A barukh she'amar for Shavuot morning

48144636867_a9dbbaeb3a_cThe Torah of knobby roots
protruding from sandy earth.
The Torah of watch your step
in every language at once.
The Torah of Duolingo lessons
teaching me to praise God
for Duolingo lessons.
The Torah of my heart,
a fragile paper balloon
buoyed by candlelight.
The Torah of silence, broken
by an unexpected dance beat.
The Torah of small cats.
The Torah of photographs.
The Torah of chlorophyll
singing its exuberant chorus
across these green hills.
The Torah of saying what's true.
The Torah of uneven stones
and wildflowers between them.
The Torah of tracing
this curving path, trusting
it goes where I need to go.


Exodus


Trudging on treadmills
and surrounded by vacuum, tired
of freeze-dried anything
we'll kvetch: why did you bring us
out here to die? Was the climate crisis
really so dire?

Like our ancient ancestors
craving cucumbers and melons,
the thirsty tastes
of fertile crescent,
nothing to eat but manna
every blistering day.

Maybe a captain, frayed to the end
of his connector cable
will snap: I can't anymore
with you ungrateful wretches,
go eat hydroponic lettuce
until it comes out your nose.

What liturgies will we write
remembering this green Eden?
What revelation will we receive
in ownerless wilderness
wandering across the vastness
between stars?

 

 

Why did you bring us? Ex. 14:11. Cucumbers and melons. Numbers 11:5I can't anymore. Numbers 11:11. Until it comes out your nose. Numbers 11:20. Ownerless wilderness. We receive(d) Torah in a place that is hefker, ownerless; some say, we receive when we ourselves become hefker.

The idea of seeking a new home among the stars is still science fiction. But I can imagine a hypothetical generation of space refugees behaving like the Children of Israel in the wilderness, stiff-necked and grousing. Mostly I wish I could be a fly on the wall to see the liturgies they would write.

 


Body

Dinner table conversation
about the vast currents
that warm European waters
slowing. I imagine
great swaths of American south
so hot a fall on asphalt burns
while Britain ices over.
The second one, at least,
hasn't yet come to pass.
In the morning I daven
asher yatzar, gratitude
for this body that mostly works:
the vessels stay open,
the organs stay sealed.
I tell myself no matter what
there will be generations
to carry this prayer forward.
Though in a time
of mass extinctions
(and no one actively hates
the frogs or mice or insects
the way some people
persist in hating us)
I'm not so sure.
I don't want to imagine
a world free of Jews
but they do. Then again
we may have bigger problems.
Who will be left to pray
gratitude for the body
of our planet
if currents fail?

 


 

This poem arises out of the confluence of climate grief and rising antisemitism -- a combination I know many of us are feeling keenly. The poem is also a bit more bleak than reality, or at least, I hope it is.

The folks at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution make a solid case that the complex system of currents known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation will slow but will not fail. And although right now many of us are navigating significant fear (as R. Jeffrey Salkin writes, fear of antisemitism to our left and to our right), I truly do believe that Judaism will persist.

Still, if this poem resonates with you in any way, you're not alone. 


Translation

 

This translation algorithm
must be an angel: it does not speak

Aramaic. But is it not true
that angels can learn anything?

Say rather: Aramaic is the language
of the street, tongue of trade

and commerce, and angels can't
be bothered. But is not Hebrew

now street talk, at least
in one ineffable place? Say instead

the angels have forgotten how to hear
and the algorithms never learned

what yearnings underlie the words
we use to disguise our fragile hearts.


Place of promise

The Presence
has no address,
goes with us
everywhere:
in wholeness
and in exile.

This place
is still
a focusing lens
for our prayers,
though not
only ours.

Stories
land differently
when I can see
the topography
of spring and desert,
valley and hill.

To describe this
place of promise,
I would need
God's voice:
all possible meanings
at once.

 


 

Lately I've been trying to spend less time refreshing the news and more time working on my next poetry manuscript.  The news is grim and there's so little I can do. Despair is corrosive to the spirit. Better to work on making something -- even if that something is just words.

Of course, poetry isn't wholly a distraction from the sorrows of the world. Especially given that this week I've been working on revising a series of poems that originated last year in a trip to Israel / Palestine. (Some of these lines first found form in the blog post Fifty truths, posted last June.) 

A poem is not like an essay or an argument -- at least most of mine aren't. My poems often originate in yetzirah, the sphere of the yearning heart, rather than in briyah, the world of clarity and intellect. For me a poem is more like a painting or a collage, hopefully functioning on an associative level. 

A friend remarked recently that she's never before experienced a situation where so many people are not only utterly divided on an issue, but not even agreeing on basic facts about it. That's another thing that can feel corrosive to the spirit. Another reason that lately I turn to poetry. 

