The Rabbi And

Ready for a Shabbat picnic.

Sometimes it's a little bit challenging to be the rabbi and. The rabbi and mommy. The rabbi and sometimes solo-parent. The rabbi and hostess. And and and.

I'm hosting two of my dear ALEPH friends here as houseguests this weekend. They'll be co-leading services with me tomorrow morning. Leading davenen with friends is truly a joy. Our ruach (spirit) is reflected and refracted and magnified somehow between us; it becomes more than the sum of its parts. And there's something about hearing these longtime friends' voices in my ears as I pray which always lifts me up.

Ethan's out of town, on a truly nutty whirlwind of a trip from here to New York to Boston to Toronto to Texas to Virginia to here again. (At least I think that's how the itinerary goes. It's easy to get confused.) And -- unrelated, but also relevant to my weekend -- we have plasterers in our house right now, on their second week of repairing extensive water damage from a formerly-leaking roof.

We're blessed to have guys who can make our ceilings whole again. And Ethan is blessed to have interesting work which takes him to interesting places! But I'm realizing, in retrospect, that this is why I've been running around like the proverbial headless chicken these last few days: because I'm trying to be the rabbi and.

Yesterday I stocked up on diapers and Drew-compliant foods for the weekend. (Mommy task.) This morning I led meditation, set the Torah scroll for tomorrow, spent a few hours working toward weekend's Shavuot and bar mitzvah plans (rabbi tasks) -- and then dashed to the store, bought groceries for houseguests, came home and popped a chicken in the oven to roast, made up the guest beds. (Hostess tasks.) Meanwhile checking synagogue email. (Rabbi task.) And making sure I had a check for our daycare provider and for the plasterers. (Household task.) And tidying Drew's toys. (Mommy task.) And putting up the umbrella on our deck table so that we can eat a quick and early Shabbat dinner outside (hostess task), since our kitchen and dining room tables are piled with drygoods and home-canned pickles thanks to the plasterers moving things around. Now I'm preparing for tonight's speaker at shul (rabbi task) and periodically checking the roasting potatoes (hostess task.)

It reminds me a little bit of the way we used to have to scurry in Jerusalem to complete our Shabbat preparations before everybody closed for Shabbat. Most stores and restaurants in West Jerusalem aren't open on Shabbat, so Friday morning and early afternoon is a flurry of crazed shopping and cooking and dashing about. But then the evening light on the Jerusalem stone turns pink and gold, and you light the candles and bless the bread and wine, and peace settles in.

I'm looking forward to peace settling in tonight...even though the "peace" of a working Shabbat isn't exactly the peace of total relaxation. I'll be back at shul tonight (babysitter for Drew), and back at shul tomorrow morning (dropping him off at a friend's house for a few hours.) In some ways, the real Shabbat menucha (rest) comes tomorrow afternoon when my work obligations are over and my houseguests and I can relax into chasing an active toddler around the backyard. Okay, "relax" might not be the right word even then, but I know it will be sweet.

Wishing a sweet and joyful Shabbat to all who celebrate.

This week's portion: a Shabbat for the earth

Here's the d'var Torah I'll offer tomorrow morning at my shul; if you're joining us for Shabbat morning services (which I'll be co-leading with two dear rabbinic school friends, Rhonda Shapiro-Rieser and David Curiel) you might want to skip this post so you can hear the d'var fresh!

When I teach this Torah portion, the exhortation to let the land lie fallow every seventh year (the shmittah year) and then to let it lie fallow again in the 50th year, the yovel (usually translated as Jubilee), someone always asks: was this ever really done?

Short answer: I don't know. Some say yes. Some say no. Some point to the rabbinic argument that these laws are meant to be followed only under very specific circumstances, e.g. when the majority of the world's Jews once again live in the land of Israel.

But I think the question misses the point. When it comes to Torah, I'm just not that interested in whether or not these stories "ever happened." Instead, I want to ask: what can this text teach us about our people's core values, about our ongoing struggle to lead righteous and meaningful lives?

The Torah tells us, quite clearly, that the earth deserves a Shabbat just as we do. Just as we do all our work for six days, and take the seventh day as a Shabbat to Adonai, a "sanctuary in time," a space of holiness in which we assert that there is something more meaningful than the bottom line -- the earth, too, lives by these same cycles.

Continue reading "This week's portion: a Shabbat for the earth" »

Dear me

If you could talk to your 16-year-old self, what would you say? What advice, warnings, or encouragement would you give your younger self?

Dear me.

3857605736_a04d7f0406_mLet's see, you're sixteen. Still grateful to have escaped the dire fate of "sweet sixteen and never been kissed," though it's hard for you to shake the sense that something must be wrong with you because the ones you have a crush on never want to date you. Oh, honey, that's going to get so much better -- take it from someone who knows.

You're -- what, taking AP bio, right? Thrilling at the strangely grown-up feeling of drinking hot tea made over a bunsen burner in the bio lab with Mr. Kaestner at 7:30 in the morning, before any of the other classes have begun. Taking Latin, too, if memory serves -- translating the Aeneid with Lindsay, line by gloriously ancient line. Many of the memories you're making now will last.

People talk about how these are the best years of your life. And yes: there's a lot that's wonderful about where you are now. But there's a lot that's awkward about this moment, too -- I get that. You're not sure who you want to be. You don't always feel at-home in your own skin. You're desperate to be loved and wanted, and secretly afraid that you're too weird to find the kind of connection you yearn for. (You're not. I promise.)

