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!


Blessed

In going and in returning
    even when where you go
        isn't what you expected,

even when where you return
    isn't yet a world redeemed.
        In sleeping and in waking.

You are loved
    when you lie down
        and when you rise up.

Rise up
    like a hummingbird
        in prayerful vibration.

There is nectar
    to sustain you
        in all your journeying.

 


In going and in returning. See the travelers' prayer.

When you lie down / and when you rise up. See Deuteronomy 6:5-9, which is part of the prayer known as "the v'ahavta," for its first words, "You shall love..."

Nectar. For a hummingbird, nectar is both sustenance and sweetness -- like the milk and honey to which Torah is compared. 

What would it take to be able to really believe that sustenance and sweetness lie ahead: that our needs will be met, no matter where we go?


Fruits: a poem for Shavuot

 

The fruits of my hands
bright origami cranes
minced garlic and chiffonaded kale
clean t-shirts, folded.

The fruits of my heart
poems of yearning and ache
text messages that say I love you
in a hundred different ways.

The fruits of my mind
sentences and paragraphs
eloquence and argument
new ideas casting bright sparks.

The fruits of my soul
the harmony that makes the chord
prayer with my eyes closed tight
inbreath of tearful wonder.

I offer the first of these
the best of these
in my smudged imperfect hands
from my holy imperfect heart.

I have been in tight places
I've cried out -- and You heard me!
Now I stand on the cusp
of flow and abundance.

I give You these first fruits
not because they're "enough"
but because I want to draw near
to You, now and always.

 


 

The fruits of...  In the days of the Temple, we brought the first fruits of the harvest as offerings to God on Shavuot. Today our harvest may be more metaphorical.

Hands... heart... mind... soul... This is a reference to the Four Worlds teaching that is central to my understanding of Jewish renewal and to my spiritual life and practice.

I have been in tight places... Deuteronomy 26 teaches that when we enter into the land, we are to take the first fruits of our harvest and bring them as offerings to God, whereupon we are to recite "My father was a wandering Aramean" -- the passage recounting how we went into slavery in Egypt, and cried out to God, and God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and outstretched arm.

On the cusp / of flow and abundance... See Deut. 26 again: these words are to be recited as we enter into the land, described (Deut. 26:9) as a place of milk and honey.

I want to draw near... The Hebrew word for "sacrifices" or "offerings" is קרבנות / korbanot, which comes from the root meaning to draw near. The English word "sacrifice" connotes giving something up, but the Hebrew korbanot means something we give freely in order to draw nearer to our Source.

 

I'll offer this poem during Shavuot morning services on Sunday at the Progressive Shavuot Retreat at Surprise Lake. If the poem speaks to you, you're welcome to use it too, as long as you keep my name attached. (That's always true, by the way: I welcome and encourage the use of my poems in services, always, as long as there's attribution.)


Pantoum for the Seventh Day

Step into the water.
You can't see the far shore.
Is the foam rising, or receding?
Take a deep breath and keep walking.

You can't see the far shore.
There's no knowing what's ahead.
Take a deep breath and keep walking,
Cultivating faith in your body.

There's no knowing what's ahead.
This is what the sages mean by
"Cultivating faith in your body."
Can you trust that you'll make it?

This is what the sages mean by
"The water is wide, I cannot get o'er."
Can you trust that you'll make it?
You're not crossing the sea alone.

"The water is wide, I cannot get o'er."
The only way out is through.
You're not crossing the sea alone.
Sing with me as we make our way.

The only way out is through.
Is the foam rising, or receding?
Sing with me as we make our way.
Step into the water.


Step into the water. Today is the seventh day of Pesach, regarded by tradition as the anniversary of the date when our ancient ancestors crossed the Sea of Reeds. 

Is the foam rising, or receding? Midrash holds that the waters didn't part until a brave soul named Nachshon ben Aminadav stepped into the water and continued until the waters reached his mouth.

Cultivating faith in your body. See the teaching from the Netivot Shalom about how embodying faith enables us to sing.

The water is wide, I cannot get o'er. From a folk song, used in some communities as a melody for "Mi Chamocha," the song we sang at the sea.

