Three more holidays at the very end of Sukkot

There are three distinct and special celebrations at the end of Sukkot. The first of them, Hoshana Rabbah, is today.

HoshanaRabba09_9Hoshana Rabbah -- "The Great 'Save-Us!'" -- is the seventh day of Sukkot and a minor holiday in its own right. On this day, traditionally, we make seven circuits of our sanctuaries with our lulavim and our Torah scrolls while reciting prayers called Hoshanot which ask God to bring healing and salvation. Seven is a number with spiritual significance in Judaism: seven days of the week, the seven "lower" (accessible) sefirot (aspects of God), the seven ancestral figures (some invite seven men and seven women) welcomed into the Sukkah as ushpizin (holy guests) -- and now on the seventh day of this festival we circumnambulate our sanctuaries seven times, singing and praying. There's also a very old custom of taking the willow branches from our lulavim and beating them against the ground; the falling willow leaves are an embodied prayer for rain. (For more on that: The Ritual of Beating the Willow.)

Even if you're not dancing or processing around a sanctuary with branches and Torah scrolls, reading some hoshanot and reflecting on their meaning is a lovely observance of Hoshana Rabbah. I like the ones written by my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, which online here at the Reb Zalman Legacy Project blog, and also here at the Shalom Center (with commentary from Rabbi Arthur Waskow below the hoshanot themselves.) And here's a brief excerpt from a translated hoshana, provided by Rabbi David Seidenberg of

Shemini Atzeret -- "The Pausing of the Eighth Day" -- is the eighth day of Sukkot. Yes, Sukkot is a seven-day holiday, but tradition tells us that on the eighth day, God (Who has been so enjoying spending time with us in our sukkot) says "awww, do you really have to go? Can't you linger a little longer?" So we stay in our sukkot for one more day, one more chance to engage in intimate connection with Shekhinah, the immanent and indwelling Presence of God. This is a day for spaciousness, a day of pausing, a day to celebrate the white space which cradles and contains all of the texts and teachings and observances of the holiday season now ending. The Days of Awe and Sukkot are a dense and busy time, full of obligations and sermons and teachings; Shemini Atzeret is a chance to pause, to take a breath, to receive the blessings of stillness.

This day is a hinge-point in our liturgical year between the summer season and the winter season. On Shemini Atzeret, we recite special prayers for rain, and we enter into the liturgical winter-season when our Amidah contains a one-line prayer for rain every day instead of the summertime one-line prayer for dew. I've written a contemporary prayer for rain which can be read / davened on this day, which you can find in the VR archives here; you might also enjoy my Sestina for Shemini Atzeret, which I wrote last year and which I still really like. Shemini Atzeret is the 22nd of Tishrei, which begins tonight at sundown and lasts through tomorrow (Monday).

Children-kiss-torahSimchat Torah -- "Rejoicing in the Torah" -- is the culmination of all of our celebrations during this holy season. We read the very end of the Torah scroll, then read the beginning again, celebrating the neverending nature of our collective story. We dance around the room with Torah scrolls singing songs. Here's the poem I wrote some years ago for this festival, Mobius, which is also available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems (Phoenicia, 2011.)

So when is Simchat Torah? Well, it depends on who you ask. In Israel, Sukkot lasts for seven days; the seventh day is Hoshana Rabbah; and the 8th day is both Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Reform communities outside of the land of Israel also operate on this calendar. (I'm not sure about Reconstructionist communities; Jewish Renewal communities' practices vary.) In Diaspora, Orthodox and Conservative Jews move from 7 days of Sukkot (the final one being Hoshana Rabbah) to two days of Shemini Atzeret, the second of which is Simchat Torah, making the whole shebang a 9-day observance insted of an 8-day one. (In my local community we'll celebrate Simchat Torah on Monday night, in conjunction with the local college Jewish student group.)

It's possible to experience a kind of holiday fatigue at this moment in the year. Tisha b'Av, then the month of Elul, then Rosh Hashanah, the Ten Days of Teshuvah, Yom Kippur, a week of Sukkot...! But there's beauty and meaning in each of these three final days of this holiday season. I offer this blessing: may each of us find a point of access into the beauty and wisdom of Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. May we connect with the gift of being able to ask for help in healing our world, the gift of holy pausing and sacred rest, and the gift of Torah, the story which never ends.


MigrantHealth:IL - a ray of hope for migrants in Israel

On one of the rabbinic e-mail lists to which I belong, I read about a project in Israel which brings me hope. It's called MigrantHealth:IL. Here's how they describe the work they're doing:

The Need, explained:

In May, a young Eritrean refugee living in Tel Aviv contracted chicken pox. In most of Israel, or the Western world, this would not be a big deal; if the case gets complicated you go to the doctor, she gives you medicine and the infection clears in a few days.

This mother did not know where to go for help. She was not aware of the free medical care available for refugees who are not covered in the Israeli socialized healthcare system. Because of this, she remained at home and the simple case of chicken pox transformed into a deadly pneumonia.