College is going to be so good for you. You're going to meet some extraordinary people, many of whom will still be among your nearest and dearest in twenty years. You're going to find your tribe. Indeed: you're going to find several, in college and beyond, and they will be among your chosen-family for the rest of your life.

There are so many books and ideas and discoveries ahead of you, and they are going to make your universe impossibly vast and your heart impossibly full. Oh, there's so much good stuff coming! Thandeka, The Jew in the Lotus, Jane Kenyon, Reb Zalman...

3856806219_7d9701c9fb_mKeep writing poetry. There's a reason it feels so central to who you are: it is. Writing will always be one of your best ways to explore your own inner landscape and to find kindred spirits.

Enjoy everything there is to love about where you live now. Walk on the Riverwalk, eat Tex-Mex as often as you can possibly stand it, notice the birdsong and the scent of giant magnolia blossoms, swim in the Guadalupe.  I don't think you're ever going to live in Texas again, but you will always love the big sky.

Tell Lali and Eppie you love them, just because you can.

I know that you often feel like a square peg in a round pegboard. You're offbeat and intellectual and geeky, and that's not always comfortable.  You're not sure yet whether you want to be the girl in Birkenstocks and flowy skirts or the girl in bluejeans and a preppy buttondown. Guess what: you can be both. You can be other things you haven't even imagined yet. And you will.

I could tell you all about the quirky, beautiful, steady life you're going to build for yourself: the marriage, the vocation, the son. But you'll have more fun discovering them for yourself.

Really I just want to say: be kind to yourself. You are loveable. (You are loved.)


I'm not sure where this meme originates, but it might be Maps by special guest Elizabeth Eslami; I first saw it at Dale's post Glimmer. Both are beautiful and worth reading.

Morning prayers in the car

"How about a cd, mommy?" says Drew in the car. "How about the orange one! How about Shawn!"

"The orange one" and "Shawn" mean the same thing: Morning I Will Seek You, by my friend and teacher Shawn Zevit. I like to listen to it in the mornings on the way to daycare and then to work, and apparently so does Drew. (The physical cd itself has an orange face, if that weren't clear.)

I like beginning my day with prayer. Modah ani l'fanecha -- I am grateful before You, living and enduring God; You have restored my soul to me, great is Your faithfulness. (I've written about that prayer before.) Halleli nafshi et Adonai -- my soul sings out to God, I will sing to God with my very life... (That's the first two verses of psalm 146.)

That verse from psalms came up in spiritual direction recently. I was bemoaning the reality that I still don't manage daily liturgical prayer as reliably or wholly as I wish I did, as I feel I ought to. My mashpi'ah gently reminded me of this verse, and it was a revelation. Of course! I will sing to God b'chayyai, with my life. My life is the song I sing to God; that's what I should be aspiring to. It's okay if that song doesn't always take the classical full-text liturgical forms.

Drew is at a moment in his life where he doesn't often want me to sing to him, unless I'm singing the alphabet song or "twinkle twinkle little star" or "Old McDonald had a farm." The one exception is at bedtime; he lets me sing our bedtime songs every night, curled for one delicious moment into my arms. But otherwise, when I sing -- whether it's the morning prayer for gratitude, or the Shabbat blessings -- he shushes me and tells me firmly to stop.

But apparently he doesn't mind listening to Shawn sing. I'm grateful for that! And I trust that in time, I'll be able to teach Drew some of the melodies I love best for the prayers I try to weave into my every day.

"Complicating Israel" reading list

If I were to assemble a reading list, or book discussion group curriculum, on the Middle East, what would I choose? That's the question which prompted this post. This is a list of 20 nonfiction titles: some by Israelis, some by Palestinians, some by outsiders; some more historical, some more personal. I think it's valuable (both spiritually and intellectually) to juxtapose disparate voices and to open ourselves to stories we might not otherwise hear.

I welcome thoughts / responses/ suggestions. I've pondered using this as the curriculum for an in-person discussion group at my shul -- or for an online discussion group (different bloggers claiming different titles and hosting conversations about them?) -- but for now, it's just a curated reading list.

City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa, by Adam LeBor

I read this book while living in Jerusalem; my review is here at Velveteen Rabbi. Here's an excerpt from my review:

The book tells the history of Jaffa (and to some extent also Tel Aviv, its neighbor) through the histories of six families: three Arab (Christian and Muslim), and three Jewish. Through letters and diaries and interviews with the current generation of these families, LeBor paints a picture of what life was like in Jaffa ninety years ago...and how it has changed, repeatedly, between then and now.

LeBor has chosen a fabulous way to make history clear. It's one thing to say "Muslims and Jews and Christians used to interact in a mode of genuine respect and friendship," but it's another thing entirely to tell the story of an Arab family attending a Jewish wedding, or how Jews and Arabs both used to gather at a Jewish-owned spice shop or an Arab-owned bakery. The stories of real families make the history engaging and meaningful...

LeBor doesn't take sides, and he doesn't editorialize -- though I come away with the sense that he loves Jaffa a great deal, and that he respects and admires all of the families he interviewed over the course of writing the book. In the end, it seems to me that Jaffa serves as a microcosm... The narratives of these interwoven families stand in for all of the narratives of every family who's inhabited this land in reality or in memory, through arrival and departure and return.

