Dream

In last night's dream you laughed
about being sick, making light

of our fears. I heard your voice
but I didn't see you: I was caught up

trying to fix a garbage disposal
that wasn't working anymore.

In last night's dream I stood
in front of a room full of strangers

to say kaddish for you. I turned
every page in every book

but couldn't find the words...
Awake now, I remember the story

my chaplaincy supervisor told
about the patient who went on and on

about dysfunctional plumbing.
The punchline was, she was talking

about her own body and didn't know it.
And in my dream I focused

on the pipes, the broken housing
instead of on the laughter

that still flows. As for
my fear of forgetting the words --

you'd say I don't need them anyway.
You said once that all you want us to do

is visit your grave with a roadie in hand,
pour a splash on the thirsty earth.

I'm pouring out poems to water the soil.
We buried a box, but you aren't inside.

 


Second letter: challah

My house smells like challah.
Three weeks ago I went through
these same motions in your kitchen.

You gave me the best gift:
you came down in the wheelchair
you hated to use, tethered

to the oxygen tank, and heard
my son sing kiddush one last time.
When we whisked the napkin

off the spiraling challah loaves
tiny sugar ants were exploring
their swirls and curves. I almost

cried, but we brushed them off
and declared the bread intact
so three generations could bless.

That night, back in bed, you said
"it's been too short, but
it's been sweet." Did you mean

our visit, or your eighty-two years?
We flew home the next morning
not knowing we would return

within a week. For days I kept
marveling, "she ate steak
at Shabbat dinner," as though

that mattered. What I meant was
you were so alive. Shabbes is coming
and I can't FaceTime with you

from the place where you are now.
You'd say "don't be maudlin."
I'm trying, but every minute

takes me farther from the one time
I baked challah for you, deeper
into this world where you are gone.

 


First letter

Your grandson has taken up needlepoint.
I see you rolling your eyes. I remember
when he was five and asked to do ballet:

you demanded, "is it because you wanted
a daughter?" I snapped at you no, Mom,
it's because he wants to try dancing.

And when he asked me to paint his nails
blue and purple and green you averted your eyes.
My fervent hope today is that wherever

you are -- the World to Come, the afterlife,
getting fabulous manicures with Shechinah
or simply resting, pain-free, in God's embrace --

all of the old life's pre-judgements
about "boys" and "girls" and what we can be
have fallen away. Look, Mom, he's taking up

needle and thread to be like me, and I'm
taking them up to be like you, to finish
the canvas you started. Isn't that what

we all do, in the end: add clumsy stitches
to the unfinished tapestry of generations?
He's trying to make something beautiful

from hard work and yarn. I told him
I'm proud of him. I told him
wherever you are, you're proud of him too.

 


By the numbers

Miles I moved
in order to define myself

not as anyone's daughter
but as the center

of my own story: two thousand,
more or less.

Years she lived
with a diagnosis: eight.

Weeks since she died: two.
Number of times

I've reached for my phone
to show her something

(look, Mom, I'm finishing
the needlepoint you started)

-- without limit.

 


Things I didn't know

That morphine is pale blue
sickly-sweet baby blue
like every cutesy sleeper
I didn't want for my infant son.

That I would feel
like a mother bird
tenderly tucking the drops
under her waiting tongue.

That the gasp and hiss
of the oxygen pump
would be both comforting
and terrible.

That when I closed my eyes
by her bedside, trying
to envision her
enrobed in light

the vision would morph
to a white Chanel suit
and I would see her
wearing her life's mitzvot

woven into a white pillbox hat
and a smart white suit
and white heels with open toes
and a cream-colored pedicure

vivacious and flirty
as a 1940s movie star
taking God's hand,
ready for the honeymoon to begin.

 


 

[W]earing her life's mitzvot. There's a teaching in the Zohar, that germinal work of Jewish mysticism, that says that in the world to come each soul will wear a garment of light, woven out of the mitzvot one fulfilled while living in this world.

 

Written after my mother entered hospice care. May her memory be a blessing. 


Gratitude for Mary Oliver

I watched as a wave of sadness passed through my online sphere last week with the news of Mary Oliver's death, and I felt that sadness, too. Sadness that the poems of hers we have are now the only poems of hers we will have. Sadness that such a luminous, attentive, real soul has left this life. 

