have joined my list.

So it's probably not surprising that as Drew has grown, I've shared this practice with him, as my mother shared it with me. Before he goes to sleep -- as we're sitting in the gliding rocker where we used to nurse, after we've read a book together and turned on the white-noise machine and turned off the lights -- we ask God to bless his parents, and grandparents, and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, and everybody else, amen. And then when he's in bed and I'm sitting by his bedside, smoothing the Thomas the Tank Engine fleece blanket over him and nestling all of his stuffed animals by his side, we say the shema. And then I tell him I love him, kiss him goodnight, wish him sweet dreams, and quietly tiptoe out of the room.

AlphabetclothinganimalspicaWell: that's how it goes some nights. Exactly like that, sweet and serene. But other nights, nothing goes as planned. He giggles his way through putting on pyjamas (often running around the room half-dressed, or pretending he thinks the bottom part of the PJs goes on his head), resists brushing teeth with remarkable stubornness, and when I invite the saying of prayers or singing of the shema, he shouts "no!" On those nights, what he usually wants to do is sing the alphabet song, instead. He sings it to me, then I sing it to him in lieu of a lullaby. (I miss the lullabies I used to sing to him when he was a baby, but I try to respect his desires.)

Anyway, last night was one of the nights when he happily joined me in listing the people we wanted to bless, but didn't want to sing the shema. Instead he sang the alphabet song. And asked me to sing the alphabet song. And then sang the alphabet song to me again. And as I sat on his bed listening to his voice, I remembered the Hasidic story about the little boy who came to synagogue but didn't know any of the prayers. So as the congregation was immersed in prayer, he recited the alef-bet -- the only Hebrew he knew -- in hopes that God would assemble the letters into prayers on high. And it was his sweet, simple recitation which lifted up the prayers of the whole congregation.

(There's a one-paragraph version of that story in a post from Rabbi Phyllis Sommers: Alef Bet. Another version appears in The Hungry Clothes and Other Jewish Folktales, and the story's available online via google books search: the boy who prayed with the alef bet.)

I love the idea that even when he doesn't want to join me in a formal prayer before bed, God can translate his alphabet singing into the most meaningful prayers of his heart.


A daily love song for the body

8471708130_bb8bd875ae_m One of my wintertime rituals is rubbing lotion into my hands and forearms. I keep a little tube of lotion on each of my two desks, the one at home and the one at the synagogue. I don't know whether the dryness stems from living with radiators and fires during the wintertime, or from some natural lack of moisture in the local winter air, but one way or another, my skin is always dry in wintertime. Hand lotion feels like an incredible gift. I can actually see my thirsty skin coming back to life, like a wilted plant becoming vibrant again.

While I'm rubbing the lotion into my palms and the backs of my hands, I say the asher yatzar blessing, praising God Who creates the human body with wisdom. After I had my strokes, I developed a new relationship with the idea that if one of the body's many openings should be accidentally closed, it's no longer possible to stand before God and offer praise.

My relationship with the blessing changed again when I became pregnant and started giving myself daily injections of blood thinner; I recited the blessing every morning as the needle's plunger found its way home. And then I treated my expanding belly to some lotion, both to soothe the sting of the injection and because I couldn't help marveling as my physical form started to shift and change.

Today the blessing has become mundane again. I'm no longer worried about blood clots sneaking their way into my brain; I take my handful of pills every morning, and I trust that they're all doing their jobs and that my blood will continue to flow freely where it ought to be flowing. And I no longer have to steel myself to pinch a generous fold of flesh and guide a needle home. But the habit of reciting the blessing remains, a reminder that my body is a miracle -- that every body is a miracle, always.

Several years ago I learned how to sing the sheva brachot, the seven blessings which are central to every Jewish wedding ceremony. I learned to sing them from my teacher Hazzan Jack Kessler, who chants them according to the trope (the system of cantillation) used for the Song of Songs. It's a perfect match. I love singing the blessings which sanctify the heart of a wedding using this ancient ancestral melody which is linked with our tradition's greatest text about companionship and love.