The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian's Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker by Sami al Jundi and Jen Marlowe

I reviewed this recently; I think it's excellent. Here's a taste of my review:

This book wasn't always easy for me to read, but it is powerful and it is worth reading, especially for anyone who (like me) may have more access to Israeli narratives about the Middle East than to Palestinian ones... Ultimately he joins two of his teenaged friends in making a pipe bomb which they intend to plant at a fruit and vegetable market -- a story which is not easy for me to face by any stretch of the imagination. But even as he's treading this ground, he's also working at an Israeli sandwich shop and developing a crush on a young Argentine Jewish woman who's in the process of making aliyah. His relationship with Israel and Israelis is always already complicated.

Once he enters Israeli prison -- colloquially known as "university," because of the system of self-improvement and education developed there by Palestinians -- the book becomes doubly fascinating to me... Probably the most moving part of the book, for me, begins once Sami is out of prison and slowly beginning to form relationships with Israelis despite the tremendous difficulty involved in finding common ground. ami becomes involved with the Seeds of Peace Center for Coexistence, where he meets co-author Jen Marlowe. They write beautifully about that journey. That part of the book brings me both joy (watching Sami's trust and hope grow) and also inevitably sorrow (because I know, reading this now, that the changes for which he hopes have not yet come to pass.)

There's a brief excerpt from the book at Spirituality & Practice, and the co-authors are interviewed on GRITtv.

A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz

Amazon says: "Tragic, comic, and utterly honest, this extraordinary memoir is at once a great family saga and a magical self-portrait of a writer who witnessed the birth of a nation and lived through its turbulent history.

It is the story of a boy growing up in the war-torn Jerusalem of the forties and fifties, in a small apartment crowded with books in twelve languages and relatives speaking nearly as many. His mother and father, both wonderful people, were ill-suited to each other. When Oz was twelve and a half years old, his mother committed suicide, a tragedy that was to change his life. He leaves the constraints of the family and the community of dreamers, scholars, and failed businessmen and joins a kibbutz, changes his name, marries, has children, and finally becomes a writer as well as an active participant in the political life of Israel.

A story of clashing cultures and lives, of suffering and perseverance, of love and darkness."

You can read an excerpt at the NPR website.

Continue reading ""Complicating Israel" reading list" »

A mother poem for Mother's Day

To all who celebrate, I wish a happy Mother's Day! Here's to mothers of all kinds: our mothers and grandmothers, the "other mothers" (caregivers and teachers and nannies) in our lives, to we ourselves who are mothers -- may we all feel rightly celebrated today. And to all who struggle with infertility and miscarriage, for whom today may bring more sorrow than celebration, may that sadness be soothed and healed.

As mother's day has approached, I've been thinking again about how best to get Waiting to Unfold, my collection of mother poems, out there into the world. I remain hopeful that someday it will see print! Meanwhile, in honor of the day, I'll reprint the final poem from that manuscript here. Enjoy!



A psalm of ascent


When the doctor brought you
through my narrow places
I was as in a dream: tucked behind
my closed eyes, chanting silently
we are opening up in sweet surrender.
The night before we left the hospital
I wept: didn’t they know
I had no idea what to do with you?
Even newborn-sized clothes
loomed around you, vast and ill-fitting.
I couldn’t convince you to latch
without a nurse there to reposition.
But we got into the car, the old world
made terrifying and new, and
in time I learned your language.
I had my own narrow places ahead,
the valley of the postpartum shadow.
Nights when I would hand you over,
mutely grateful to anyone willing
to rock you down, to suffer your cries...
But those who sow in tears
will reap in joy, and you
are the joy I never knew I didn’t have.
I have paced these long hours
bearing a baby on my shoulder
and now I am home in rejoicing,
bearing you, my own harvest.


(If you're so inclined, you can read the commentary I offered when I first posted the poem back in November of 2010.)

Awesome community media piece: Mind the Gap in Crown Heights

Via this post at Jewschool I found a pretty wonderful piece of community media called Mind the Gap in Crown Heights:

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


This is a radio and film piece made as part of Radio Rookies, "a New York Public Radio initiative that provides teenagers with the tools and training to create radio stories about themselves, their communities and their world." Here's how the video is described on YouTube:

Four teenage girls, all new immigrants from the Caribbean, arrive at a high school in the heart of what was the epicenter of the Crown Heights riots 20 years ago. As newcomers they know nothing of the long history of tension between the Black and Lubavitch Jewish communities in the neighborhood. They set out to try to educate themselves about a culture so different from their own, in the midst of stereotypes and misinformation about Jewish people.

Editor's Note on video: The Crown Heights Community Mediation Center works to improve inter-group relations in Crown Heights by creating a safe space where people of different backgrounds are encouraged to discuss hard conversations, through activities and workshops. For example, the scene in the video where Amy Ellenbogen, the Center's Director, poses a statement about co-existence in the neighborhood is a part of a game, "The Human Barometer", where participants move to different parts of the room to show if they agree, disagree or feel neutral about the issue.

It's wonderful to be able to watch and listen as these four girls from the Caribbean begin to learn about their Chabad Lubavitch neighbors -- and vice versa. Of course, the encounter isn't always comfortable or easy; but I give these kids props for their curiosity and their genuine desire for encounter.

As I think on it, there are a lot of stereotypes which could stand to be shattered not just in the Jewish communities' relationships with the broader world, but within our own communities, too. For instance, the liberal Jewish kids I teach and the young people who attend yeshiva in a Chabad setting -- those are groups of youngsters who never have a chance to connect and who almost certainly have all kinds of unconscious prejudices and misconceptions about one another. I guess that's always true.

I wish it were more possible to create more of these kinds of encounters, both within the Jewish communities and between our communities and others! But meanwhile, kol hakavod -- mad props -- to Selena Brown, Chantell Clarke, Sabrina Smith, and Tangeneka Taylor for going outside their comfort zome and making something really wonderful.

