Liturgy for Sukkot in times of covid-19

Before Tisha b'Av, I gathered a group of liturgists to collaborate on a project that became Megillat Covid, Lamentations for this time of covid-19.

In recent weeks we've gathered again -- in slightly different configuration -- to build something new for this pandemic season: a set of prayer-poems for Sukkot and Simchat Torah, which we've titled Ushpizin. That's the Aramaic word for guests, usually used to refer to the practice of inviting ancestral / supernal guests like Abraham and Sarah into our Sukkah... though this year, what does it mean to invite Biblical guests when many of us don't feel safe inviting in-person guests? That's the question that gave rise to the project.

The prayers / poems that we wrote arose out of that question and more. What does it mean to find safety in a sketch of a dwelling in this pandemic year? With what, or whom, are we "sitting" when we sit in our sukkot this year? What about those of us who can't build this year at all? And what can our Simchat Torah be if we are sheltering-in-place, or if our shul buildings are closed, or if we are not gathering in person with others? 

For Megillat Covid, we each wrote a piece and then I collected them. This time our creative process was different. Four of us collectively wrote nine pieces, and then we met to workshop them and revise them together, in hopes of creating not just nine individual prayers but a whole that would be more than the sum of its parts. And then we wrote the tenth prayer-poem together as a collaboration... and Steve Silbert offered a couple of sketchnotes, too.

You can click through to Builders Blog to read excerpts from our ten poems and to download the whole collection as a PDF, and I hope you will -- I'm really proud of this collection, and humbled and honored to have convened the group that brought it to life.

 


Shelter

Most years in Elul we say
"the King is in the Field" --

God walks with us in the tall grass
to hear our yearnings.

This year, Shechinah
shelters-in-place with us.

With her, we don't need to mask
our fears or our despair.

When we stay up too late
reading the news again

or binge-watch The Good Place
desperate for redemption

she does too. As we practice
social distancing, we're not alone:

she summons angels to encourage
the scallions we re-grow

just as they cheer on the maples
releasing their helicopter seeds,

compressed packages of hope
for the eventual coming of spring.


 

“The King is in the Field” - R’ Shneur Zalman of Liadi wrote that during the month leading up to the Days of Awe, “The King is in the Field.” God, whom he imagined as a transcendent King distant from us, is close to us during this special month -- walking with us to hear our inmost prayers, like a beloved friend offering a listening ear.

“Shechinah / shelters-in-place” - Shechinah is the Jewish mystics’ name for the immanent, indwelling Presence of God. The name is related to the Hebrew word for neighborhood; this is God dwelling with and within us. In this pandemic year, sheltering-in-place requires no explanation...

“Angels to encourage” - Midrash holds that there is an angel assigned to every blade of grass, constantly and lovingly encouraging the grass to grow. Many of us started regrowing scallions during the pandemic. May we be blessed with encouragement for our own growth during this holiday season.

(This is the Elul / New Year's poem that I wrote to send to family and friends this year. You can read the last seventeen years' worth of such poems here.)


Megillat Covid at Builders Blog

MegillatCovid

One of the things we do at Bayit is share curated resources and spiritual tools for "building Jewish." Our latest is Megillat Covid -- a collection of five offerings for Tisha b'Av, written in and for this time of pandemic.

Megillat Covid comprises five readings / prayers / variations on Eicha (Lamentations). One was written by me, one by Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz who is the editor of the CCAR Press, one by liturgist and poet devon spier, one by liturgist and poet Trisha Arlin, and one by my fellow Bayit co-founder Rabbi Evan Krame. Each looks at Lamentations and at the pandemic through its own unique lens, and I am honestly humbled and moved to be able to curate such a meaningful resource in this moment. 

Here's an excerpt from each of our five pieces; you can click through to Builders Blog to read each of our poems in full.

*

Crying Out by R’ Rachel Barenblat draws on images from the pandemic and asks the question: who will we be when the pandemic is gone? Here is a brief excerpt (you can read the whole piece in the PDF file at Builders Blog):

Lonely sits the city once great with people —
her subways now empty, her classrooms closed.
Refrigerator trucks await the bodies of the dead
wrapped in sheets of plastic and stacked like logs.
Mourners keep a painful distance, unable to embrace…

Along the Lines of Lamentations by R’ Sonja K. Pilz is similar to a cento (a poem that repurposes lines from another poem), as it consists primarily of quotations from Eicha, re-contextualized by their juxtaposition and by this pandemic season. Here is a brief excerpt (the whole appears in the PDF at Builders Blog):

We were laid waste (2:5).
We were stripped liked a garden;
Ended have Shabbat and festivals (2:6).
Our gates have sunk into the ground (2:9).
Elders sit silently;
Women bow their heads to the ground (2:10).
My eyes are spent;
My being melts away (2:11)….