One of those blessings begins ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם, אשר יצר את האדם בצלמו -- Blessed are You, Adonai, Sovereign of creation, Who creates humanity in Your image. The asher yatzar blessing begins with those same words, though instead of "in your image," the daily prayer says "with wisdom," and continues on from there. But because I have so frequently sung those opening words to this Shir haShirim melody, that's the melody I naturally hear in my head when I think of the words of the asher yatzar blessing.

And it reminds me to relate to my own body with love. To marvel at the wonder of having a body that works, and to treat my physical form with the love, kindness, and compassion I seek to bring to my marriage and to all of my relationships. Every time I grace my body with lotion, every time I recite the asher yatzar, is a chance to sing a love song to my body. Imperfect though it surely is, this body carries me through the day -- enables me to walk, to touch, to eat, to sleep, to sing -- grew our son from component cells. Yes, this body is worth celebrating. Always.


Happy Adar - the gateway to the gateway to spring!

Cs-pur"When Adar enters, joy increases!" So says the wisdom of our tradition (B. Ta'anit 29a.) Why? The simplest answer is that the month of Adar contains the festival of Purim, and Purim is a festival of rejoicing.

Although Purim can seem, on the surface, like a purely fun-oriented holiday -- costumes, merriment, silliness, noisemakers -- there's more there than meets the eye. That's kind of Purim's theme, really. In the megillah of Esther, things aren't necessarily as they first appear. The king isn't really in charge; Esther isn't just a beautiful woman; and though God is never mentioned, divine providence is palpably present, subtly guiding events to turn out for the best.

One month later, at the next full moon (in years like this one, not a leap year) comes Pesach, the festival of our liberation. In Jewish spiritual time, Pesach is the entryway into spring. As I type these words here in western Massachusetts in early February, snow is falling fast and furious. Spring's usual signifiers feel a million years away.

But Pesach is about something deeper. Pesach is when we tell the central story of our peoplehood: that we were slaves to a Pharaoh in the Narrow Place, the place of suffering and constriction, and our God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Pesach is about leaving Mitzrayim together, crossing the Sea of Reeds and emerging into an unknowable and incredible openness and possibility on the other side. At Pesach we're like bulbs putting out the first shoots of new life, not knowing what we'll find once we break through the surface of the earth but trusting that if we keep pushing, we'll find the light.

Right now, at the new moon of the month of Adar, that breaking-forth into the light is six weeks away. And the first big step on our journey toward Passover and its liberation is Purim -- two weeks from now, at full moon -- when we'll tell the story of how Esther and Mordechai took the lead in liberating the Jewish people of Persia from persecution.

At Purim, we have the opportunity to liberate ourselves from our usual ways of thinking: we lighten up, sing silly songs, wear costumes which may reveal a different facet of who we imagine ourselves to be, and strive to ascend beyond our usual ways of thinking to see the world from a lofty, enlightened God's-eye view. (That's my favorite Hasidic interpretation of the injunction to drink ad d'lo yada, until one can't tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai.)

And one month after that, we'll gather to retell the story which constitutes us as a people: that we were slaves and now we are free. That life was constricted and now it opens up. That more light, and more life, and more responsibilities, and more wonders, are in store.

The new moon of Adar is the first step toward spring, an opportunity to open ourselves to joy and liberation. No wonder our sages say מי שנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה / Mi she-nichnas Adar, marbin b'simcha  / When Adar enters, joy increases. May it be so!


More Adar wisdom:

  • The Months of Spring: Purim through Pesach by Rabbi Marcia Prager. "If we understand the spiritual journey that begins in Nisan, we'll have some of the tools we need to understand Purim and the gifts and challenges this seemingly minor holiday brings."
  • Joy Increases by Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser. "For those who are feeling beaten and battered by the darkness of winter and by the storms of life and sky, this is a time to focus on brightening our souls. Seek, pursue and create excuses for your own happiness. Be outdoors, sing, play, take pleasure, and delight in all growing things."