In a list of the poets whose work most moves me, Mary Oliver ranks high. (So do Jane Kenyon and Naomi Shihab Nye, who have been among my literary lights for decades.) They have in common a certain plainness of speech, and I know that in the eyes of some in the poetry world that makes their work "lesser." But not for me.

As a reader, I yearn for poems that speak clearly, poems that open up some facet of the world whether external or interior (and the best poems do both at once.) And as a rabbi, I crave poems that can serve as prayer, or accompany prayer, or open up prayer, for those whom I serve. Mary Oliver's poems did all of these.

"I don't know exactly what a prayer is. / I do know how to pay attention..." I think part of what makes her poems so extraordinary is the way they manage to speak not only from her heart but from ours. And they wake me up. They remind me to notice, to pay attention, to feel, to live. They are a meditation bell in poetry form. 

"Every morning / the world /  is created..." It could be our daily liturgy. Indeed, I have used her "Morning Poem" as liturgy -- from time to time when I do a poetry service where each of the morning prayers is paired with an English-language poem, and also sometimes just on its own, reading the poem as prayer.

"Oh do you have time / to linger / for just a little while..." I can't read those words not without hearing them sung in haftarah trope.  (Click through to hear them that way.) I sing them each year on the second morning of Rosh Hashanah, when the world is poised on the brink of autumn, when we are poised on the cusp of a new year, and they resonate like a struck bell.

But today the poem of hers that is most speaking to me is "The Journey." "One day you finally knew / what you had to do..."  The journey is difficult. There are voices that demand all the wrong things. But with the hard work of striving for integrity and authenticity the path becomes clear, and there is a kind of luminous hope, and the soul is not alone.

May her memory be a blessing, and may her poems continue to shine.


I Sing

I sing to God with my muchness
my much-too-much-ness
my awkward, oversized emotions
everything over the top

I sing to God
with my enormous tender heart
pouring out too many words
even if no one reads them

I sing to God
with my belly, my softness,
with every ounce of flesh
I was taught to hide

(the psalmist didn't say anything
about sucking in my tummy,
and holding my breath
is the opposite of singing)

I sing to God
even though my range is too small
even though my voice breaks
even though my heart breaks

anyone who wants me
to take up less space
doesn't deserve my music
but I sing anyway

 


This poem arises out of a creative (mis)reading of Psalm 46 verse 2 -- usually translated as "I will sing to God while I exist," or "I will sing to God with what is within me," it can be creatively translated as "I will sing to God with my much-ness."

On a semi-related note, my favorite setting of this verse is by Rabbi Jarah Greenfield, and is online here


Jesus never ate chocolate

Jesus never ate chocolate.
Or tomatoes. Or potatoes.
He never read the tabloids
standing in a checkout line
or listened to tinny muzak
at a dentist's office.

Jesus never watched YouTube
or used glitter glue.
He didn't dance the foxtrot
or even the hora.
He never rode a school bus
or sharpened a No. 2 pencil.

If he were here, he might marvel
at tweets from Lin-Manuel,
at the array of snack foods
in even the most basic 7-11.
But I think he'd be too busy
tenderly cradling the body

of the latest migrant child
to die in government custody,
overturning tables
in the halls of Congress,
searing the earth
with his tears.

 


 

With thanks to the friends who supplied these first two lines, not knowing they were sparking a new poem.


Comfort

In the familiar weight of the cat
who turns in a circle on my lap, then
curls to gnaw on my belt loops.

In the smoke and salt of almonds
steeped in wasabi and soy, satisfying
and sharp on my tongue.

In the weave of my winter tallit, even
when it slips off my narrow shoulders.
In knotted fringes between my knuckles.

In the words that fly from my fingers
hanging like protective sigils
over your head, around your heart.

 


Bricolage

32102382268_8605a8377a_zSometimes online conversation spaces feel like an overcrowded room. A vast arena, people jostling to be heard. The floor of the New York Stock Exchange, complete with yelling. A stockyard full of lowing cattle, hooves pounding the ground beneath into a churning mass of mud. 