MigrantHealth:IL addresses the disparity between available health care resources and the Israeli migrant community—our health outreach program prevents scenarios as the one above, that typify the disconnect between resources and needs. 

Our Campaign:

In collaboration with the Tel Aviv Refugee Clinic, we will employ nurses from within the migrant community to improve the health of this population. These nurses are uniquely qualified for working in the migrant community as they are multilingual, highly trained in their home countries, eager to work, and already have their fingers on the ‘pulse’ of their community.

If they can raise $15,000, they'll be able to hire three part-time nurses for one year. (The more money they raise, the more nurses they can hire.) If they can make it through this first year, they expect support from the Israeli Ministry of Health and local hospitals in year two.

Their website is here: MigrantHealth:IL. On that website you can see a short video about the project -- or, if you're reading this in a format which supports embedded video, you can watch the video here:

Short MigrantHealth:IL video, from YouTube.

There are some 80,000 migrants in Israel. (The African Refugee Development Center says there are roughly 60,000 African refugees there, most from Eritrea and Sudan.) This project seeks to tend to the health needs of the migrant community, and to employ members of that community in the process. There are currently some Israeli nurses working with African migrants in Israel, but there are difficulties arising from language barriers; most of the migrants are Eritrean. MigrantHealth will provide jobs for Eritrean nurses, and will provide for the community a pool of nurses who not only speak their language but understand their community context.

This is the brainchild of Doctor Jonah Mink, the son of Cantor Susan Wehle (may her memory be a blessing.) Susan was a part of the Jewish Renewal community, and while I didn't know her personally, I know that she was beloved to many of my friends and colleagues.

Dr. Mink received his MD from the Ben Gurion University School of International Medicine in Beersheva. He's already set up an electronic medical records system for the migrant community at the Tel Aviv Refugee Clinic clinic, which earlier this summer had served more than 7,000 patients and was overwhelmed with requests for care. (That's via the article ROI's 21st Century Vision; Dr. Mink is part of the ROI community, "connect[ing] dynamic Jewish leaders from around the globe, enabling them to turn their passion into action by creating transformative work for the Jewish world and beyond.")

MigrantHealth:IL is a crowdfunded project; they need to raise $15,000 over the next nine days in order to move forward. I just made a donation. There's special merit in giving tzedakah before Shabbat. My teachers teach, and I believe, that when we open our hands to bestow abundance on others, we open cosmic channels for God to bestow abundance on us. If you're able to give a little something, I hope that you will do so. This is so important and necessary -- not just because it acts as a corrective to the shameful violence against African migrants in Tel Aviv this summer (see my May 2012 post For you were strangers in the land of Egypt) but because this is a community of people in desperate need, and this is an easy way to help from afar.

Kol hakavod (props/honor) to the creators of this project. May it flourish and provide limitless assistance and blessing to those in need.

Save the date: 70 faces events in Northampton in 2013


Save the date! I'm doing two 70 faces events in March at another western Massachusetts CBI: not Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams (my shul), but Congregation B'nai Israel in Northampton, Massachusetts. I'll be doing two events there over the course of a weekend; first a poetry reading on Shabbat, and then a Torah poems workshop on Sunday morning, where I'll guide participants through the process of writing their own poetic responses to Torah.

Torah Poetry Reading and Workshop
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
March 9-10, 2013

Join Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (70 faces, Phoenicia 2011) for a reading of Torah poems after Shabbat morning services (services run 9:30-noon) and a Torah poetry workshop on Sunday morning (9:30-11:30). Meet the natural world through Torah's lens; meet Torah through the lens of poetry; bring a love of Torah and of nature to bear on your own poems.

All are welcome; if you're in or near Northampton, I hope you'll join us!


A sukkah and a song

Drew admires the roof of our sukkah.

"Want to sing the angel song, mommy?"

Drew and I are sitting in our sukkah under the wet cornstalks and the little lights. It is evening; the skies are threatening, but it's not actively raining -- at least not yet.

I sing him Shlomo Carlebach's setting of the song about the four angels who watch over us at night. It's part of our bedtime routine. As I mention each angel, I wave my fingers at him: from the right, from the left, from in front, from behind. He giggles.

When I'm done, I ask if he wants to sing something, and he agrees. He sings me the alphabet song, then asks me to sing it, too. We sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

By this time the light mist in the air has intensified into a drizzle. Even in our raincoats and rain boots, we're getting more than a little bit damp. So we head inside, I unplug the sukkah lights, we watch some cartoons.

A little while later, Drew in his pyjamas, he brings his raincoat and Thomas And Friends rainboots over to me. "Want to go in the sukkah, mommy?" I am completely charmed, but I have to inform him that it's really raining now, and besides, he's in PJs, it's almost time for bed.

In the gliding rocker, when I sing him the angel song before bed, I think of the cornstalks and lights of our sukkah, and it makes me smile.


Sukkah roof by evening.