Dear you, who are feeling sad and afraid --

You know those days when the light seems all wrong, when your skin feels too tight, when anxiety or sorrow clutch at your heels? A sense of heaviness, as though your heart were made of lead. Tears banging at the back of the throat.

Oh, those days are so hard. It's almost funny, how completely your perspective can switch. Suddenly things which seemed manageable, even laughable, when you were feeling okay become more than you can possibly bear.

I could publish this post today, or next week, or a year from now, and someone reading it will be nodding along, thinking: she's talking about me. That's where I am. That's how I am. I don't know whether it will ever get better.

A wise friend told me, earlier this week, that her grandmother used to say that the painful things will always pass. I like that way of seeing the world. Yes: the hurt will pass, and things will get better. Though sometimes it's hard to trust that that's true.

Here's what I want to say, if you're feeling scared, or trapped, or overwhelmed. If, in Mary Oliver's words, "your spirit / carries within it // the thorn / that is heavier than lead -- / if it's all you can do / to keep on trudging --"

I am thinking of you. I'm holding you in my heart and in my prayers. Keep breathing. Be kind to yourself, in whatever ways you can. Indulge your body with a hot bath or a pot of good tea. Indulge your heart; let it feel whatever it needs to feel.

You're going to be okay. You won't always feel this way. We're all adrift on this vast ocean, and when the storms of depression kick up, the waves feel dangerous and endless -- but they will end. The waters will become smooth as glass again.

And when they do, you'll see all the rest of us in our little boats, waving. We'll paddle alongside each other, and lash our crafts together, and share meals and music, and travel together toward our collective destination. You are not alone.


Sestina for a three-year-old

 

You can turn anything into a car.
Drive your bread across the bright
expanse of table, look to see
whether I'm watching, if I'll say no.
Tell me you can do it, you are big
enough, you know you are three.

On tough days I count to three
then lift you bodily into the car.
Cue wailing. "No, mommy, I'm too big,
don't do that to me!" The sun's too bright,
the music's wrong, a world of no.
Two minutes later you're chatting: "see

the fields sleeping, mommy? I see
some horses, one-two-three!"
You emerge from your funk as though no
upset ever happened, pick up a car
and zoom the length of your lap. The bright
side: you never hold a grudge, big

arms outspread, your heart as big
as the moon you greet each time you see
her in the heavens shining bright.
"Hello moon! Look, I see three
stars!" and we pause outside the car
beneath the darkening sky. There's no

rulebook on snow days, no
limits to what we can watch on the big
tv, Pocoyo in his musical red car
trundling across the white expanse to see
what he can see. Now we are three:
new family constellation bright

in the sky's expanse, bright
as your laugh when I tickle you. "No,
do it again, again! Count to three
with your hand up here." The next big
leap just over the horizon, where we can't see.
Long legs kick the passenger seat in my car.

Bright stripes and new songs: you are big
enough to say "no, I can do it, see?"
Utterly three! Come on, get in the car.


I wanted to write a poem for this week's imperfect prose prompt -- "belief" -- but I couldn't get it to work. So I tried a sestina, because sometimes the strictures of the sestina form jar my creativity into working in new ways. That was better, but still not great. I think I chose the wrong end-words; no matter what I tried, the sestina still felt sentimental and trite. So then I tried writing an entirely different sestina, on an entirely different subject, and that one, I liked. So that's the one I'm sharing today, even though it has nothing to do with the prompt that originally got me writing.

(Speaking of writing and prompts: if you're following any literary blogs which offer regular prompts, will you link me to them? I miss Big Tent Poetry and Read Write Poem.) Anyway: hope you enjoyed the poem. All feedback welcome.


Another mother poem in print

I'm delighted to be able to announce that another one of my mother poems, "The Permeable World," has been accepted for publication -- it will appear in The Heart of All That Is: Reflections on Home, which will be published by Holy Cow! Press in October, 2013.