I think of poetry the way I think of midrash: no single poem is "the right answer," but the totality of poetry taken together can offer a glimmer of ultimate reality. That's maybe especially true when it comes to poems about this contested, complicated, beloved place. 


Symbols

Symbols

 

Symbols, This Year

The shankbone is for houses across Israel and Gaza
where the Angel of Death has not passed over.

Maror for the hot tearful bitter sharp pain
of hostages held underground and children imprisoned.

Haroset, for mortar: Gaza bombed to rubble. 
The egg is roasted like charred kibbutz walls. 

Everything is dipped in tears like the sea that closed 
when God rebuked, "My children die, and you sing praises?"

Matzah: cracker of liberation and affliction. (Gazans
approaching starvation know only one of these.)

There’s no place on the seder plate for ambivalence, 
survivors’ guilt, history’s persecutions telescoping into now.

In every generation trauma traps us in Mitzrayim.
Will this be the year we begin to walk free?

 

R. Rachel Barenblat

 


This prayer-poem for Pesach is part of the new collection of poetry, liturgy, and art for Pesach 2024 released earlier this week by Bayit. Click through for This Broken Matzah, available as a downloadable chapbook / PDF of liturgical poetry and art, or as google slides suitable for screenshare. 

Featuring work created in collaboration by the Liturgical Arts Working Group at Bayit, this collection includes work by Trisha Arlin, Joanne Fink, R. Dara Lithwick, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz, Steve Silbert, and R. David Zaslow, and me. 


New poetry, liturgy, and art for Pesach

How do we celebrate Pesach in a year like this one? Everything about the seder lands differently after the last six months. This offering emerges out of grief and hope. No two pieces are coming from exactly the same place. There are so many emotions — even within a single heart, much less around any given seder table.

On behalf of my co-creators at Bayit, I hope these prayers, poems, and works of art will help you make this Pesach what you need it to be.

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Click through for This Broken Matzah, available as a downloadable chapbook / PDF of liturgical poetry and art, or as google slides suitable for screenshare. 

Featuring work created in collaboration by the Liturgical Arts Working Group at Bayit, this collection includes work by Trisha Arlin, Joanne Fink, R. Dara Lithwick, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz, Steve Silbert, and R. David Zaslow -- and of course also me. 


A new poem for Pesach - with more to come

Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group is working on a collaborative offering for Pesach 2024, which we hope to release on Monday April 8 / just before Rosh Chodesh Nisan. Meanwhile, here's a foretaste -- a piece I've been working on, designed to be used in lieu of (or in addition to) the seder's reading about the Four Sons / Four Children. It arises out of what's unfolding now in Gaza and Israel, and the impacts on our families and communities -- let me know if it speaks to you, and keep an eye on Builders Blog for our whole collection next week.

 

AllFour



All Four (Are One)

 

Today the Four Children are a Zionist, 
a Palestinian solidarity activist, a peacenik, and 
one who doesn’t know what to even dream.

The Zionist, what does she say? Two thousand years
we dreamed of return. “Next year in Jerusalem”
is now, and hope is the beacon we steer by.

The solidarity activist, what do they say?
We know the heart of the stranger. To be oppressors 
is unbearable. Uplift the downtrodden.

The peacenik, what does he say? We both love this land
and neither is leaving. We’re in this together.
Between the river and the sea two peoples must be free. 

And the one who doesn’t know what to even dream:
feed that one sweet haroset, a reminder that 
building a just future has always been our call.

All of us are wise. None of us is wicked.
(Even the yetzer ha-ra is holy—without it
no art would be made, no future imagined.)

We are one people, one family. Not only
because history’s flames never asked what kind
of Jew one might be, but because

the dream of collective liberation is our legacy.
We need each other in this wilderness.
Only together can we build redemption. 

R. Rachel Barenblat

 

No art would be made. Talmud shares a parable that when the “evil impulse” was imprisoned, no eggs were laid – no generativity was possible. (Yoma 69b) History’s flames never asked. See Free, Together, R. David Markus.


Here

be thankful
even when
others don't
have what
you have

you don't
ease their
suffering by
feeling ashamed
of abundance

give praise
for water
and soap
and safety
to shower

for carrots
and onions
resting easy
before slipping
into soup

for happenstance,
the roll
of dice
that landed
you here


Waves

How to be universally loathed: insist on not hating.
Cling to driftwood in the ocean of despair.
God is here, too.

The word dehumanization does not belong in poetry.
Some think we're holding the gun,
others think we're in the crosshairs.

The waves bring our words back.
We're using the same sounds
but they mean something different in different mouths.