VR Podcast 5: Sukkot


VR Podcast Episode 5: Sukkot

Happy Sukkot!

In this episode of the VR Podcast -- live from our sukkah in our backyard -- I talk about the festival of Sukkot, interpretations of the sukkah, impermanence, integrating blessings, the Four Species, and more.




To listen online or download:  VR Podcast 5 - Sukkot.mp3

23 minutes, 8 seconds / 22.2 MB MP3 file

If you're so inclined, you can subscribe via iTunes.

All feedback is welcome and appreciated, always.


Taking a break from football to go on Hajj

282161_411918928861995_786269551_nOn Sunday evening Ethan and I watched an episode of Outside the Lines on ESPN, about two Muslim NFL players who are making Hajj, the journey to Mecca in Saudia Arabia which takes place during the last month of the Muslim calendar each year. The story is here at ESPN -- I can't embed it, but it's online. It's less than eight minutes long, and it's really worth watching.

Husain and Hamza Abdullah, both of whom are free agents in the National Football League, decided not to sign with anyone this year in order to be able to make the Hajj. The Hajj is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, and they decided to do it this year -- I'm guessing both because they could afford to do it, and because they knew it would offer them an opportunity (because of their position as NFL players) to educate Americans about Islam.

And since they were taking the season off from football, they decided to do a thirty-mosques-in-thirty-days road trip. Because why not, right?

I've linked before to 30 mosques in 30 days, a Ramadan travel-and-blogging project undertaken by a pair of Muslim bloggers. It's neat to get some glimpses of two NFL players (and their brother, who went on the road trip with them) who chose to go on that kind of journey. And I love the idea of visiting communities all over the country and seeing both how they differ (from north to south, east to west, urban to rural) and how they are the same (the same commitment to faith and scripture and community.)

I suspect this is a place where the American Muslim experience and the American Jewish experience are parallel. Both of our traditions are minority traditions in this country, and it's easy to imagine that we only exist in certain pockets of the country or that the way our traditions are practiced in one place (be it New York or Los Angeles, Dearborn or Boro Park) is the way they're practiced everywhere. But as a Jew who grew up in the southwest, and who now lives in rural Massachusetts, I have some sense of some of our diversities (different types of buildings, different types of communities, different prayerbook choices and modes of prayer) and of what unifies us across geography and demographics. I get the sense that the American Muslim community is both unified and diverse in many of the same ways. That's part of what I enjoyed seeing in this ESPN piece about these two athletes traveling the country during Ramadan.

Anyway, the Outside the Lines piece is lovely. I'm impressed with these two men, with their commitment to their faith, and with their willingness to be filmed while engaging in this spiritual quest.

(In case you're curious, there are a few Jewish players in the NFL too, though not very many. See, e.g., Schwartzes first Jewish brothers in NFL since 1923.)

חג שמח / Happy Sukkot!

sukkah under cloudy sky

Our sukkah, 5773.

There are four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. One for each letter of the Tetragrammaton, the Divine Name whose pronunciation is lost to us (or is perhaps, as Rabbi Arthur Waskow has suggested, our very breathing, in and out, each inhalation and exhalation together forming a prayer.) One for each of the Four Worlds.

Four days to process whatever emotional and spiritual learning Yom Kippur brought us. To install on our hearts the new name of God we downloaded during that long day of fasting and prayer. Four days to recover from the rollercoaster of the Days of Awe. To make ourselves into channels for the blessing with which we hope to irrigate the world during the festival to come.

And then, at sundown after the fourth day, we enter Sukkot. Chag ha-asif, the festival of ingathering. Zman simchateinu, the season of our rejoicing. A week of dwelling consciously in impermanence, beneath the sheltering divine presence and the shelter of the ever-changing sky. A week of dining al fresco, welcoming our spiritual ancestors and our friends to join us.

During Sukkot, the immanent divine Presence dwells with us in our temporary backyard houses. God moves in with us, this week, and we move in with God. We shake the Four Species in all directions, beckoning blessing.

Even though autumn in New England can be cold and rainy, there's something glorious about being outside in the fall. I love this chance to encounter God's presence in the great outdoors before winter's cold drives me mostly inside.

And I love all the various interpretations of the holiday: that our sukkot represent harvest huts, that they represent the tents in which we dwelled when we left Egypt (or the clouds of divine glory which enveloped us on that journey), even that they're an annual return to the divine womb. Sukkot are liminal spaces, at once "inside" and "outside."

There's nothing else quite like this week. Chag sameach / happy Sukkot to all! Whatever form your festival observance takes, I hope it brings you joy.

How to build a sukkah

On the morning after Yom Kippur, call the local deli/nursery/farmer's market. Ask if they have ornamental corn stalks for sale. Make a gleeful sound when the answer is yes. Drive over and buy four bunches.

Explain to the girl in the green t-shirt that there's a Jewish harvest festival where we spend a week sitting -- or living, or eating, or meditating -- outdoors, in flimsy houses with roofs made of organic material. Wonder what she's thinking.