Holy Cow! Press has been around for a while -- they started publishing in 1977, and I respect their work tremendously. This is the press which published Beloved on the Earth (which I reviewed here last year), and I'm delighted that they'll be publishing one of my poems this year too.

Once the anthology is available for pre-order, I'll post here again to let y'all know how you can buy a copy. Thanks, Holy Cow! editors.


February

The skies are grey. The streets are streaked with mud, and so are the sidewalks, and so are the cars. I lean on my car to toss something in the backseat and when I move away, my jeans and boots are smudged white with road salt. The excitement of early winter -- the first snowfalls, the holiday parties, the twinkling Chanukah candles -- are long gone. And we all know that no matter what the groundhog saw, even if the full moon of Shvat is now behind us, winter won't unclench for quite a while.

It's February. And around these parts, our eyes get starved for color. At least mine do. Where I grew up, it's greening already by now. I grow weary of this palette. There's a muted beauty to this season -- the hills all brown and grey and white, bare trees and distant conifers and patches of ice and snow -- but it's pale, and sometimes its subtlety eludes me. Afternoon sunlight, when the clouds part, is thin. And the sun still sets early -- not as early as it did six weeks ago, but early still. Spring feels so far away.

This is the season when I find myself standing idly in the hair products aisle of the drugstore, distracted by the glossy pictures on the covers of the boxes of hair color. I turn the names over on my tongue like butterscotch candies. Light auburn. Reddish blonde. Burgundy plum. Would I wake up feeling more vibrant, would the world be more vivid and bright, if I colored my hair for the season? In the end I purchase a bottle of nail polish instead: a little color, a little sparkle, but when it chips it's easy to remove.

I've lived in New England for twenty years now. I recognize the symptoms of The Februaries when they come on, and I know techniques for combating this particular brand of malaise. I feast my eyes on my red boots and my purple peacoat, treat myself to hot baths and to luxurious fires in the fireplace, purchase potted amaryllis or daffodil bulbs for my home office and my synagogue office so that I can drink in that hint of green, that promise of new life. I seek out strong flavors. I change things around: remove my home office rug and ponder what I might want there in its place.

The people who make catalogues are attuned to these rhythms, too. I glance through one which has come to our mailbox, and marvel at the canniness of showing photos of graduated cooking bowls in shades of lemon and lime, throw pillows in shades of effervescent spring chartreuse and bright summer sun. I come up with a zillion house projects, ideas for organizing and clearing the clutter. If I gardened, I'd be hip-deep in fantasies about seeds; as it is, I make stacks and piles, to-do lists, dreams of how I could brighten and organize.

What is it I'm really thirsty for during this slow short month of deepest midwinter? Color and spice. Experiences to saturate my senses. New growth and new potential. Windows clear and sparkling instead of fogged with condensation or streaked with salt. Some days, when I'm out at mid-day, I drive with my hat and gloves on so I can feel the fresh air on my face. This season requires patience. And the willingness to cobble together a patchwork of cures: dark green kale dressed with bright tangy lemon, the last of the sweet clementines, the fuzz of my son's red moose blanket sleeper as we cuddle before sleep.


After the week of shiva, what then?

This is something I've been working on in my capacity as a congregational rabbi. I'll be sharing it with my synagogue community. But I wanted to share it here too. This blog is part of my rabbinate, and I'm blessed to be in relationship with "internet congregants" who are spread pretty far and wide.

If you've just found this blog through searching for resources for the end of shiva, I welcome you to Velveteen Rabbi, and I hope that what follows is helpful to you.


So you're approaching the end of shiva. That first week of mourning after the funeral, after the first mourner's kaddish, after the unthinkable act of shoveling a spade-ful of earth and hearing it thud on unvarnished wood. Shiva means seven, the number of days of this first stage of grieving. One week: the most basic unit of Jewish time. After those seven days, a mourner enters the stage called shloshim, "thirty," which lasts through the first month after burial. But what does entering into shloshim mean? How does it, might it, have an impact on your life?