For more on this:

In Crown Heights, Getting Past Stereotypes Through Learning, in the New York Times



A poem about Orpah



Maybe you envisioned
your husband's grave
choked with weeds

maybe you knew
the Israelites would scorn
your foreign features

the sages say
God gave you four sons
because you wept as you left her

the pundits whisper
once Naomi was gone
you spread your legs for anyone

did the men of Moab
grind your body
like bruised corn

did you birth Goliath
and rend your garments
when you lost him too

did you live for centuries
destined for the sword
of one of David's men --

or did you bathe
your aging parents
and die a quiet spinster

comforted by the scent
of the wild rosemary
outside your childhood home?

In preparation for the lesson I'm going to teach at my shul's Tikkun Leil Shavuot (late-night Torah study gathering -- beginning 9pm, Saturday May 26; let me know if you want to join us!), I've been collecting poems arising out of the Book of Ruth. (Including my own The Handmaid's Tale (Ruth), which I posted here last year.)

To my surprise, no one seems to have written any poetry (contemporary or otherwise) about Ruth's fellow sister-in-law Orpah. So I settled in to see what I could write.

Most of the details in this poem come from classical midrash about Orpah -- there's a good online compilation in English at the Jewish Women's Archive called Orpah: midrash and aggadah. The final two stanzas have no basis in classical tradition, and come purely out of my own imaginings.

I welcome whatever response(s) this poem evokes in you.

Celebrating marriage

538802-silver-wedding-ringsSometimes I think about what might surprise Drew, later in his life, when we tell him stories about before he was born or about his early years. The first time we ever did a video-skype call with my mother in Texas, she told him a story about being a little girl on a party line, and I thought: wow, we have come an incredibly long way, technologically speaking, since his grandma was a girl. To Drew, the fact that we sometimes "have dinner with" his Texas grandparents via Skype is entirely ordinary. He's never lived in a world where that wasn't possible.

Drew isn't old enough to know what a President is, but someday he'll learn that his parents voted in the historic election in which we elected our first African-American president. (I even wrote a Torah poem about it.) Drew has a deck of Presidential cards (like baseball cards, but featuring Presidents; picked up in the dollar bin at Target, I think) and when he scatters them on the floor, they are a sea of white faces -- all except for one. But maybe by the time my grandchildren are ready to vote, it won't be so remarkable anymore to think that this nation could (begin to) overcome its legacy of racism in this way.

Drew also isn't old enough to know what marriage is, though I'm grateful that he's growing up in a state in which gays and lesbians have the same right to marry as male-female couples do. His lesbian aunties on his dad's side were married here some years ago. His mama the rabbi officiates at gay weddings with great delight. And now we have a President who has openly affirmed his support for gay marriage, too.

I hope that by the time Drew is old enough to understand, the notion of a state passing a law against gay marriage will seem as misguided, plainly hurtful, and outdated as the notion of a state passing a law against someone of one race marrying someone of another. (I'm far from the first to note the painful similarities there.) I don't know who Drew will love; right now I'm pretty sure he loves his family and his friends and Thomas the Tank Engine, and that's as it should be. But I hope and pray that by the time he's ready to marry, if and when that day comes, he (and his generation) will have the right to marry, period. And not just in a handful of states, but anywhere in this country.

Because marriage is awesome. Getting married means standing up beside someone you love and speaking words which change your relationship to one another in a magical, powerful, and honest-to-God holy way. And after you get married, you get to be married, which is even better. Being married means loving someone, growing and changing along with someone, meeting the highs and the lows of a lifetime along with someone, navigating the bills and the laundry and the household chores with someone, discovering how lovemaking changes after ten and fifteen and fifty years with someone, learning from someone, giving to someone, for as much of a lifetime as you can manage.

Of course people can do those things without being married. But being married is is one of humanity's most time-honored ways to do them. And I'm grateful to have a President who supports the ability of my queer friends and loved ones to enjoy the same rights and privileges that my husband and I are blessed to receive. Shehecheyanu, v'kiyimanu, v'higianu lazman hazeh!

Dick Jones' "Ancient Lights"

7862238I've been dipping into Ancient Lights: Selected Poems by Dick Jones, newly-released by Phoenicia Publishing (the press which published my 70 faces last year.) Dick blogs at The Patteran Pages, and I have long enjoyed his work, so I'd been eagerly anticipating the release of his collected poems. The collection was well worth the wait!

I find that Jones' poems are so evocative that I don't want to drink the whole book all at once. I pick it up, read a poem or two, stop and let the images settle and percolate. Then I pick it up again.

How could I not love a poem which begins "This hole is a clean wound / in the hill's skull. Turf / whiskers the rim, bedding // stitchwort and herb robert..." ("Lead Mine, Swaledale") Or how about: "Post-coitum, he relaxes back / into rumpled sheets, cat-happy." ("Certainty") Or the entirety of Sea of Stars, which I first read in the pages of Qarrtsiluni and which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2010?

Some of these poems are heart-wrenching in their intimacy. Like "Maisie Sleeping," which begins:

     Your soft clock
      scatters seconds like
      peas on a drum.

      A feather pulse
      stutters in your

Anyone who has watched a child sleep will resonate to Jones' words here.

Others sketch their unfolding on a broader canvas:

That was about as close as the war
had come -- censored letters, rumours,
like an invisible tide you can hear at the edge
of the world. Little to see beyond uniforms,

gas masks in boxes, gummed paper stretched
over windows...