Try to stuff the corn stalks into your car. Try a different way. Squint at the hatchback.

Remove them and sheepishly ask if you can buy some twine. Stand around feeling useless while the young man in the green t-shirt whips out his Leatherman, flicks it open, and binds the cornstalks to the roof of the car.

Go to Target. Consider, but discard, the glitter-covered pumpkin ornaments. Choose three metallic autumn-colored pumpkins instead.

Notice that the Christmas lights are on sale, already. Find yourself, for once, delighted that the retail Christmas season apparently begins in September. Buy two bins of little white lights, and one of purple-and-orange lights on impulse.

Pick up two autumn-leaf-themed plastic placemats. Print Sukkot blessings and affix them to the placemats with clear packing tape. Punch holes in the edges and attach some string. Admire your handiwork and wish it were Sukkot already.

Wait for your husband to come home and assemble the big wooden sukkah frame he built last year.

Spend four days trying to resist obsessively checking the weather forecast to see whether you'll be able to spend any of the week in the sukkah.

Wake in the night to the sound of pouring rain. Burrow deeper into your comforter.

When Sunday afternoon rolls around, listen to the whine of the drill driving screws into waterlogged wood.

Once the frame is standing, shrug into a raincoat and head outside. Wrap the walls in old canvas. Drag wet cornstalks across the lawn and heave them one by one onto the roof, the least aerodynamic javelins ever.

Twine garlands and strings of lights. Take off your eyeglasses because they're fogged-up and water-spattered.

When the last ornament is hung, wipe your brow and notice that the rain has stopped falling. There's even a patch of blue visible through the holes in the roof.

A poem after the High Holidays


I empty the mother jar
    measure flour and water
        drape a dishtowel tallit

unearth one wilted celery
    and a faded fennel bulb,
        today's wholeness offering

soon diced onion hisses
    sibilant in the skillet
        glistening in chicken fat           

this is how I return
    after days of aching ankles
        heart cracked open from overuse

how can I cook
    when I'm faded as grass
        and empty as a shofar?

I turn old roots
    and sorrow's salt into
        soup fragrant as havdalah
the freezer yields
    what it's been withholding
        I invent the new year as I go
the humblest ingredients
    turn silky and transcendent
        after this long slow simmer

I began writing this poem right after Rosh Hashanah, and posted an earlier draft here -- After Rosh Hashanah. Here's the current version -- a slightly different shape, a new ending, a few revisions here and there. I think this version is better, though I'm curious to hear what y'all think. Maybe I needed to make it through both of the High Holidays before I could discern what this poem really wanted to be.

As always, I welcome feedback of all sorts.

Days of Awe 5773: a baker's dozen of moments to remember

4-DaysofAweSitting down with my family -- parents, in-laws, husband, sister, nephew, son -- for an early Erev Rosh Hashanah dinner. Fabulous food, good conversation, pumpkin panna cotta with hazelnut brittle, and most of all, the joy of seeing my far-flung family gathered around our dining room table again.

My friend and colleague David Curiel, our cantorial soloist for this year, teaching my community a three-part Ilu Finu melody (find it online here or here) on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah, and hearing my community enthusiastically singing along. The way the harmony rippled like sunlight on water.

Walking to the river for Tashlich, holding a young man's hand and talking about his lego creations all the way there. Tossing matzah into the river and thinking with each bit I threw about something I wanted to let go of, a place where I'd missed the mark in the year which just ended.

The impromptu pedicure my mom treated me to, after second-day Rosh Hashanah services were concluded. An unexpected gift. And oh, getting gently pummeled by the massaging spa chair felt so good!

Picking apples with my husband and son on the Sunday between the holidays. Drew knew apples, and he knew trees, but he never knew apples grew on trees! His glee at being able to pick apples himself. The sweetness of honeycrisps fresh off the tree. His proclamation that apples are his favorite fruit.

Leading a dear friend and her family through the process of taharah, in the family home, on the day which would become Yom Kippur. The love present in that room. The mikveh of tears. How putting on my white linen garb before Kol Nidre reminded me viscerally of the white linen shroud I had unfolded only a few hours before.

Singing "Oh Jonah, he lived in a whale! Oh Jonah, he lived in a whale! He made his home in that fish's abdomen, oh, Jonah, he lived in a whale" in my very best sultry Gershwin style before my Yom Kippur morning sermon on Jonah. The ripple of laughter, and how it transmuted into rapt attention.

Going beneath my tallit during the silent prayers of Yizkor to engage in what my teacher Reb Zalman calls a "holy Skype call" with the spirits of my beloved dead. I talked to my grandparents, who I loved and who I miss. To our dear friend Dick, who I loved and who I miss. I told them what I needed to tell them. I imagined them right there in front of me, beaming at me.

Settling into afternoon yoga with Bernice Lewis, who leads such a loving and gentle yoga class. Rediscovering what I had forgotten since last year: that perhaps the sweetest gift of that yoga time is relaxing into letting someone else take care of me on Yom Kippur afternoon. Child's pose, and how it reminded me of the prostration of the Great Aleinu.