In the tangible world, the move from shiva to shloshim can have palpable implications. Traditional Jewish practice places a variety of restrictions on mourners during shiva -- for instance: not wearing leather shoes, sitting on the ground or on a low stool (closeness to the earth is a sign of humility and mourning), not going to work, not engaging in physical intimacy. All of these restrictions are lifted during shloshim.

For contemporary liberal Jews who do not consider themselves bound by traditional halakhot (laws / ways-of-walking), the restrictions and their abeyance may or may not have meaning. You may not have given up leather or sex or anointing yourself with perfume or listening to music this week. But the psycho-spiritual shift of moving from shiva to shloshim is still significant. The shift from shiva to shloshim is all about expansion.

During the first week of mourning one's life may contract to a very small space. Perhaps you haven't left the shiva house at all. Or even if you've gone in and out of your home, you may have felt constricted, your life seemingly shrunken. Once shiva has ended, it is time to start expanding again. Open yourself to seeing more people. Allow yourself to immerse in your work life again. Expand your self-perception: you are not only a mourner, not only someone who grieves, but also someone who lives, works, struggles, and loves.

This may feel impossible. If it does, that's okay. Just know that our tradition believes that it is good for a mourner to try to open themselves to life again after that first most-intense week of grief. Your sorrow may ebb and flow. You may experience times when you think you're close to okay again, and times when the floodwaters of emotion threaten to swamp you. Keep breathing. The emotional rollercoaster is normal. You won't always feel this way, but -- as the saying goes -- the only way out is through.

If you've been burning a shiva candle all week, your candle will naturally flicker and gutter and run out of fuel as the week of shiva ends. (The candle is designed to last for seven days; that's what makes it a shiva candle.) When the candle extinguishes itself, that may feel like another blow, another loss. Remember that the candle is only a candle: a symbol of your mourning, but not a barometer of your spiritual state or of your loved one's presence.

You can still talk to your loved one, if there is meaning for you in that practice. You can talk to God. You can pray or meditate or sit in your silent car and wail -- however you can best express whatever you're feeling. You might try writing a letter to your loved one at the end of shiva, telling them where you are and how you are as the first week of active mourning comes to its end. (What you do with the letter is up to you: save it? burn it? shred it and use the paper to mulch a new tree?)

Above all, be kind to yourself. Pay attention to what your heart needs.

This second stage of mourning lasts for one month, the time it takes for the moon to wax and become full and then wane again. This is an organic cycle, a mode of measuring time through observing the ebb and flow of the natural world. Just as the moon grows and shrinks, so our spirits and our hearts experience times of fullness and times of contraction. The end of shloshim is a time to begin looking toward fullness again. We trust that after the moon has disappeared, she will return; we trust that after our lives have been diminished by loss, light and meaning will flow into them again.

If you are moving from shiva into shloshim: I bless you that the transition should be what you need it to be. May this ancient way of thinking about mourning and the passage of time be meaningful for you; may time soothe your grief. One traditional practice is to mark the end of shiva by going for a walk around the block -- a symbolic step out of the closeness of your home, into the wide world around you. (See Ending Shiva by Rabbi Peretz Rodman.)

If you are moving out of shloshim, I offer you the same blessing: may this transition be what you most need. For those who feel the need for a ritual to mark that shift, I recommend this Leaving Shloshim Ritual by Rabbi Janet Madden. (Ritualwell has a wide variety of materials relating to mourning and bereavement, so if that ritual isn't what you need, feel free to browse.)

May the Source of Mercy bring you comfort along with all who mourn.


Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.


This week's portion: A Special Transmission at Sinai

Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Imagine the scene: Mount Sinai is wreathed in smoke, the mountain trembles, and God's voice rings out like thunder. The whole people is standing together at the bottom of the mountain, and everyone hears God's voice directly.

It's an amazing moment. But it's not "The Ten Commandments," Charleton Heston-style. Ten Commandments is a bit of a misnomer. That name comes from the translators who created the King James Bible in 1611 C.E. In Jewish tradition we call these the Aseret ha-Dibrot -- the ten statements, utterances, sayings.