("Flightpaths" part 2: "1940: A Dream of Aeroplanes.") What I love in these poems, I think, is some combination of their breadth and their restraint. Although the poems are drawn in fairly spare brushstrokes, their images expand to fill my reader's mind and heart.

I'll close this review by sharing in toto one of my favorite poems in the collection -- perhaps the most natural fit for Velveteen Rabbi readers, since it's a poem about faith. I could mention some of the techniques and turns I love in this poem, the plosives of "mortality / the cricket ticking," the string of ings in "touching, finger to finger / and breath quickening / to mingle"... but ultimately what makes Jones' poems work is his technique's transparency, atop a core of real feeling and real heart.

Continue reading "Dick Jones' "Ancient Lights"" »

A few teachings in advance of Lag B'Omer


A Lag B'Omer bonfire.

Today is the 30th day of the Omer. In three more days we'll reach the minor festival of Lag B'Omer -- the 33rd day of the Omer. ("Lag" is how we pronounce the Hebrew number 33, spelled lamed-gimel, ל''ג.) But beyond being the thirty-third day of the counting between Pesach and Shavuot, what's Lag B'Omer?

I'm so glad you asked! The simple answer is, there's no one simple answer. A few years ago I shared the following set of interpretations:

One interpretation of the chronology in Torah holds that on this date, manna first began to fall from the heavens for the Israelites in the desert. Lag B'Omer (celebrated with picnics and rejoicing) can be understood as a commemoration of that happy miracle.

Another story (found in the Talmud) holds that 24,000 of the students of the great sage Rabbi Akiva died from a plague during the counting of the Omer because they failed to give one another proper respect (or, in Reb Zalman's interpretation, they failed to see the chen, divine grace, in one another.) Many traditional Jews observe limited mourning customs during the first 32 days of the Omer, in remembrance of that plague; Lag b'Omer marks the day when the plague came to its end, and hence, we celebrate.

An alternate interpretation holds that the students died as part of the Bar Kokhba revolt against Rome (132-136 C.E.) We spend the first 32 days of the Omer mourning their deaths...until the 33rd day of the Omer, when we rejoice that the massacre finally ended. (The killing may have come to an end, but the outcome of the war was pretty bleak; the name Judea was erased from Roman maps, the study of Torah was prohibited, and Jews were barred from entering Jerusalem. Oy.) Fearing of reprisal from Roman authorities, the sages of the Talmud didn't want to mention the failed rebellion by name, so spoke of a "plague" instead.

Some Jews celebrate the yarzheit (death-anniversary) of the sage Shimon bar Yochai on this day; he was a student of Rabbi Akiva's, and it is to him that the Zohar -- germinal work of Jewish mysticism -- is traditionally attributed. In this understanding, we light bonfires to symbolize the way his teachings illuminated the night.

It interests me that these are the stories we tell about this minor holiday. [Lag B'Omer] is a day for remembering how important it is that we see the grace in one another, and honor one another's learning. It's a day to remember the dangers of following messianic figures into violent rebellion. And it's a day for celebrating illumination: not just the literal illumination of burning sticks and logs, but the metaphysical and spiritual illumination embodied in the wisdom of Torah and the Jewish mystical tradition.

The remainder of that post contains a beautiful Hasidic teaching. You can read it here: The bonfire of the expansive heart. (2009)

This year, Lag B'Omer will begin on Wednesday evening at sundown. Some of the traditional ways of celebrating Lag B'Omer include bonfires and barbecues, archery and ballgames, even getting one's hair cut (some Jews observe a prohibition against hair-cutting during the "semi-mourning" period of the first 32 days of the Omer, and that ban is lifted on Lag B'Omer.) Ifyou're interested in an alternative set of ideas about how to celebrate Lag B'Omer, try the latter half of the post Plagues? Rebellions? May Day? Lag B'Omer. (2007)

How will you be celebrating Lag B'Omer? Even if there are no bonfires or picnics in your plan for this week, can you imagine a way of making the day meaningful for you?

Rumi service PDF

A number of people asked whether I would be willing to share the liturgy for the Rumi Shabbat service which I led at my shul this past Shabbat. I am happy to do so! The service is attached as a pdf. I welcome responses of all kinds!




Rumi Shabbat


interweaving the poems of Sufi mystic

Jalal ad-Din Rumi (d. 1273)

with the Shabbat morning liturgy



  Download Rumi-Service [pdf, 2MB]

This week's portion: on loving our neighbors

Here's the d'var Torah I'm planning to offer at tomorrow morning's Shabbat if you're coming to our Rumi service, you might want to skip this post so you can hear it tomorrow with fresh ears!

On loving our neighbors

הריני מקבל עלי
את מצות הברא
ואהבת לרעך כמוך
לרעך כמוך!

Behold, here I am
accepting upon myself
the mitzvah of the Creator:
to love my neighbor, my "other"
as myself
my other as myself.

I love this verse. It is one of my very favorite verses in the Torah -- and not just because there's a beautiful melody for it. It's the verse in the very middle of the Torah, more or less; the middle of the book of Leviticus, which is the middle book of the five. This is the very heart of the Torah. But the verse doesn't stand alone.

First we get ethical teachings about agriculture. When you harvest your fields and your vineyards, don't go all the way to the edges; leave something there so that the hungry can glean. Leave food for the poor and the stranger.