 

 

 


Adar

 

"When Adar enters, joy increases." -- Ta'anit 29a


When Adar enters, my parents wave
from beyond the veil.
They followed each other
out the door and into
the early spring earth.
My mother blazed the trail
like a 1950s movie star
perched on a pretty little horse,
riding into the sunset.
Dad was lost
the minute she left
but he found his way. The last thing
he murmured was, "looking good" --
to my brother? to himself
in the mirror behind closed eyes?
Or maybe to mom, waiting patiently
just outside our field of vision
for him to realize
the water was fine,
he could just
jump in.


Each other

 

We
need
each other

to
make
a minyan

for
kaddish
or Torah

to wash
and dress
the dead

to drape
mirrors
with sheets

to loft
a wedding couple
in their chairs

to heave
a shovel
of dirt

to roof
a sukkah
with cornstalks

to dance
in turn
with Torah

to ask
why this night
is different

to argue
for the sake
of heaven

 

 


Questions

 


Do you celebrate
your yahrzeits
like birthdays?

Are you closer to us
at this season
as when planets
as align?

Are you always here
or only when we remember?

When you watch
a funeral
from there
what do you feel?

Did you organize
a welcome party
for the new arrival --
chains of illness
thrown off
like light bedsheets
in the morning
-- and is she already
making art
with steady hands?

 

 


 

Making art. See The Art of Adapting (2018, 9 minutes) and its sequel Tina Epstein - Parkinsons (2023, 38 minutes). Seriously, watch these short films by Christian Ayala; they are well worth it.

Both of my parents died during the lunar month of Adar, three years apart. Yesterday my cousin Tina z"l joined them in whatever comes next. May her family be comforted along with all who mourn.


Statistics

Statistics

 




Rockets launched from XXXX into XXXX since October 7: 10,000
XXXX children killed since October 7: 10,000
Percentage of people who just wrote me off because I opened with XXXX suffering: 50
Percentage of people who just wrote me off because I mentioned XXXX suffering: 50
Residential units in XXXX destroyed or rendered uninhabitable: 65,000
XXXX who have moved back to XXXX: 2
Households in XXXX at risk of starvation: 1 in 4
Percentage of children brought to the ER at XXXX hospital now displaying PTSD: 43
Locations across XXXX where women and girls were reportedly XXXX and XXXX: 7
Witnesses who testified to that: 150
Bombs dropped by XXXX on XXXX since October 7: 45,000
Miles of distance in XXXX underground tunnel network in XXXX: 350-450
Square miles in XXXX: 141
XXXX hostages still in XXXXX captivity: 130
Citizens of XXXX displaced by XXXX and XXXX: 200,000
XXXX displaced by XXXX: 1.9 million
Number of opinions held by any two XXXX: 3
XXXX killed by XXXX since October 7: 20,000
XXXX I personally know who support XXXX: 0
XXXX I personally know: 0
Percentage chance that any two people reading this care about the same set of facts: unknown

 


 

I've been struck lately by the realization that part of the reason why we're talking past each other is that we're having entirely different conversations, fueled by entirely different facts. I don't just mean misinformation or disinformation, though God knows there's plenty of that these days. I mean disagreements where each party is working with real facts, but we're getting facts from entirely different sources. Are we reading Al-Jazeera, or Haaretz, or the Jerusalem Post? Are we reading news in English, or in Arabic, or in Hebrew? Which side's suffering is noted in the news outlet we trust, and how much distrust do we feel when presented with the other narrative? How often do we resort to whataboutism? A colleague noted to me a few days ago that people these days are always listening to see whose suffering gets mentioned first -- and if it's the "other side's" suffering, a lot of listeners will mentally check out or write off the person speaking as a supporter of "them," whoever that means. I wrote this poem thinking of Harper's Index (which still exists, it turns out, even though I haven't read the magazine in decades.) Every fact comes from what I consider to be a reputable source (except for the two lines about which readers are ignoring me depending on who they think I support more, which is speculation). I juxtaposed real data, and then blacked it out, making an erasure poem. I imagine that a lot of readers will automatically try to figure out which name or people or term has been obscured: am I making a point about the suffering of these people, or those people? The answer is yes. I'm grieving all of them. I'm grieving all of this. Including the fact that most of us can't have a conversation with someone who sees the situation differently, because we can't agree on which statistics even matter, much less recognize the infinite human suffering behind every number.


We Sanctify

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You who fill and surround creation, Who adorned the heavens in time before time

with the sparkling net of galaxies like gems in the sky’s expanse – 

You don't need us to make Your name great

throughout the world. It's all we can do

to hold this scant fractal 

encoded in our limbs, 

our temporary breath. 