Jeremiahs without a jeremiad by devon spier offers fragmented lines evoking our fragmented hearts in this time of pandemic. About her contribution, devon writes:

To be used to cultivate an embodied COVID megillah reading that honours the fall of Jerusalem and the ebb and flow of our bodies in the months of the Coronavirus and related social distancing. 

To honour that for those of us with pre-existing conditions (our own frail, flimsy, fabulous humanness, our addictions, chronic health issues, years of unfelt griefs suddenly flung to the surface…each of these), we can wrap our whole selves in the scroll of this weeping day. And we can arrive, just as we are.

I would frame this as a kavannah as lines of ketuvim (lines of poetical post-exilic writings) the speaker can read before beginning chanting to set an intention. Or, the lines of this work could also be read throughout the chanting, as the verses I cite appear throughout the first chapter of Eicha. 

‘V’ha-ikar…” and the essence: Pause for the moments you feel the most human. Feel. And insert the words of this piece exactly where you are. From the lines of this intention and a gentle remembrance on this solemn day where we still face ourselves, our ancestors, our communities and each other, in and beyond, always, with hope: “Jerusalem is me is you.”

Here is a brief excerpt (the whole appears in the PDF at Builders Blog):

lamentations
for those with pages
of unwritten loss
lamenting
Jerusalem
and everything else
they never had
but Are
somehow
we are…

Alas by Trisha Arlin evokes the full journey of Eicha, from weeping for the city in distress to remembrance and the promise of change. Here is a brief excerpt (the whole appears in the PDF at Builders Blog):

…Eating, Sleeping, Walking
Alone
TV, Facebook, Prayer
Alone
Coughing, Crying, Dying
Alone

Alas, loneliness!
I am so frightened.
I weep and who will hear me?…

Remember by Rabbi Evan Krame evokes the end of Lamentations, beseeching God to remember us and to let us return. Here is a brief excerpt (the whole appears in the PDF below):

God! Remember what we had? Consider and see our situation!
Our future went to strangers, our houses no refuge.
We are like orphans, without a leader, our mothers worry like widows…

Read the whole thing here: Megillat Covid at Builders Blog.


A sign upon my arm

As I slide the little box of my tefillin shel yad to nestle beneath the sleeve of my guayabera shirt, I remember the old men in the weekday minyan where we went to pray after my grandmother died. Some wore bolo ties. Some had sportcoats hanging off of one arm, sleeves rolled up. And some wore guayabera shirts like these. Like my grandfather wore on that lonely morning as he began to drift, unmoored, away from us. Mississippi had just ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, finally agreeing to the abolition of slavery in the year 1995. Today pandemic jostles for headline space alongside police killings of Black people. Look how far we haven't come. My grandfather was a thoracic surgeon. He fled the Nazis in 1939. Dare I hope that he would stand up for the right of every Black human being to walk, play with toys, jog in a park, drive a car, sleep on a sofa, listen to music, drink iced tea, birdwatch, and carry Skittles, without fear of a cop or armed vigilante or garden-variety racist stealing their breath?

 

 


K'gavna - Just As...

Prism

Just as the colors of the rainbow
Unite to make one light
God far above and God deep within,
YHVH and Shechinah,
Unite in Shabbat.
Transcendence unites with Immanence,
One and One becoming One.

We join together in community
Together reflecting God's splendor.
We are the colors of the rainbow
Uniting to make one light.
The glorious holy throne
Is here where we meet
Ready for Shabbat to rest upon us.

HaMakom, this sacred Place, uplifts us
Here where electrons dance
And the interplay of Being and Nothingness
Draws our hearts together, binary code
Flickering through space
Making us present to each other
And to the radiance of Shabbat.

We crown Her from below
And She enfolds us in new supernal souls
So that our service
Be blissful and praiseful,
Joyful and radiant
As with shining faces
We approach the Bar'chu --

 


The prayer known as K'Gavna comes from the Zohar, and describes the mystical joining of transcendence (God-far-above, the Kadosh Baruch Hu) with immanence (God-deep-within, Shechinah) as Shabbat arrives. It speaks in the language of the seven "lower sefirot" (emanations or aspects of qualities of God) which are sometimes mapped to the seven colors of the rainbow. (That rainbow imagery for divinity is especially lovely now during June. Happy Pride Month everyone!)