Few of us are farmers today, though here in northern Berkshire I know that some of us have gardens, and others are members of CSAs like Caretaker Farm. Caretaker gives surplus produce each week to the Berkshire Food Project. But for those of us who garden at home, how many of us could imagine opening our backyards to the needy? Maybe that prospect seemed less scary in Biblical days. Or maybe it didn't -- maybe this teaching was always meant to push a little bit beyond our comfort zone.

Continue reading "This week's portion: on loving our neighbors" »

Torah poem: For a Reason



Everything happens for a reason.
No before or after in Torah.
Happy families are all alike
but every unhappy one's unique.

No before or after in Torah.
When Joseph went down into Egypt --
every unhappy one's unique
but he was not afraid.

When Joseph went down into Egypt
despite the sandy-bottomed pit
he was not afraid
his sons had Egyptian names

despite the sandy-bottomed pit
he flourished where he was planted
his sons had Egyptian names
the first in all the generations

to flourish where he was planted.
Unknown Ephraim and Menashe
the first in all the generations --
may all our sons be like you!

unknown Ephraim and Menashe
who rewrote our family karma
may all our sons be like you
sweet as parchment's honey.

Who rewrote our family karma?
Happy families are all alike.
Sweet as parchment's honey.
Everything happens for a reason.



This poem came about in a roundabout way. I settled in to respond to the poetry prompt in the latest issue of Diane Lockward's poetry newsletter, which invited me to come up with lists of clichés and advice and to make use of anaphora, a kind of verbal parallelism. By draft three, I could see that there was something there, but the form wasn't quite working for me, so I deleted everything except the lines I liked -- most of which had something to do with Torah and with the Joseph story.

The emerging Joseph focus wasn't all surprising, since I came to work on the poem after spending some time with Avivah Zornberg's take on Joseph (specifically the essay "What if Joseph Hates Us?" in her brilliant The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious.) So I decided to run with the Joseph idea and see what happened. The desire to use repeated lines led me to the pantoum form. This is the third or fourth draft of the pantoum. It's a long way from the poetry prompt which started the whole journey, but I'm pretty happy with it.

If the names Ephraim and Menashe don't ring a bell, you might enjoy my post This week's portion: the blessings of Ephraim and Menashe. The notion that there's no before or after in Torah (ein mukdam u-muchar ba-Torah) is a classical rabbinic dictum and exegetical tool. (In other words: Torah often operates on levels beyond the linear. As, I suppose, do pantoums.) All thoughts / comments welcome!

Thanks, brother Thầy

This week I've brought a few more of my books to my office at the synagogue. As I add each one to the bookshelves, often I am tempted to open them and remind myself why I wanted to bring them in the first place. This afternoon I picked up Thich Nhat Hanh's Being Peace, and the page to which it opened told me this:

Even though life is hard, even though it is sometimes difficult to smile, we have to try. Just as when we wish each other, "Good morning," it must be a real "Good morning." Recently, one friend asked me, "How can I force myself to smile when I am filled with sorrow? It isn't natural." I told her she must be able to smile to her sorrow, because we are more than our sorrow. A human being is like a television set with millions of channels. If we turn the Buddha on, we are the Buddha. If we turn sorrow on, we are sorrow. If we turn a smile on, we really are the smile. We cannot let just one channel dominate us. We have the seed of everything in us, and we have to seize the situation in our hand, to recover our own sovereignty. When we sit down peacefully, breathing and smiling, with awareness, we are our true selves, we have sovereignty over ourselves.

I'm struck by the notion of smiling to one's sorrow: not despite it, not through it, but to it. And I'm moved by his suggestion that each of us can choose to which emotional channel we turn. I think he's right that we are "more than our sorrow" -- and that even in the midst of sadness or anger, one can choose to try to tune in to the channel of compassion and kindness.

I am not a serious student of Buddhism -- not in the way that many of my friends are -- but I have learned so much from the Buddhist teachers who I have encountered, both in person and in print. I haven't read this book in years, but I'm glad it remains on my shelf. What a lovely teaching to carry with me for the rest of the day and into tomorrow morning's meditation minyan. Thank you, Brother Thầy.


On divestment

There's been a great deal of conversation in the American Jewish community about divestment resolutions the United Methodist Church has recently pondered and the Presbyterian Church will soon be pondering. These resolutions would lead each church to divest their funds from three companies -- Motorola Solutions, Hewlett-Packard and Caterpillar -- which profit from Israel's policies in Gaza and the West Bank. (For more: Understanding United Methodist Divestment and Presbyterian investment committee recommends divestment.)

Some two dozen rabbis and Jewish clergy signed a letter in support of these Christian churches' consideration of divestment from Caterpillar et al. Here's an excerpt from that letter:

To advocate for an end to an unjust policy is not anti-Semitic. To criticize Israel is not anti-Semitic. To invest your own resources in corporations which pursue your vision of a just and peaceful world, and to withdraw your resources from those which contradict this vision, is not anti-Semitic. There is a terrible history of actual anti-Semitism perpetrated by Christians at different times throughout the millennia and conscientious Christians today do bear a burden of conscience on that account. We can understand that, with your commitment to paths of peace and justice, it must be terribly painful and inhibiting to be accused of anti-Semitism.

In fact, many of us in the Jewish community recognize that the continuing occupation of Palestine itself presents a great danger to the safety of the Jewish people, not to mention oppressing our spirits and diminishing our honor in the world community.

You can read the whole letter at

Meanwhile, some 1200 rabbis have signed a letter decrying the proposed divestment. I've been able to dig up a JTA news story about the 1200 rabbis signing the anti-divestment letter, but haven't been able to find the letter itself online -- if anyone out there has a link to the actual letter, please let me know.