The proliferation of words stoppers my tongue. I don't want to argue about whether it's good to find common cause with those with whom we also sometimes disagree. I don't want to bluster my opponents into submission. The arguments don't feel to me like they're for the sake of heaven.

I dream of silence and niggun. I dream of the long fade after a Tibetan singing bowl is gently struck. I dream of dismantling old texts and gluing them back together. I dream of erasure poems, working in white fire. I dream of blanketing the constant stream of argument with a duvet of snow. 

Sometimes things need to break before they can be repaired. Are we broken enough to begin our own repairing? Wake me when it's time to take up tools and start building. Wake me when it's time to stitch pieces together, to add gold dust to glue and make our cracked and broken places gleam. 


Eden Speaks

I understand now why you had to leave.
Your souls are honed, refined, the more you search
for meaning and connection. Here with me
humanity's the only thing that couldn't

grow. But did God ever stop to think
how much I'd miss your sweetness once you left?
How lonely I would feel, remembering
your laughter and your song? It's true, sometimes

you visit on Shabbat a little while.
But mostly you forget my roses' scent.
No one comes to taste my flowing spring.

Still, a drop of hope moistens my earth
and nurtures blossoms waiting to burst free
the moment when you knock upon my gates.

 


 

I'm not sure what sparked the idea of writing a poem in the voice of the Garden of Eden.

This poem draws on Zoharic images of Shechinah (the immanent / indwelling / feminine Presence of God) -- the rose garden, the flowing spring in the middle of Eden. Also on the idea that Shabbat is a "foretaste of the world to come," a taste of Eden, when we allow it to be.

One way of understanding our exile from Eden is that it is a necessary component to the birth of human consciousness -- that when we ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we became capable of growth and change. Still, I'm struck by the idea of Eden missing our presence and our touch, which had not occurred to me until I started working on this poem.


Your name

The syllables of your name
light me like a chanukiyah

I spill over, a brimming cup.
It's more than I can say:

more than all the prayers
and songs, poems and letters

posts and status updates
than are made in the world.

I want to say your name
pleading and marveling

cherishing and rejoicing
in every tone and every key.

It is honey on my tongue,
music for all my days.

 


 

Another poem in the Texts to the Holy mode: a love poem that could be spoken to a human beloved or to the Beloved we name as God. These notes arise out of the latter reading.

 

Your name - Jewish tradition sometimes speaks of God as "The Name" (Hashem, one of our names for God, literally means "The Name"), and the kaddish in all its forms refers to God's "Great Name," as well. 

[A] brimming cup - see Psalm 23, "my cup overflows." 

[M]ore than I can say... more than all the prayers / and songs - see the words of the kaddish. (Also of interest, though not directly related, is this terrific piece by Cantor Andrew Bernard about the sounds of the kaddish.)

[Honey] on my tongue - Torah, which is sometimes understood as one long name of God, is compared to honey.  

 

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate! 


Psalm for Ginko's Back Room

 

For a cascade of kittens
making improbable leaps.

For tiny feet
ascending my shoulders.

For their language of mews
and rumbly purrs.

For paws opening and closing.
kneading invisible dough.

For short pointy tails
and radar-dish ears.

For all of these, God of fluff
and pounce, I give thanks.

 


 

Earlier this week I visited Oberlin College, where I did a lunch-and-learn with students, and offered a poetry reading, and taught a one-shot psalm-writing workshop. 

During the psalm workshop, we did a generative writing exercise focusing on something immediate for which we could feel gratitude, and then did another writing exercise geared toward reshaping what we'd written into a psalm. 

That morning I had visited Ginko's Gallery, which has a back room where kittens are fostered and socialized and prepared for adoption. (It's affiliated with CATSS, Community Action To Save Strays.) When I did my own writing exercise, this is what emerged. 

It is not great literature, but I quite like the epithet for God in the final couplet, so I figured I'd share.

Thanks again to Cleveland Hillel and to Rabbi Megan Doherty for inviting me to town, and to Ginko's for the opportunity to cuddle some tiny felines!


Seven songs

1.

Such abundance! Sunlight streaming
golden as chicken soup, rain
that comes in its season, profusion
of produce at the farmer's market,
the way our hearts spill over
when we see someone we love, the way
Your heart flows to each of us.