 


Omer poems

Towardsinai-smallIn 2015 I wrote poems for each day of the Omer -- the 49-day journey between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation. In 2016 those poems were collected and published (sometimes in revised form) in the collection Toward Sinai: Omer Poems.

Here are my 49 Omer poems collected in one place, for ease of navigation. Feel free to bookmark this page and return to it during each day of the Omer (and/or to pick up a copy of the collection and use the book as part of your Omer counting practice -- it's available for $12 on Amazon.)

May the Counting of the Omer be a blessing for you, and may it help you open your heart to revelation!


Untie

Source of Mercy, untie my tangled places.
I'm a fine gold chain so knotted and snarled

I've forgotten how it feels to fall straight,
to let Your abundance cascade through.

Protector of Israel, when someone wounds
my beloveds I turn into an angry lioness.

Forgive me: I don't want to outgrow
this furious yearning to protect those I love.

Eternal Friend, help me relinquish my grudges,
especially those I hold against myself.

You know every hope and every ache.
All I want to want is You, and if I have You

I have all I need. Through time and space
Your glory shines, Majestic One.

 


 

This is a prayer-poem I began writing a couple of years ago to which I returned this morning. It began as a re-visioning and mashup of two pre-existing prayers: Ana B'Choach, which some recite on Friday nights, and the bedtime prayer of forgiveness which appears in the nightly shema liturgy.

My poem borrows some phrases from Reb Zalman z"l's translations of both of those prayers. It also grapples with the piece of the bedtime forgiveness prayer that challenges me most: the articulation of forgiveness not for those who have harmed me, but for those who have harmed those whom I love. 

There are four names of God, or epithets for God, in this prayer-poem. Three of them are names that Reb Zalman z"l used often, and the fourth appears in traditional daily liturgy. The fact that there are four names of God was a conscious choice made in revision; I like how it evokes the four worlds

Shabbat shalom to all!

 


Seven poems for ma'ariv

29507891500_b16a1ea0df_zMany years ago, my friend Teju Cole put together a collection of contemporary poems with the intention of praying them daily as though they were liturgy. I remember printing them out and putting them on my desk in my study, and I remember praying them sometimes.

Alas, I no longer remember which poems he chose, though the fact that he had assembled a liturgy out of contemporary poetry was on my mind when I put together a morning service during National Poetry Month that interwove the Shabbat morning liturgy with the work of a variety of contemporary poets. (That liturgy featured Gerard Manley Hopkins, Norman Fischer, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Adrienne Rich, William Stafford, Marge Piercy, Jane Kenyon -- some of the poets to whom I most often turn when I'm in need of spiritual sustenance.)

I had both of those sheaves of poems in mind -- Teju's, and my own -- when I assembled a collection of my own poems for use in daily prayer. I've written several poems that intentionally riff off of the words, images, and themes of daily Jewish liturgy. One day it occurred to me to see whether I could pull together a handout that follows the matbeah tefilah (structure of prayer -- e.g. the roadmap of themes and ideas that we touch upon in daily Jewish prayer) using my own poems for each of the stops along that daily journey.

What I came up with was this: Seven poems for ma'ariv. [pdf] Ma'ariv is the name we give to evening prayer in Jewish tradition, and these seven poems are intended to follow the themes of our evening prayers.

Why seven? Seven is a symbolic number in Judaism: the seven days of the week, seven colors of the rainbow, the seven "lower" sefirot that we inhabit as we count the Omer, seven wedding blessings (and seven times wedding partners circle one another), seven stops on the way to the grave... to name a few.  

These seven poems are also intended to map to seven specific prayers: 1) the ma'ariv aravim prayer that blesses God Who brings on the evening; 2) the ahavat olam prayer that blesses God Who loves us and expresses that love through Torah; 3) the shema; 4) the ge'ulah blessing for redemption that evokes coming through the Sea; 5) the hashkivenu blessing for God Who spreads a shelter of peace over us as we sleep; 6) the amidah / prayer in which we stand before God and speak the words of our hearts; and 7) the aleinu prayer that closes our evening davenen. 

I pray these poems sometimes as my abbreviated evening service. If you use them, I'm curious to know what works for you and what doesn't. (And if you've ever assembled a series of poems or readings intended to follow the flow of liturgical prayer in this way, I'd love to see it!)