All of this has piqued the attention of Bishop Desmond Tutu, who wrote a powerful (and saddening) op-ed called Justice requires action to stop subjugation of Palestinians. In responding to the 1200 rabbis who signed the letter opposing this divestment, he writes:

I recall well the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in which he confesses to his "Christian and Jewish brothers" that he has been "gravely disappointed with the white moderate … who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action;' who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom."

He adds a further caution:

If we do not achieve two states in the near future, then the day will certainly arrive when Palestinians move away from seeking a separate state of their own and insist on the right to vote for the government that controls their lives, the Israeli government, in a single, democratic state. Israel finds this option unacceptable and yet is seemingly doing everything in its power to see that it happens...

I understand why many American Jews respond to any talk of BDS (boycott, divestment, and/or sanctions) with instinctive rejection. But these resolutions don't suggest divesting from Israel or from Israeli businesses. The question is one of continuing to invest in major corporations -- Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, and Caterpillar -- whose products are used to create and sustain injustice. That's not a threat to Israel or to Jewish life. Beyond that, I would posit that all of us who are fortunate enough to have investments should strive to be mindful of the implications of where we choose to put our money.

I don't know how much money these churches have invested in these corporations. I suspect that one way or another, this isn't going to make or break Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, or Caterpillar! The divestment would be a symbolic gesture more than a fiscally meaningful one. But we who have chosen to dedicate our lives to serving God and our religious communities tend to be pretty passionate about the value and meaning of "mere" symbols.

In this week's Torah portion we read "Do not profit by the blood of your fellow" (Lev. 19:16) -- often understood to mean "do not pursue your livelihood in a way which endangers another." Reading this verse this week, as this conversation has unfolded, it strikes me that the verse could also be understood to be an injunction against passively permitting one's investments to cause or further bloodshed. I tip my kippah to the clergy and laypeople in these churches who are wrestling with the implications of who profits from their investments.

As it happens, the Methodist church voted this week to pass a different resolution, one which calls instead for positive investment in Palestinian economies rather than divestment from these corporations. (See the New York Times: Methodists Vote Against Ending Investments Tied to Israel.) I think it's arguable that positive investment, however well-intended, may not go far if the bigger picture of the occupation isn't addressed. But I'm glad to see these issues being discussed by some of my Christian colleagues and friends.


For further reading:

Y'all be holy, now

This week, in our weekly Torah lectionary process, we're reading Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. I wanted to share again a d'var Torah arising out of this Torah portion which I wrote back in 2010, which I offered at my parents' congregation in San Antonio. Here's a taste:

"You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy." This instruction is at the heart of this week's Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. The Hebrew word for "holy" is kadosh, קדש kuf / daled/ shin: this is the root of the word kiddush, the sanctification of wine; kaddish, the prayer which sanctifies the name of God; and kiddushin, the ring ceremony through which one partner in a marriage is sanctified to the other. This root is usually understood to mean separation or withdrawal. Something which is kadosh is set-apart.

Torah uses this word to describe Shabbat, the festivals, and the Jubilee year, all set apart from ordinary time; the Temple, a place set apart for God (and Jerusalem, in which the Temple once stood); the Israelite community, set apart from other communities; and God, who is the ultimate in set-apart. And in this week’s Torah portion, we're told that this word needs to apply to us, too.

Many religious traditions call their participants to holiness. But Torah doesn't just tell us to be holy as individuals. We're called to be a mamlechet kohanim and a goy kadosh, a kingdom of priests and holy nation. Specifically, in this week's portion, it says: k'doshim tiyihu -- "Y'all shall be holy." The injunction is in the plural.

Torah isn't just saying that you should be holy, and you, and you—each one of us finding her own path. Torah says "y'all be holy, now." What does it mean to be holy as a community?

Read the whole thing: On Holy Community.

(And if you're so inclined, feel free to check out my VR Divrei Torah index, which contains links to all of the divrei Torah I've posted about this week's Torah portion -- and every other! -- both in prose and in poetry. I'm still particularly proud of the sestina I wrote for parashat Acharei Mot...)


Profile of Chava Weissler in Zeek

My profile of Chava Weissler went live in Zeek earlier this week! Chava is a writer, scholar, and folklorist who teaches Judaism, folklore, and women's studies at Lehigh University. Her book on tkhines (Jewish women's prayers of the 17th and 18th centuries) is one of the most widely-read resources in that field; she's working now on a book about Jewish Renewal.

I spoke with her about her work on the Havurah and Renewal movements, their similarities and differences as alternatives to the more mainstream denominational paradigm, the blurry boundaries which come with being a participant-observer, and why she's fascinated with the Jewish life of "non-elites." Here's a taste:

ZEEK: I read in your bio that you were interested in how these "counterculture" folks created surprisingly traditional Jewish lives for themselves. Is there overlap between that work/that finding and the work you're doing now researching Jewish Renewal?

CW: Yes! I often use the following metaphor: the Havurah movement represents the Misnagdim and the Renewal movement the Hasidim of the Jewish counter-culture. The style of the Havurah movement is more cognitive, and the style of Renewal is more expressive and devotional. Also, the Havurah movement has a deep aversion to the "rebbe" model, while the Renewal movement has seen it as a way into a heightened spirituality.

ZEEK: The Hasidim/Misnagdim analogy is a fascinating one, though I can see how some folks in the Havurah movement might have bones to pick there.