 

2.

Bless boundaries. Bless the chutes
that control the flood, the walls
that protect from harm. Bless
integrity holding firm.
Bless the strength to stand tall
even in the face of storms:
to bend, and not to break.

 

3.

Balance us, God, like angels
dancing on the head of a pin.
Sing with us in harmony
and let our voices become more
than the sum of their parts.
When we match kindness with justice
the beauty takes my breath away.

 

4.

Because we wake every morning
and start again. Because in
putting one foot in front of the next
we learn and relearn how to walk
in Your ways. Because nothing
worth doing comes easy. Because
when we keep going, we aim toward You.

 

5.

No more than our place, no less
than our space: when we manage that,
we shine with the sun's own splendor.
Remind us that we are cloaked in skin
but made of light. Remind us
that through our best actions
Your glory shines, Majestic One.

 

6.

Our roots stretching deep.
Our foundations. Our generations.
Our teachers. Our drive to create.
Our students. Our readiness to open
our hands and let Torah through.
Our lives the foundries where we shape
our tradition into something new.

 

7.

Where heaven meets earth, where I
meet you, where reality meets redemption
we dance like the psalmist, exulting.
Our eyes well up with a mother's joy:
look, all of our exiled parts
ingathered beneath this leafy roof,
safe beneath the wings of Shechinah.

 


These poems were commissioned by Temple Beth-El of City Island, and were first heard aloud there last night at their Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah celebration.

Written to accompany the seven hakafot (circle dances with the Torah), they map to the seven "lower" sefirot: chesed (lovingkindness), gevurah (boundaries and strength), tiferet (balance and harmony), netzach (endurance), hod (humble splendor), yesod (roots and foundation) and malchut (Shechinah.)


Revising the poem: a d'varling for Shabbat Shuvah

Poemוְעַתָּ֗ה כִּתְב֤וּ לָכֶם֙ אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את וְלַמְּדָ֥הּ אֶת־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל שִׂימָ֣הּ בְּפִיהֶ֑ם

Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths... (Deut. 31:19)

וַיִּכְתֹּ֥ב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא וַֽיְלַמְּדָ֖הּ אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

That day, Moses wrote down this poem and taught it to the Israelites. (Deut. 31:22)

 

These are two verses from this week's Torah portion, Vayeilech.

The classical commentators have various theories on what it means that Moshe wrote down "this poem." Does that mean that on that day, Moshe wrote down the entire Torah? Does it mean that he wrote down some specific fragment of Torah, from this verse to that verse, but not the whole thing? I admire their commitment to detail. But what strikes me is the fact that Moshe uses the word poem in the first place.

To be sure, there are portions of Torah that are clearly poetry. Some of them are even written on the scroll in unusual ways -- like the Song at the Sea, a very ancient poem that is written in an interlaced pattern that evokes brickwork, or perhaps the waves of the sea. But over the course of this week's Torah portion, Moshe refers to what he's saying sometimes as a Torah, which we could translate as a Teaching; and sometimes as a שירה / shirah, which is the Hebrew word for poem.

Moshe seems to be saying that the entire Torah is, in some way, a poem.

When I was a chaplaincy student, during my first year of rabbinical school, I learned to think of hospital room visits as opportunities to encounter the "living document" of a human soul, the Torah of our lived human experience. Each life is a Torah, and delving in to the meanings we find in our lives is a kind of Torah study.

Of course, our tradition mirrors that metaphor in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which describes the Book of Memory opening. That Book "reads from itself and the signature of every human being is in it." We write the Book of Memory with our every choice, our every action, our every word.

Moshe says the Torah is a poem. And my chaplaincy supervisor taught that each human life is a Torah, a book that we write with our actions and our choices, worthy of study. From these two teachings, I come to the inescapable conclusion that each human life is, therefore, a poem.

Here's a thing I know about poetry: it benefits from revision.

We live in linear time, which means we can't revise the actions and choices we made yesterday -- we can't go back in time and edit out the things we now regret having said or done, or left unsaid or undone. But we can revise ourselves. We can revise our habits and our hearts. Indeed: that's precisely what the work of teshuvah is about.