The amazing Avodah meditation led by David. The low hum of the sruti box. The way he brought the story of the rituals performed by the high priest once upon a time into right-here, right-now. His sweet chant of Ana B'Koach in place of every time the Great Name -- whose ancient pronunciation is, these days, lost to us -- arose. His teaching that every place can be the holy of holies, every person can be the high priest, every moment can be the holiest moment.

Bob blowing that one final tekiah gedolah. The long arc of the sound, the way it seems to tunnel right inside me, reaching that most profound place. The intermingled sadness and relief when it was over: the shofar blast, the holiday, the Days of Awe, all come to their inevitable end.

Breaking my fast with that nip of ice-cold vodka, as my grandfather Eppie -- may his memory be a blessing -- always used to do. The cold fire of it going down, the flush it brought to our faces, the laughter. The knowledge that people in my community who weren't blessed to know Eppie were thinking of him in that moment, if only because I was thinking of him, and that in this way, he is still here, still with me.

The gift I received from one of my dear congregants, one of the older fellows in our community, when he came up to David and me at the break-the-fast and told us that our services on this day allowed him to really understand the prayers, and made him happy to be Jewish. What more could I hope for? I feel so blessed.

Two poems in em:me

Page_1_thumb_mediumIt's a delight to see two of my mother poems in the current issue of em:me, "an online journal of poetry, visual art, and cross-genre creations" published seasonally and edited by Emmalea Russo.

The magazine is beautifully put-together, easily readable online, and full of interesting and poignant work. I especially like Kristi Nimmo's poem and Graham Hunter Gregg's poem, the film stills by Daniel Paashaus, and Emma Horning's photographs. It's neat to read my own poems in the context of this journal.

Read the issue here: em:me issue 3, fall 2012. Thanks for including them, Emmalea! I'm already looking forward to reading issue 4 when the winter solstice rolls around.

A Sukkot prayer for the Bedouin at Rabbis for Human Rights

Hope all of y'all had a wonderful Yom Kippur!

Earlier this summer the folks at Rabbis for Human Rights North America asked if I would write a Sukkot prayer which touches on the situation of the Israeli Bedouin. I was honored to be asked, and took on the task with some trepidation; I hope the result is meaningful.

Here's how my prayer begins:


Ribbono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe --
Shekhinah, Whose wings shelter creation --

Once our people wandered the desert sands.
Now we merely vacation in rootlessness

While our Bedouin neighbors perch
Without permission, their goats forbidden to graze.

Time after time the bulldozers tear down homes
And playgrounds, uprooting spindly olive trees

To make room for someone else's future forest,
As though saplings mattered more than children...


You can find the whole prayer on the RHR-NA website, in the Sukkot section -- A Sukkot Prayer for the Bedouin -- or in the Prayers section (Prayers | A Sukkot Prayer for the Bedouin) where the prayer appears alongside an image of, as it happens, me in prayer during the last Rabbis for Human Rights conference I was blessed to attend.

Sukkot begins on Sunday at sundown. May this prayer help us to remain mindful of the Bedouin and their situation even as we celebrate Sukkot, the season of our rejoicing. Stay tuned -- I'll share more Bedouin resources from RHR once they're online.


A sermon for Yom Kippur Morning: In The Belly of the Whale

This is the sermon I offered this morning at my synagogue.


Once there was a man named Jonah, "Dove," son of Amittai, "Truth."

And God spoke to him and said, Go to the great city of Nineveh and tell them to make teshuvah, otherwise I will destroy them for their wickedness. And in response, Jonah fled.

This is a familiar story. We'll read it again this afternoon during mincha, and we'll look at some fascinating modern commentaries during our Torah study afterwards. But I want to lift up a few details now, because some of you may not return for mincha, and there's something powerful about encountering this particular story on this particular day of the year.

Jonah flees from God, onto a ship bound for Tarshish. He heads in precisely the direction God didn't tell him to go. An actual Wrong-Way Corrigan. Does he really think he can escape from the Holy Blessed One, the King of Kings, Who can see him anywhere he goes?

My teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi tells a Sufi story about a great teacher whose disciples wanted to learn his mystical wisdom. Okay, said the teacher; here is a dove; go someplace where no one can see you, and kill it, and when you come back, I will teach you what you want to know.

Of his 12 students, eleven came back with dead birds, and he sent them away. One returned with the living dove. "I couldn't find a place," said the student, "where no One could see me." It was to that student, who understood God's omnipresence, that the teacher chose to transmit his blessing and his wisdom.

But our Jonah, our dove, forgets that. He flies from his calling, flees from God.

Once his ship is at sea, a mighty storm arises. The sailors are in a panic. And Jonah is sound asleep belowdecks. This is comedy. Imagine the ship rocking wildly from side to side, sloshing with seawater and in danger of foundering: and our hero, or perhaps our anti-hero, is sound asleep!