When the Second Temple stood, these statements were read as part of daily prayer. In Talmudic times, the rabbis consciously made a decision to stop that recitation. They worried that too much emphasis on these statements might lead people to mistakenly believe that these were the only mitzvot, and neglect the full 613.

These aren't our only mitzvot. But they are powerful, and the teaching that they came directly from God to us -- instead of through Moshe as an intermediary -- highlights the fact that these statements are special in some way. What's so special about this transmission?

Continue reading "This week's portion: A Special Transmission at Sinai" »


Best-laid plans

Friday begins with a hitch in our plans: my car won't start. So Drew and I won't be going in to town for school or work. We're staying home and waiting for the tow truck instead.

Midmorning it occurs to me that we have flour and yeast and water. Instead of going to the A-Frame as we usually do, we can bake our own challah!

Drew's willing to be lured away from the cartoons and the marble run game for a while. He pulls his footstool into the kitchen. He stirs the bowl a bit, announcing excitedly that he is helping.

A few hours later, when the dough has risen, I invite Drew back in. He seems to like patting the flour (which he calls, adorably enough, "flowers") and trying to roll snakes of dough beneath his hands.

Braiding seems like too much of a challenge for him, so I braid one big challah and one tiny one, and with the other pieces we make a twist and a spiral roll, which we set to rise.

 

While the smaller challot are baking, we read It's Challah Time! -- a longtime favorite -- and he takes obvious pleasure in being able to say, "I did that!" every time we come to a step in which he participated.

Once the first batch is out of the oven, I say hamotzi and we share a little challah roll. It's delicious: light and fluffy, tearing apart like the dinner rolls they used to serve at the Barn Door when I was a kid.

But as yummy as the bread is, Drew's obvious delight is even more so. (To be fair, he's equally delighted by the appearance of the mechanic and his big tow truck later in the day. Large vehicles are super-exciting to this three-year-old boy.)

As sundown approaches, I put one of our small braided challot beneath a napkin and tuck candles into our candlesticks, extra-excited about making the blessings with Drew over Shabbat challah we made with our own hands.

 

 

Of course, because nothing ever goes as one anticipates, it turns out at dinnertime that he doesn't like our challah. It seems to have become denser, now that it's cooled; it's not as soft and airy as the one the baker makes. He refuses to eat it. And then, for good measure, refuses to eat anything else, and blithely tells me he's done with dinner.

Oh, well. I'm still happy we made challah together. Even if he didn't eat a single Shabbat bite.


The Kallah brochure is on its way!

The brochure for this summer's ALEPH Kallah -- the Jewish Renewal biennial -- is at the printers'. And it's also available for download as a pdf if you don't want to wait!

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Find it at the Kallah website. Join us in New Hampshire for an amazing week of learning, playing, praying, singing, connecting, and having your heart opened to the divine within and around us.

(And if you're interested in writing psalms, I hope you'll consider signing up for the class I'm teaching, "Writing the Psalms of Our Hearts" -- read more about it in this post from last month.)


5 ways to celebrate Purim

Now that Tu BiShvat is behind us, the next festival on our radar is Purim. In preparation for our coming holiday of masks, costumes, food, and merriment, I've shared a post at my congregational blog about five things you can do to celebrate Purim wholly this year. It's here: How to Celebrate Purim in 5 Easy Steps.

A few of the items on that list are geared toward my local community. For instance: the first one is "listen to the megillah," and if you're local to me, you are welcome to do that at my synagogue on Saturday night February 23! And the second one is "give to the needy," and it happens that Purim afternoon coincides with the one Sunday a month when my community cooks meals for 100+ homebound senior citizens in North Adams, so if you're local to me, you are welcome to come and help out with that. But these five ways of celebrating Purim are possible no matter where you live.

Anyway, if you're looking for tips on how to make Purim fun and meaningful, check out the post over there. Shabbat shalom, y'all.