In some siddurim K'Gavna is a prelude to the Bar'chu, the formal Call to Prayer that comes between Kabbalat Shabbat and the evening service. This variation was written for the 2020 Clear Vision Reb Zalman Legacy Shabbaton that R' David Markus and I co-led over the weekend over Zoom for Havurh Shir Hadash in Ashland OR. It dovetails with that Shabbaton's themes of sacred space, digital presence, and what it means to come together in community online.

On a related note, here's my d'var from the weekend: Being Real, Digital Edition. And here's R' David's d'var from the weekend: The Mishkan's Next Digital (R)Evolution.


Pandemic Psalm 3

The enemy
could be anywhere.
The tiny spiky mace
that liquefies the lungs
and clots the vessels
in the brain --

could be
on a door handle
or a package
or a light switch
or lingering in the air.

Going to the grocery store
or the mechanic
is a walk
through the valley
of the shadow.

This flimsy scrap of fabric
over my nose and mouth
is my shield.
Hand sanitizer my chain mail.
Will soap and water protect me?

I want to feel your presence
your cool embrace
on my hot skin
your glorious light
like early dawn breaking.

I don't want
to walk through the world
afraid.

 


Part of an occasional series: Pandemic Psalm 1, Pandemic Psalm 2


Your house

But I, through Your abundant love, enter Your house... (Ps. 5:8)

 

I enter your house
before sleep,
lying among sheets
not yet tangled

in the anteroom
I wonder whether
I'll hear your voice
right away

feel the blush 
rise in my face,
the jackhammer beat
of my shy heart

down to the floor
not in abasement 
but exultation
letting you in

 


 

Last week my congregational psalm group delved into psalm 5. In verse 8, the psalmist says, "But I, through Your abundant love, enter Your house; I bow down in awe at Your holy temple." (It's a line that's familiar to many of us from liturgy.)

From that line emerged a writing prompt: what does it mean to envision entering God's house during this time of pandemic when we are all sheltering-in-place at home? What is God's house, where is God's house, how do we enter it, what does it feel like to enter it now? 

 


Words set to music: what joy

One of the most extraordinary things in the world, for me as a writer who is also a singer, is hearing my own words set to music. The music transforms and uplifts the words, and the end result is a work of art that is rooted in but also different from the one I put out into the world. It is humbling and amazing and awe-inspiring for me. 

I've been blessed to have that experience a few times. In 2010, composer Michael Veloso (who is a dear friend) set two of my motherhood poems from Waiting to Unfold (Phoenicia, 2013) to music -- Letters to Little Bean (listen here at SoundCloud.)

In 2014, Michael Scherperel set four poems from 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia, 2011) to music in a series called "שבעים / Shiv'eem" ("Seventy") (listen here at SoundCloud.)

And this week I heard my words set to music once more: conductor and composer Sarah Riskind (a longtime friend and fellow alumna of the Williams College Elizabethans) set my "Psalm of the Sky" (which appears in Open My Lips, Ben Yehuda 2016) to music (embedded below, or if the embed doesn't work, you can listen here at SoundCloud.)

 

It's particularly poignant to hear this setting of these words now. During this time of pandemic, I resonate with the words of this "psalm of uncertainty" in a new way. And because singing together in person is not currently possible (and may be contraindicated even when we are able to gather again, at least until there is a vaccine), and singing in harmony on Zoom is not possible (because sounds waves clash and collide), hearing voices in harmony is especially moving to me in this moment.

I'm grateful to Sarah for this beautiful setting of my poem, and I hope it speaks to you, too.


Pandemic Psalm 2

Newspapers overflow with empty words
     from men who value money more than lives
while bodies stack up faster than we can bury
    and doctors and nurses reuse protective gear
and each solitary death, lungs filling with water
     in a negative pressure room, is a world destroyed.

I wish I believed that God hurls lightning bolts
     like Zeus on his mountain striking evil down.
I want to smash what keeps us in thrall
     to petty kings who feel no empathy
who set their children one against another
     fighting for supplies in a zero-sum game.

My child asks why God doesn't answer our prayers.
     Grief stoppers my throat. What can I say?


 

This is the second poem in an occasional series. (The first is Pandemic Psalm 1.) I'm teaching three different classes right now on psalms (reading them, praying them, engaging with them devotionally, writing our own) and as a result the psalms are very much with me in this moment. 

These poems are not translations or renderings of the classical psalms -- they are the outpouring of my own heart. That said, this second psalm in my pandemic psalms series takes some inspiration from psalm 2 which speaks of people "murmur[ing] vain things" (in Robert Alter's translation), and of earthly kings, and uses the language of smashing or shattering. That language feels apt in this time when the world's brokenness is so palpable and so painfully clear.