It's also a deep spiritual teaching. How often, in our lives, do we hide from what we know we're meant to be doing? How often are we spiritually asleep?

Continue reading "A sermon for Yom Kippur Morning: In The Belly of the Whale " »

Kol Nidre Sermon: What Are We Here For?

Once there was a great rabbi named Yekhiel. Reb Yekhiel could discern the deepest truths in a person's soul just by looking at them. He would gaze at your forehead for a moment, and then tell you the history of your soul in all of its incarnations.

Some people sought him out, wanting to know who they had been before. Others avoided him. Some would pull their hats down over their faces to try to hide from him. Which was ridiculous, because surely a man who can gaze into the history of your soul just by looking at you can also gaze through a bit of leather or cloth!

It was said that Reb Yekhiel turned every day into Yom Kippur. In a good way! Because he was able to see into the depths of people's souls, and help them understand where they had gone wrong, and how to correct their mistakes in this life.

One year, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Reb Yekhiel saw an apparition. He recognized the man immediately: it was the cantor who used to chant so beautifully in Reb Yekhiel's hometown. "What are you doing here?" asked Reb Yekhiel.

"Surely the holy rabbi already knows," replied the soul of the hazzan. "On Rosh Hashanah, God opens the Book of Life. With every deed, we inscribe ourselves in that book. God looks at our sins and our good deeds, and weighs them both in the balance. Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall be born -- and to which family? During this night, souls are also judged to be reincarnated once again. I am just such a soul, about to be reborn."

"So tell me," the rabbi asked, "why are you being sent down into the physical world again?"

Continue reading "Kol Nidre Sermon: What Are We Here For?" »

The most amazing lead-up to Yom Kippur

On Monday morning the phone rang. The caller ID showed an unfamiliar number, but something told me I should pick it up. It was a dear friend, calling from a borrowed number. Her parent had just died. After I offered what comfort I could, she asked for my help. As the day unfolded, it became clear to both of us how I could be of service.

This morning -- the day which would become Yom Kippur -- I dropped my son off at preschool and then drove over the mountains. I met my friend there, and embraced her, and embraced the family. In their living room, overlooking beautiful woods and hills, I explained the traditional process of taharah, the bathing and blessing and dressing of the body of someone who has died. (See Facing Impermanence, 2005.) I explained the process as I have learned it, and I explained how we would make it work today here in this private home.

Ordinarily it is the chevra kadisha, the volunteer burial society, who lovingly prepare the body of someone who has died. In my experience, this is done at a local funeral home. In my town we don't have a Jewish funeral home, but we have a very friendly non-Jewish funeral home where the proprietors know our customs and welcome us into their space for this holy work. I suspect the same is true in the Pioneer Valley where I spent this morning. And the local chevra kadisha had offered to provide this service at the funeral home they work with...but the family wanted to do it themselves, at home.

Most sources indicate that family members do not participate in taharah because it would be too difficult, too painful. But this family yearned to do taharah themselves, there in the serene home where their loved one had died and had been kept company ever since. In our chevra kadisha, we have permitted family participation from time to time. When someone feels the deep need to care for their loved one in this way, we do not say no. Particularly in a case where a spouse or child has been caring physically for a loved one during illness, sometimes they need to tenderly offer this one last touch in order to say goodbye.

My friend's family didn't want to involve a funeral home or to enter the impersonal space of whatever room the local chevra kadisha uses for this process, and they didn't want to entrust their loved one to strangers, even the nicest of strangers. So together we centered ourselves, and went up the curving wooden stairs to the bedroom.

We said prayers to prepare ourselves. We spoke to the meit, the body of the person who had died, asking the neshamah -- the soul -- to forgive us if we happened to do anything improper or to offend in any way. Moving slowly and gently we washed the meit clean with washcloths, which we dipped into a beautiful ceramic bowl of warm water. My friend wept, from time to time. We offered one another words of comfort as needed.

We poured a stream of water, our symbolic mikveh, as I spoke the words which remind us that the soul is pure. And then we gently dried and dresssed the body in tachrichim, the white linen shroud in which every Jew is buried. Rich or poor, male or female, we are all alike in the end. Slowly the transformation took place: from the shell of a human body which had contained life to a white-bundled figure, arms and legs and head and torso all covered in white.

The last step was swaddling in a white linen sheet -- like the way parents swaddle newborns, I said, and my friend laughed through her tears, remembering my newborn son and how he would only sleep if swaddled (and sometimes not even then!) With the help of a few local friends, the meit was placed in the beautiful simple pine coffin -- handmade, sanded smooth as silk. A bit of earth from the home garden was sprinkled inside, a connection to the soil in which this beloved soul had thrived.

I left that home feeling lighter than I had when I'd entered. Feeling centered and connected. Feeling connected to my friend and her family -- to my own family -- to all the generations of my ancestry, and to my son and the generations I hope will follow -- most of all to God.