Imperfect poetry on the theme of light

RADIANT


like a newly-minted rabbi
dazzled from the transmission

as dawn, her fingers smeared
with palest raspberry

like heat in a tile floor
warming me to my bones

as the sun, so bright
I blink away tears

like a lightbulb
electrified by current

as a crescent moon peeking
slyly around night's doorframe

like snow, sparkling mica-bright
in an unexpected wind

as a three-year-old, bounding
to knock me down with a hug


This week's imperfect prose prompt from Emily Wierenga is "light." The idea of light led me to radiance, and radiance made me think of our son. It's a cliché to compare a child's radiance to any other source of radiance I can think of -- so I figured instead of trying to avoid the predictability, I'd play with it a little. The resulting poem was fun to write. I hope it's fun to read, too.

You can check out other people's offerings on the theme of light in the comments on this post: imperfect prose on thursdays: light.


One of my mother poems in the Jewish Journal

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My thanks are due to the editors at The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles for publishing my poem Mother Psalm 6 in their 22-28 Tevet / January 4-10 print edition. (I can't link to it online because they don't archive their previous print editions -- just "this week" and "last week," and January 4-10 is now longer ago than that.)

That poem previously appeared in Calyx, Vol. 27 no. 2, Summer 2012. And it will be part of my forthcoming collection of mother poems, Waiting to Unfold, due from Phoenicia later this year.

This is one of my favorite poems in the collection, and I'm gratified that multiple editors have chosen it for publication, too. (It's the one that begins "Don't chew on your mama's tefillin," and it appeared on this blog in its earliest form when it was first written: it was then called Mother Psalm 7.)

Thanks, Jewish Journal poetry editors!


Eulogy for a child with Canavan's

I don't usually share eulogies here. They are personal, and this blog is public. But this is an unusual situation, and I think the eulogy might be helpful to others, so I've removed identifying material in order to share the essence of what I offered at a funeral a few days ago. If these words are useful to you, you are welcome to adapt them.

If you got here by googling Canavan's Disease, please know that there are informational links at the bottom of this post.


When a child is born, we rejoice. We imagine possibilities. Our minds run away with us, providing us with dreams and imaginings of wonders we hope the child's life will hold.

When this child was born, no one imagined that his life, and his parents' lives, would be circumscribed by a neurodegenerative disorder... nor that he would come to be such a ineffable presence in the lives of those who knew him, cared for him, and loved him.

Because of the dangers of Canavan's, this boy was never alone. His parents, and later his nurses, took constant shifts in caring for him. He communicated with his eyes and, for a time, with sounds. When he was in his parents' arms or enjoying therapy his smiles and laughter brightened the room.

His was not the life his parents might have dreamed before he was born, but it was his own, and he lived it wholly. He experienced love in the touch of caring hands and the attention diligently paid to the apparatus of his care.

His parents, and his caregivers, experienced a deep connection with him. And they knew that connection was reciprocated, and they knew that connection was real. Every time he fought his way back from another illness, another hospitalization, they knew that -- in his mother's words -- "he still wanted to be here."

His parents knew him without words. They teach us that we can know each other beyond words, and listen deeply past the words we do hear, to something deeper, more ineffable and more lasting.

The same was true of his nurses, his caregivers, physical therapists, music therapists, those who lovingly massaged his body to help preserve his muscle tone, the teachers who came to offer him a window into the wider world. When he lay on his bed in the sun, his parents called it "his beach." Once his health became too poor for him to risk the trip to these hills, his parents preserved his room here intact, a place for their son in this town they called "the home of their hearts."

I was blessed to spend an afternoon with this young man and his family last month. I sang him the lullabies I sing to my own son, and his eyes stayed on mine. I experienced his quiet presence in the room, and the sweetness of his neshama -- his soul -- was clear without any words at all.

I am humbled by this child's life, and by the boundless well of love and compassion which his parents and his caregivers expressed every day through a million acts of caring and nurturing.

He  lived, and struggled, and was loved. He experienced the world from his own unique vantage. In the wake of his death, there is grief. Nothing we can offer will soothe the empty place where he used to be.