 


Pandemic Psalm 1

Happy is the one
who sifts the detritus of the crisper
and from a third of a cabbage, a wilted carrot
and half a cup of sourdough discard
assembles okonomiyaki,
who grows new scallions from the stumps of the old
and sings to angels while kneading challah.

This one will find a thimble of chili crisp
at the back of the refrigerator,
a bag of dried beans when shelves are bare.
Her spice cabinet blooms at all seasons
with bright sumac and turmeric
and the striated crescents of cumin seeds.

If she can feed a hungry heart
she will always be content.

 


Pandemic pantoum

The good news is, my son and I aren't sick.
He's ten. He learned to sew to make a mask.
I bargain, "only keep my loved ones safe --"
A can of Clorox wipes: better than gold.

He's ten. He learned to sew to make a mask.
I look for lettuce, but the shelves are bare.
A can of Clorox wipes: better than gold.
What day is it now? I've lost track of time.

I look for lettuce, but the shelves are bare.
Forget oil futures: invest in TP.
What day is it now? I've lost track of time.
I think I'm on Zoom meetings in my dreams.

Forget oil futures: invest in TP.
Sometimes at night my kid is scared, can't sleep.
I think I'm on Zoom meetings in my dreams.
Count to twenty while I scrub each hand.

Sometimes at night my kid is scared, can't sleep
and loss piles up on loss like banks of snow.
Count to twenty while I scrub each hand.
Some days we laugh. This is the life we have.

Loss piles up on loss. The banks of snow...?
When I wasn't looking, spring arrived.
Some days we laugh. This is the life we have.
Outside, bright daffodils lift up their heads.

When I wasn't looking, spring arrived.
The good news is, my son and I aren't sick.
Outside, bright daffodils lift up their heads.
I bargain: "only keep my loved ones safe --"

 


Calling all clergy: come write psalms with me!

Bayit-logo-fullcolor

In these first six weeks of the pandemic, I've been teaching a psalm-writing workshop for my shul and a friend's shul together, and a member of my community who's a rabbi has been taking the class. After the first week, she commented to me that the class feels like spiritual self-care, and that she hadn't realized how much she needed to read and write psalms, to connect with emotions and spirit in these incredibly difficult times. Then another rabbinic colleague called me from across the country and said, "I love that you're teaching a psalms class for your congregation. Would you teach something like that for rabbis?" 

Announcing: online learning at Bayit: Building Jewish! This will be our first class offering. It's designed for clergy. (Never fear, over time we're planning to balance learning for clergy with learning aimed at a broader audience. Also, I'm about to teach a version of a psalms class for My Jewish Learning which will not be for clergy, and I'll share info about that here soon too.) Here's a description of Bayit's first online offering:

The psalms give voice to a range of human emotions, from despair to exultation. In this class for clergy, we’ll study psalms (both classical / Biblical, and contemporary poems that function in similar ways) and then open our creative channels to write our own. Both the reading and the writing will enliven our relationship with text, tradition, ourselves, and our Source, and will give us tools for building a more robust relationship with the psalms and with our own creativity.

In each session, we’ll study select psalms and poems together, delve into writing exercises, and enter into a safe space for creativity as we write. We’ll share work (in dyads or as a whole group) and offer feedback. Throughout, we’ll seek to attune ourselves to the inner dynamics of heart and spirit, exploring how our continuing spiritual formation is being impacted by our spiritual service during this time of pandemic.

The class will meet over Zoom for five sessions of 90 minutes apiece. We will focus each week on a different facet of the psalms and our inner lives: gratitude, awareness, teshuvah, grief / anxiety, and wholeness.

Tuition: $180

Dates: Fridays May 15 and 22, June 5, 12, and 19; 3pm ET / 12pm PT

This class  for clergy will be limited to 12 participants. Once the first session fills, registrants will have the option of pre-registering for the next iteration of the class, which will take place after the first five-week session is complete.

Read all about it and sign up on Bayit's Online Learning page. All are welcome, with two caveats: 1) only the first 12 to sign up will get in to the first iteration of the class (though I will gladly teach it again if there's interest), and 2) if you're going to be studying the psalms with me at the Richmond Academy for Spiritual Formation in December, you might want to wait and do this learning with me in person, since what I'll be offering in this Zoom class will overlap a lot with the psalms work I do with the Academy. I look forward to learning with y'all!


For me

At the start of the dream
I float down the Guadalupe
but the current goes backwards.
I emerge into a house
from 1985, and inside

there you are: hair pulled back
into a casual ponytail,
white terrycloth coverup
as though you've just come
from a tennis game or a swim.