Yom Kippur can be understood as a day of rehearsal for one's own death. We wear white, like the shrouds in which we will be buried. We eschew food and drink, as we will do when our physical lives have ended. We recite a vidui prayer very like the one recited on the deathbed.

On Yom Kippur we try as hard as we can to make teshuvah, to correct our course and shift our alignment so that our actions, our emotions, our thoughts, and our spirits are aligned with holiness. We try to repair our relationships with ourselves, with each other, with God. We try to relinquish the emotional and spiritual calluses which protect us in ordinary life, and to go deep into awareness of our mortality and deep into connection with something beyond ourselves.

I can't think of any better way to prepare myself for the awesome task of leading my community in prayer throughout Yom Kippur than what I was blessed to do this morning. When I don my all-white linen garb tonight, I will remember the feeling of these tachrichim beneath my fingers this morning. When I invite my community to join me in experiencing this holiday as a reminder of our mortality, I will think of this family and their encounter with death.

And when I lead us in davenen tonight and tomorrow, I will do so in the hope that our prayers will rise to the Holy Blessed One as do the prayers of these mourners, and that God will grant compassion and healing to them and to us. Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be so.

One last post before Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is fast approaching.

Tonight my community will gather around 5:40 to hear a pianist and violinist playing Kol Nidre and other appropriate melodies; on the dot of 6, we'll move into our recitations of Kol Nidre and into our communal observance of this tremendous, awesome, holy day.

Here are links to two posts I've made in previous years, each of which is a compilation of Yom Kippur materials: prayers, divrei Torah, YouTube videos, sermons, practices, translations, sheet music, poems, readings, liturgy, song, teachings, all kinds of good stuff:

I hope that all who need inspiration will find something meaningful among those pages.

If I have hurt or offended you in any way in the last year, please forgive me.

G'mar chatimah tovah -- may we all be sealed for good in the year to come.

A havdalah ritual for the September equinox


Equinox and solstice photo courtesy of NASA.

The September equinox was yesterday.

Back at the end of June, I was blessed to celebrate Rosh Chodesh (new moon) with the women of my congregation, and this past June, the start of Tammuz fell right around the time of the June solstice -- what is, in our hemisphere, the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. We celebrated with a havdalah ritual for the turn of the seasons, and it was wondrous.

Ever since then, I've been meaning to create a similar ritual for the fall equinox. And I did create one! I just didn't manage to post it in advance. (Please forgive me. Life's been a bit hectic around here lately.) Enclosed with this post is a havdalah ritual which marks and sanctifies the division between summer and fall.

What's the use of posting such a ritual after the equinox has passed? Well -- some sources indicate that while 9/22 is the equinox, the day when we will actually experience equal hours of daylight and darkness is Tuesday. So I think there is meaning in observing this special havdalah anytime between now and Tuesday, anytime between now and Yom Kippur.

Deep thanks to Rabbi Jill Hammer, whose Tishrei wisdom at Tel Shemesh provided much of the inspiration for this havdalah!


Download FallEquinoxHavdalah [pdf]

First day of fall

Leaves under water. Margaret Lindley Pond, Williamstown.

First day of fall. The hillsides' green has shifted, yellow beginning to reveal itself as chlorophyll starts to hide away. I think of John Jerome's Stone Work, of how he wrote about yellow leaves falling, about the old year becoming mulch.

After the rush and flurry of September -- the start of the Hebrew school year, the first Family Shabbat service, Drew starting preschool, the spiritual work of leading two days' worth of Rosh Hashanah services -- it feels strange and wondrous to have a weekend off. Ethan takes Drew to Caretaker Farm; I stay home with a cup of coffee, eat challah with honey, knead bread dough, get the dishwasher running.

It's time to begin moving the summer clothes back into the attic and bringing the fall wardrobe back out again. In the span of a week we've moved from weather which makes me want sandals and flowing linen to weather which makes me want bluejeans and layers, socks and closed-toed shoes.

I love summer. I was born and reared in south Texas; I bask in the heat. And every year I brace myself against the darkening of the days. In high summer I think: how will I ever survive when the sun goes down at 4:30 in the afternoon? It seems inconceivable that we will spend so much of the year in the cold and the dark.

But then the Days of Awe roll around, and the leaves start to turn, and I realize I have missed autumn. I'd forgotten how beautiful it is to watch the mountains' slow color-shifting dance. I'd forgotten the appeal of cozy sweaters, of patterned tights, of Sundays watching football, of pumpkins brightening our doorsteps.

It's not cold enough yet for the real winter wear -- the fleece-lined jeans, the heavy wool sweaters. They still seem as implausible as armor, so they stay in their boxes...for now. But the summer clothes go into the attic, armload by armload, and the autumn clothes emerge. By the end of the morning I am sniffling like mad, my allergies reawakened by the inevitable encounter with our household's particular brand of dust.

But my closet is transformed. Gone are the flowy bright skirts and tanktops, replaced with velvet and corduroy and denim. I remember again how much I gravitate toward brown and purple at this time of year -- a mirroring of the colors our hillsides will take on once the leaves have offered their final farewell.