May his soul soar free, no longer fettered by limitations or by suffering. And may those who loved him find comfort in the knowledge that his suffering has ended, and that in caring for him so lovingly, they epitomized some of the best of what humanity can be.

 


For more information:

About Canavan Disease

National Tay-Sachs and Allied Diseases

Center for Jewish Genetics: Canavan's Disease

Jewish Genetic Disorders

Support for Families With Canavan's


Tu BiShvat bounty


 Fruits representing all four worlds:

  • assiyah (action / physicality) represented by fruits with shells or rinds: bananas and oranges and almonds.
  • yetzirah (emotions) represented by fruits with hard pits: dates, cherries, olives.
  • briyah (thought) represented by fruits which are soft all the way through: apples (and grapes, even though they're vine fruit.)
  • atzilut (essence) represented by etrogcello / strong etrog-infused spirits.
I didn't expect a big crowd for Tu BiShvat. I set up two tables and assumed that would do. Instead we had four tables' worth of people! We had to keep pulling tables out of the storage room and hastily adding them to the line. Some folks probably came because this is the first Shabbat potluck we've had in 2013. Others probably came because they were interested in Tu BiShvat. There's no telling what made each person or family decide to show up on this very cold Berkshire night, but I'm glad they did.

I abbreviated our adult haggadah a little bit -- some of the little kids (including mine) were running gleefully around the building, others were sitting at the table but not necessarily paying much attention, and I could tell we didn't have the focus for everything in there! Still, it was lovely. One of my congregants read the Marge Piercy poem about Tu BiShvat which I love so much. Others took turns reading little explanations of the four worlds. We blessed and drank, blessed and ate.

And then there was a potluck feast. (All Drew ate was a few bites of challah, a couple of grapes, and a handful of Thin Mint cookies. Well, he's hardly the first little guy to have so much fun running around the synagogue he couldn't manage to sit still to eat anything.) And when we were done eating, as the kids ran and yelled and played, I handed out copies of "Brich Rachamana" (the "Sanctuary" melody) and we sang that as our abbreviated birkat ha-mazon.

And after that I brought Drew home and bundled both of us into PJs. I'm looking forward to sleeping, just like the trees, in tonight's long winter dark. Happy Tu BiShvat to all!


The sap begins to rise

506969604_c6b985e591_mThe holiday cycle is a circle; every year it repeats. There are exceptions -- marvels like birkat ha-chamah, which happens only every 28 years -- but on the whole, we celebrate the same holidays year in and year out. Tonight at sundown we'll enter not only into Shabbat but also into Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees. One month later, the next full moon will coincide with Purim. One month later, the next full moon will bring us Pesach. Seven weeks and one day after that, Shavuot.

There's meaning in the way one holiday leads to the next. Just as Shabbat is more special when seen against the backdrop of the weekdays which surround it, each festival is subtly shaped by its place in the wheel of the year. Tu BiShvat, which begins tonight, is the first step on a journey which will lead us to the revelation of Torah and the flowering of glories we can only now imagine. For those of us in the Northern hemisphere, it's our first step toward the abundance of summer.

1694396916_dc49c4f9c4_mRashi teaches that Tu BiShvat is when the sap begins to rise to feed the leaves and fruit of trees for the year to come.  Where I live, we're experiencing the bitter cold of deep winter. At sunrise a few days ago the thermometer registered one solitary degree above zero (Fahrenheit.) We bundle up, we hunker down, we go inward. The freedom of spring feels far away. It's hard to imagine the air becoming soft, forgiving, fragrant with new life instead of with woodsmoke and snow. TuBiShvat invites us to recognize that the sap begins to rise precisely at the moment when winter feels most entrenched.

And the sap is rising not only on a literal level (though I expect to see maple trees tapped for syrup in a few weeks, when we have above-freezing days and below-freezing nights) but also on a spiritual level. This is the season when we open ourselves to trusting that new ideas, prayers, insights, spiritual "juices" will rise in us. Even if spiritual growth is invisible, we trust that it's taking place.

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