 

We praise anyway,

through our generations –

not because You need to hear it

but because something in us shifts

whether we whisper this reminder or shout it to the skies: 

You are upwelling, indwelling, holy: the song that sings in us.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהו''ה, הָאֵל הַקָּדושׁ .Blessed are You, Holy One, God Who is holy

 


Sparkling net of galaxies. This image is an artist’s rendering of a supercluster of galaxies, from the Smithsonian magazine. Fractal / encoded in our limbs. The four-letter Name of God can be understood to map to the human body: yud is the head, heh is the arms, vav is the spine, heh is the legs. [O]ur temporary breath. R. Arthur Waskow teaches that we speak the Name every time we breathe.

 

Originally published in Holy / Kedusha, Bayit, Jan. 2024.

*

This liturgical poem is one of my contributions to the latest collaborative offering from Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group: Holy / Kedusha. Click through to Builders Blog to see the whole thing. As always, the offering is available both as a downloadable PDF and as slides suitable for screenshare.

Also as always, what we co-created is more than the sum of its parts. Both of the pieces I drafted were inspired by something that someone else wrote or said, and I wouldn't have written either one were it not for this collaboration. This work is one of the most nourishing things I do, and I am grateful.


Status Update

Dear Most of the Internet:
this is not the Superbowl
or the World Cup, so
wash the face paint off
your social media accounts.
Sit down with one of "them"
face to face, knees touching,
and listen to their losses.
Then do it again, open heart
becoming bruised like a peach.
This is called compassion:
feeling-with, the center
of feeling we call the heart
constantly vulnerable.
I don't want to hear anything
from people who mourn
only one set of children.
Likewise if your answer is
"get rid of all of them,"
go to the back of the line
and think about your choices.
Is your status update helping?
If not, go wash the dishes.
Or send a condolence note
to someone in your community
who just lost a parent. Or
practice on Duolingo
and get one word closer
to understanding
someone different from you.


Choose

Sometimes Mitzrayim
is easy to spot:

the cruel boss,
the relationship

that keeps you small.
Sometimes

the tight places
disguise themselves.

Choose wilderness.
Forget cucumbers and melons:

the Voice
is always calling.

The name of the game
is becoming.

Nowhere better
than ownerless here

to tend the fire
burning on the altar

of your heart,
never to go out.


Poem written in my parked car outside the synagogue waiting for the bomb squad to sweep the building again

My first thought:
every single time
you craven cowards
hit us with
false bomb threats
I will become
more visibly Jewish

though on reflection
what more could
I even do?
I mean c’mon
I already wear
a knit kippah
and hamsa earrings.

Anyone in town
who doesn’t know
what I am
isn’t paying attention.
And more importantly
you don’t get
to influence me.

I let my
freak flag fly
and I won't
lower my Jewishness
to half-mast.
If I listed
everything I love

about the Torah
the 613 mitzvot
our holy prayers
our holy days
our holy languages
we'd be here
all night long.

Four thousand years
won’t end now.
We’re still here.
We won’t stop.
You can't quench
this eternal light.
It always shines.

 


Soup

 


Christmas Lima beans are huge.
Speckled and swirled
in maroon and cream, compared
to chestnuts in festive coats.
Today they marry mirepoix:
red onion, orange carrot,
crisp celery. Six small potatoes.
Turkey bacon pretending to be ham,
rosemary from the window.
I cook them every year
at Chanukah, which is not
a pale imitation of anything.
Granted, we can't all agree
on the moral (fighting
assimilation? the persistence
of hope? being enough?) but
we kindle candles anyway.
I make Chanukah Lima Bean Soup
and what's in my stewpot
is always enough because
long before your guy
multiplied loaves and fishes
we had the amphora of oil
that lasted, like a phone
(for talking with God)
on its last legs that somehow
didn't run out of charge
and we're still here, refusing
to let our light go out.


Feel

It's all right to feel distracted.
There's a war going on. Well, two.
Also an insurgency somewhere, plus
the uneasy sense that there must be
more conflict in places you can't name.
It's okay that one of these hurts
more than the others do. No one

can feel equally every worldly grief.
Maybe you know someone who is fighting
or someone who was killed. You're
a degree or two of separation from
the horrors of the front lines. Or
there are no front lines, horrors
are everywhere. You're allowed to feel

whatever you feel, including of course
sad, despairing, furious, alone
panic-stricken, unable to breathe, 
unable to sleep or maybe to wake up,
knowing how many will never wake again.
Groceries still need to be bought,
laundry washed, assignments completed.

You may stop stock-still at the sink
washing produce, seized suddenly
by awareness of everyone without water
or food to wash in it. Remember
grief is sticky, like tape attaching
to itself and refusing to pull free
so every sorrow re-opens every other.

I want to say: kindle one candle
and breathe with its light! Inside you
the tempests will settle. But this
may not be true. I can't promise when
the grief will end. Bring light anyway:
our souls are God's candles, even when
we're not sure we still know how to shine.