CW: Especially because we saw ourselves as reinstating Hasidism, or parts of it. Some years ago, a well-known Renewal teacher taught at the Havurah Institute. I asked him how he felt it compared to the Kallah and Renewal. And he said, 'the havurah movement is so unspiritual, it really bothered me... when they have a study class, they go in, open the text, study, close the text and you're done. When I teach a class, we sit in silence, we open our hearts to the text, we sing a niggun, we study the text, we process what's happened to us, then we sing another niggun and sit in silence again to receive what we've received.'

My havurah friends were outraged that he would say the Havurah movement isn't spiritual! But it’s a different model of spirituality and also of study...

Read the whole thing here: Chava Weissler: Tradition and Renewal.

First of May

Hills on May Day.

This May Day is cool and green-grey. All the world seems chartreuse today. The grass is vivid, the forsythia bushes have mostly shed their yellow blooms, new leaves are pushing their way forth like tiny wet handkerchiefs.

The higher hilltops are still pale purple-brown, but the valleys vibrate at the unmistakeable frequency of new spring. And the color is on its inexorable march up the hillsides. Another few weeks and the green will win.

I moved my three geraniums outside today. They've held on through another indoor winter of too-dry air and my forgetfulness with the watering can. Now they're on the deck drinking in the light rain.

We used to invite friends over for May Day. May poles and bonfires and face paint. Maybe someday when our current crop of kids is old enough to enjoy it, we'll revive those traditions. I like to imagine our boys laughing, running, weaving ribbons.

It's the 24th day of the Omer, the day of tiferet (balance, harmony) within netzach (endurance). I can feel the natural world in balance today, winter gone but summer not yet here. Every plant, tree, blade of grass lives, thrives, endures.

Celebrating Shabbat...with the poems of Rumi

Back in January, at Ohalah -- the annual conference of the association of rabbis for Jewish Renewal -- I attended a Rumi morning service led by my friend R' Ed Stafman. I found the Rumi service to be incredibly powerful. We prayed a fairly standard weekday morning service, with all of its component prayers, with one twist: accompanying each Hebrew prayer was a poem by the Persian mystic Rumi, as translated by Coleman Barks. I promised myself then that someday I would do something similar at my shul.

This coming Shabbat morning -- Saturday, May 5 -- I'll be putting that promise into action, leading what I'm calling our first-ever Rumi Shabbat service. I've adapted the liturgy which my friend R' Ed put together (his liturgy was a weekday one; this is a Shabbat liturgy, and I made a few changes to make the service hopefully fit my community as well as possible.)

I'm really happy with the end result: a 38-page booklet which contains each of the Shabbat morning prayers (either in abbreviated or fulltext form) alongside Rumi poems which speak to the same themes, and often reference the same scriptural stories, as do the prayers. I also spent some time browsing the internet in search of images to enliven and adorn the pages. So hopefully the physical document will be lovely to look at, as well as beautiful to read.

I'm hoping that this service will be meaningful to all who attend, and that it will open up some new ways of thinking about and understanding our liturgy. I know that for many people the beauty of the traditional liturgy is often obscure or hard to access. Perhaps these Rumi poems (which are quite beautiful, as poetry qua poetry) will help us see our familiar liturgy in a new light. And, of course, there's something wonderful about using the poems of a Sufi poet to illuminate new facets of Jewish prayer! The mystics of every tradition, I find, tend to be in-touch with the Oneness which underlies all differentiation.

The service will run from 9:30-11am, as usual, followed by kiddush (blessing bread and wine and gathering for a little nosh) and text study. This week I suspect our text study may take the form of a conversation about the service we will have just prayed.

If you are a fan of Rumi's poetry but have never spent much time with the Jewish liturgy -- or if you pray Jewish liturgy regularly but perhaps don't know Rumi's work so well; if you are looking for a warm and welcoming place to celebrate Shabbat, to offer thanks and praise, and to lift up your voice in song; if you're in or near western Mass.; I hope you'll join us.

To whet your appetite, here's a taste of the sort of thing you'll find in this service. Here's our setting of Psalm 150: a Rumi poem, the Hebrew text of the psalm and its translation. (The prayerbook booklet I'm making will also have transliteration, for those who are not comfortable reading in Hebrew.)

Psalm 150

Let the beauty we love

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

הַלְלוּיָהּ, הַלְלוּ אֵל בְּקָדְשׁוֹ, הַלְלוּהוּ בִּרְקִיעַ עֻזּוֹ:הַלְלוּהוּ בְּגְבוּרֹתָיו, הַלְלוּהוּ כְּרֹב גֻּדְלוֹ: הַלְלוּהוּ בְּתֵקַע שׁוֹפָר, הַלְלוּהוּ בְּנֵבֶל וְכִנּוֹר: הַלְלוּהוּ בְּתֹף וּמָחוֹל, הַלְלוּהוּ בְּמִנִּים וְעֻגָב: הַלְלוּהוּ בְּצִלְצְלֵי שָׁמַע, הַלְלוּהוּ בְּצִלְצְלֵי תְרוּעָה: כֹּל הַנְּשָׁמָה תְּהַלֵּל יָהּ הַלְלוּיָהּ. כֹּל הַנְּשָׁמָה תְּהַלֵּל יָהּ הַלְלוּיָהּ:

Praise God in God's sanctuary
praise God in the sky, God's stronghold.
Praise God for mighty acts;
praise God for God's exceeding greatness.
Praise God with blasts of the horn;
praise God with harp and lyre.
Praise God with resounding cymbals,
praise God with loud-clashing cymbals.
Let all that breathes praise God.