If there were ever a time to look at the poem of our lives and figure out where we need to revise and reshape, now is that time. It's Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return. I want to offer an alternative name for this Shabbes, in keeping with our Vision theme for the Days of Awe this year: the Shabbat of Revision. Re-Vision: seeing ourselves anew. Revising ourselves into a new form. That's the work of teshuvah, and it is always open to us.

The poem of your life is in your hands. How will you revise yourself this year?

 

Teshuvah

God and I collaborate
on revising the poem of Rachel.

I decide what needs polishing,
what to preserve and what to lose;

God reads my draft with pursed lips.
If I really mean it, God

sings a new song, one strong
as stone and serene as silk.

I want this year’s poem
to be joyful. I want this year’s poem

to be measured like flour,
to burn like sweet dry maple.

I want every reader
to come away more certain

that transformation is possible. 
I’d like holiness

to fill my words
and my empty spaces.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written
and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:

who will be a haiku and who
a sonnet, who needs meter

and who free verse, who an epic
and who a single syllable.

If I only get one sound
may it be yes, may I be One.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) The poem was written in 2004 and can be found here, along with my other new years' poems.

 


Sweet

30698985338_35f28e9f2f_z

In the produce section
late peaches bump hips
with early apples

all of them blushing.
Summer and fall kiss
and then part, but

one of these days
summer's going to decide
it's time to let fall

spread its robe...
Where the seasons meet
the new year crowns.

Crisp apple slices bathe
in honey, liquid gold
like Torah's highest song.

May we all merit
this unabashed sweetness
replete and satisfied.

 


 

[L]et fall spread its robe... See Ruth 3:9

Crisp apple slices bathe / in honey... A traditional food for the new year among many Ashkenazi Jews.

Torah's highest song... During the Days of Awe, the Torah is chanted with a special cantillation. The melody lilts and lifts, bringing heart and soul with it.

 

L'shanah tovah u'm'tukah -- here's to a good and sweet year.


New year's poem 5779

As days are waning

 

The new year starts as days are waning.
I'm never ready when the first leaves turn.
Every Jewish day begins with evening:
darkness before light, since the beginning.

I'm never ready when the first leaves turn.
Roll the scroll toward the end of our story:
darkness before light since the beginning.
Am I ready to turn and face what's coming?

Roll the scroll toward the end of our story --
can I open my hands and let go of the summer?
Am I ready to turn and face what's coming?
You know what they say about endings.

I open my hands and let go of the summer,
paint every cracked and broken place with gold.
You know what they say about endings:
turn the page, start a chapter, begin again.

Paint every cracked and broken place with gold!
Every Jewish day begins with evening:
turn the page, start a chapter, begin again.
The new year starts as days are waning.

 

poem by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, 2018

(You can see all of my new year's poems since 2003 online here -- most recent at the top.)


Pursue

Run after justice
the way an eight-year-old
runs after the ice cream truck
chasing its elusive music

sandals slapping asphalt
until panting, calves burning
you catch it
and taste sweetness.

Run after justice
with the single-minded focus
a thirteen-year-old
brings to their phone.

Run after justice
the way the mother
of a colicky newborn
pursues sleep.

Run after justice
whole-hearted and open, as though
justice were your beloved
who makes your heart race,

whose integrity shines
like the light of the sun,
who makes you want to be
better than you are.

 


Run after justice. See Deuteronomy 16:20

[W]hole-hearted. See Deuteronomy 18:13

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.

 

I offered this poem at my shul this morning to close our Torah discussion. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


A renewed haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah

Over the years I've posted a few different poems that riff on the haftarah (the reading from the Prophets) that tradition assigns to the first day of Rosh Hashanah, which is a text from 1 Samuel, the story of Chanah who poured out her heart in prayer. 

I'm delighted to be able to share that I have a new resource to offer this year on that front. This is a revision of one of my Chanah haftarah poems, co-created with Rabbi David Markus, who has also set it to haftarah trope and recorded it.

You can find it in on the Builders' Blog at Bayit: Your Jewish Home in the Festival Year category, or by clicking through right here: Chanah in poetry and trope.

If you wind up using this in your Rosh Hashanah celebration, let us know how it works for you!