 

A note on God-language:

Please note that that document contains the name יהו''ה, one of my tradition's holiest names for the One; if you print those pages, please treat them with the respect you would give a prayerbook.

I chose to include that Name, and not to translate or transliterate it, for a reason. That Name can be understood as a permutation of the verb "to be." Its untranslatability points us beyond all words. Our Creator is beyond language; our words can only approach the Infinite.

When I see the letters יהו׳׳ה, sometimes I render them aloud as Adonai ("My Lord"), sometimes as Shechinah (the immanent, indwelling Divine Feminine), sometimes as Havayah (the One Who Accompanies) -- and sometimes in still other ways. The unpronounceable / untranslatable Name reminds me that all of our names are only substitutes, and that our Source is beyond any words we can speak.


Texts to the Holy: now available for pre-order!

TextsThis is a happy week for publishing news around these parts!

A few days ago I shared with y'all about Beside Still Waters, a volume for mourners to be released this spring by Ben Yehuda Press and Bayit: Your Jewish Home (now available for pre-order). Today I'm writing with more delightful Ben Yehuda news!

My next collection of poems -- Texts to the Holy, a collection of love poems to the (divine) Beloved, or to a lower-case-b human beloved, as you prefer -- is coming out soon from Ben Yehuda Press, and is now available for pre-order at an advance price of $9.95. 

I'm starting to schedule readings for this spring. The book will officially premiere at a reading at the Tarrytown JCC (in Tarrytown, NY) at 1:30pm on March 18, where I will appear alongside two other Ben Yehuda poets, Maxine Silverman (author of Shiva Moon) and Jay Michaelson (the pseudonymous author of Is).

Stay tuned for information on other readings (and if you'd like to explore bringing me to your community for some combination of scholar-in-residence event and poetry reading, let me know!)

Meanwhile, here's some advance praise for the collection: 

From Merle Feld, author of A Spiritual Life and Finding Words:

These poems are remarkable, radiating a love of God that is full bodied, innocent, raw, pulsating, hot, drunk.  I can hardly fathom their faith but am grateful for the vistas they open.  I will sit with them, and invite you to do the same.

From Netanel Miles-Yépez, translator of My Love Stands Behind a Wall: A Translation of the Song of Songs and Other Poems, and co-author (with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) of A Heart Afire: Stories and Teachings of the Early Hasidic Masters.

Rachel Barenblat’s Texts to the Holy bridges the human and Holy, so that we realize the bridge is really just an illusion to get us to realize that the human is itself Holy—“Bless the One Who separates / and bridges. Even at a distance / we aren’t really apart.” And yet, in every honest line, she also comforts us in the uncomfortable knowledge that realization does not exactly bridge the unavoidable separation from That to which we are so close, and that sometimes, “yearning is as close as you get to whole.” The Ba’al Shem Tov or the Aish Kodesh couldn’t have said it better.

(You can see other kind things people have said about the book on my website.)

This collection has a special place in my heart, and I think it's the best work I've put into the world. I hope you'll agree. Pick up a copy now!


A woman of valor

A woman of valor! Worth more than
business class tickets to anywhere.
Every day I pack my son's lunch,
tuck his homework into his backpack.

I pay the mortgage. I ensure
my car is legal and fit to drive.
I fold and put away laundry.
I text beloveds who are far away.

I serve, I write, I create.
I teach and accompany and plan.
Every Friday night I light
twin fires of creation and Sinai,

chant sanctity into my wineglass.
When the co-op runs out of challah
I uplift a sandwich roll.
I make holiness from what I have.

Even on days when depression
whispers cruelty in my ear
I cup my hands around gratitude's spark
and I tell my child he matters.

And at the end of the week
I sing myself this song. I promise
I'm enough (but not too much)
and I am beautiful in God's eyes.



There's a tradition of reading Eshet Chayil ("A Woman of Valor") on Friday nights -- traditionally, a man reads or sings it to his wife. (There's a translation online here. I also love In loco eshes chayil by poet Danny Siegel.)

I was working recently on a poem that became a lament for the fact that there is no one to sing those words to me. 

Then I thought, if there were a variant I could speak to myself, as a single woman and a working parent, what would it say? That's what sparked this poem.