You've made dinner. I tell you
about my divorce, but
don't mention the pandemic:
why intrude on your afterlife
with something so terrible?

I wake to more headlines
(the world is dust and ashes) but
for a moment I almost felt
that loss isn't forever, that
the world was created for me.


 

A story tells of Rabbi Simcha Bunim who held two slips of paper in his pockets at all time, to remind him to balance two fundamental truths. In one pocket the paper said "I am dust and ashes," and in the other pocket the paper said "the world was created for me."

On the last day of Pesach we recite Yizkor / memorial prayers. Last year's Pesach Yizkor was the first time I said those prayers since Mom died. She had been gone for only a couple of months and the loss was raw. This year I am grateful for how the passage of time has smoothed over those rough places.

May comfort come to all who mourn.


A part

Furled tufts of red pop
at the tip of every maple branch
bright against a clouded sky.

I know there's blue
stretching above that white ceiling
even when I can't see it,

I know beyond our thin atmosphere
we're cradled in the vastness of space.
Even when I feel stuck in my skin

in the seclusion of social distancing
cloaked in mask and gloves
unable to touch

the maple and I are breathing together
(you and I are breathing together)
even when I feel apart.

 


The far shore

This is how the year ends.
We've carried your memory, and now 
we dedicate this stone
on the far side of the sea.

We've carried your memory.
Now we look back
from the far side of the sea,
our footsteps washed away.

Now we look back
and blink, disoriented,
our footsteps washed away.
The waves are gentler now.

We blink, disoriented.
I still talk to you.
The waves are gentler now
when I greet your photos.

I still talk to you
in every room
when I greet your photos
as though you were here.

In every room
questions I wish I'd asked
(as though you were here.)
I remember your voice.

Questions I wish I'd asked:
how do we live without you?
I remember your voice.
I don't want to let go.

How we live without you:
we dedicate this stone.
I don't want to let go..
This is how the year ends.

 


Tether

These letters, kite-string
or umbilicus: do they
tether you? When I
stop writing will you
dissolve, a water droplet
rejoining the flowing stream?
Maybe I'm the one
tied to what was,
not willing to disentangle.
When I wasn't looking
this year changed me.
Still homesick sometimes, but
I've learned to sleep
in this strange bed
where sometimes, I know,
I will see you
in dreams. Gone but
still here. Almost enough.


The weather

Things I can't know,
a partial list: how cold
the cemetery will be this time

how bruised my heart will feel
-- or not -- and most of all
would you wear sandals?

I don't think the dead
pull climate strings, but
if it were up to you

you'd want Texas to put on
her prettiest face
when we remember you.

You'd want our grief
to melt like thin ice
in morning Texas sun.

 


Pebbles

I know I must have talked with you
after unveilings for relatives

or friends, but I don't remember
what you had to say. Probably

we talked about shopping or haircuts
or Shabbes dinner, what Marie Howe

called "what the living do."
When you drove out of a cemetery

you moved on, but part of me still
hasn't left where we buried you.

Soon we'll gather to bless the slab
that marks the spot. Did you know

the tradition that says we stop
saying kaddish after eleven months

because only wicked souls require
a full year of kaddish to ascend

and we wouldn't want to imply
you weren't righteous? I think

you'd laugh and say whatever works
for us is fine by you, then ask

where we're going for lunch after
and what kind of shoes I'm planning.

Almost eleven months now I've been
writing to you, each line a monument

to memory. These poems,
the pebbles I leave on your stone.

 


A year ago

A year ago you kept falling. Bloodied from landing,
bruised as though beaten. Dad couldn't lift you, so one
night you slept on the carpet until morning. Did you know
your children were scheduling frantic conference calls?
There was no knowing how much worse it might get.
When you consented to hospice, you texted us, "if my decline
troubles you, have your doctor prescribe a happy pill."
I laughed until I cried. A year ago you were still alive.
This month I keep saying that, like a mantra.
Soon I'll never be able to say it again.


Chanukah gift

The closet in my study
holds picture frames, half-empty
boxes of stationery, old books,

pillows and blankets
for the guest bed. And tucked in
amid all of these, a small box

emblazoned Priority Mail,
addressed in your handwriting,
postmarked two years ago.

It slipped behind the quilts
and the crates of journals,
unseen and forgotten.

As I slice open the packing tape
I can scarcely breathe.
A letter you wrote to my son

for the last night of Chanukah
and some old coins -- a poem
and gelt, though I know

what in this box is truly gold.
Your words, your memory --
the oil that keeps on burning.