We move through so many gates, so many doorways, at this time of year. From summer into fall; from the old year into the new; from anticipation into celebration; from the light half of the year to the dark half of the year. What will be nurtured and nourished in us during the season now beginning? What gifts will the velvety darkness of fall and winter offer this year? What qualities will I clothe myself in as the new season unfolds?

For an explanation of the equinox, including a truly gorgeous photograph of the earth seen from space at both equinoxes and both solstices, try Autumnal equinox: Equal Hours of Daylight and Darkness? Or Not?

You might also enjoy the poem I posted a few years ago on the autumn equinox, titled, appropriately, Equinox.

Notes from Shabbat Shuvah at Elat Chayyim, fall 2003 / 5764

From my journal, October 2003 / Tishrei 5764:

Elat Chayyim is every bit as fantastic as I remembered. When I arrived on Friday, I had this feeling of, "It's real! It's really here! I didn't make it up!" I walked around like I was in a dream.

The first thing we did on Friday night was daven the evening prayers, and I was transported. I really, really like the way they think about prayer here. I like the melodies, I like how easy they are to learn, I like that the focus is on saying fewer words with kavanah (intent) rather than saying lots of words. I like their approach to God-language. I like how prayer services become a vehicle for learning new things.

Saturday's classes were with Rabbi Miles Krassen. We studied a text by R' Schneur Zalman of Liadi, about teshuvah (turning/returning oneself toward God) and preparing for the Days of Awe. We covered a few interesting topics, among them ultimate reality, higher and lower levels of soul, the purpose of Yom Kippur, humans and angels, the views from different states of consciousness, the purpose of creation, transcendent God and immanent God, the true longing of the soul, Jacob-soul and Yisrael-soul, what it means that many religions have similar mystical teachings, the nature of mystical union, and how to prepare for Yom Kippur.

Saturday night we had a short havdalah service (the service separating Shabbat from the rest of the week). I always love havdalah: the singing, the wine, the spices, the flame. Word had come that there had been another bombing in Israel, so we sang a song to awaken compassion in ourselves. We sang it in Hebrew and English; the words in English are, "On behalf of my brothers and friends/ on behalf of my sisters and friends/ let me ask, let me sing, peace to you./ This is the house, the house of God/ I wish the best for you..." I found myself wondering: what does it mean to "wish the best" even for those who hurt us? Is that even possible? I found myself weeping.

After havdalah came more class; by the time we went to bed, my brain was completely full. So much to carry with me into Yom Kippur!


I know now that the melody we sang at that havdalah, the song meant to awaken compassion in ourselves, is L'maan achai v're-ai by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach:

R' Shlomo Carlebach sings "For The Sake Of My Brothers And Friends."

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

This Shabbat Shuvah retreat, back in 2003, was my second time at Elat Chayyim. There was something amazing about discovering that this community of passionate and committed spiritual seekers was still real, that I hadn't dreamed it up the first time I went.

The awful news we mourned that night at havdalah was the Maxim restaurant bombing. I hope and pray for comfort for the families of the victims as Shabbat Shuvah approaches once again. I hope and pray for comfort for all who are impacted by cycles of hatred and violence, there and everywhere.

I wish I knew which texts from R' Schneur Zalman we studied with R' Miles Krassen that weekend. I'd love to return to them now. My jotted scribblings suggest that we talked about what the text called "lower" teshuvah (repenting for our misdeeds) and "higher" teshuvah (a kind of reaching-for-God in response to the knowledge that we are alienated from our Source.)

Shabbat Shuvah means "Shabbat of Return," and the name is meant to evoke teshuvah, repentance / returning-to-God. That first Shabbat Shuvah retreat I attended was when I first learned to sing "return again, return again, return to the land of your soul" -- which felt, at the time, like a chant about returning to Elat Chayyim and to conscious community, but which also carries a much deeper truth.

Shabbat, Shabbat Shuvah, Yom Kippur -- all of these are opportunities to connect with God, to make teshuvah, to re/turn to the place where we live out our highest aspirations and our hearts feel most unfettered and free.

Shabbat shalom, y'all.

A post-Rosh Hashanah poem


I empty the mother jar
measure flour and water
cover the bowl
with a dishtowel tallit

browse the fridge
for one wilted celery
and a faded fennel bulb,
today's wholeness offering

soon uneven dice hiss
their comforting song
as the freezer yields
what it's been withholding

this is how I return
after days of aching ankles
and a heart cracked open
from overuse

stir the unctuous richness
of the holiday now over
match it with pepper
make up the recipe as I go

there's no time
for sourdough's spaciousness;
and how can I cook
when I'm empty as a shofar?

but I feed my own hunger
by turning sad odds and ends
into something fragrant
and sustaining



This is an early draft of a new poem. I suspect that in a week or two or six I'll see ways of improving it. But for now, I wanted to share it.

All feedback welcome, as always.