Glimpses of a sweet Shabbat on City Island

First, a "City Island mojito" on Friday night:

Then, sweet davenen with "your band by the sea" at "your shul by the sea:"

A message imprinted as I lit the Shabbat candles:

A Shabbat morning walk by the water before services:

 ...and then more wonderful davenen -- soul-uplifting music -- harmony -- Torah -- conversation -- learning -- joy.

This morning I'll be teaching a master class in spiritual writing, as the culminating event of my TBE Shabbaton. (The class is at 10am at Samuel Pell House, 586 City Island Avenue; $20 for non-members, bring writing implements and an open heart.) At noon I'll read poems from 70 faces and Waiting to Unfoldtake questions and offer answers, and then enjoy some conversations and connecting before hopping in my car to head home to my family again.

Deep thanks to everyone at Temple Beth-El of City Island. You are a wonderful congregation and I'm so honored to have had the opportunity to sing, pray, teach, and learn with y'all!

#blogExodus 7: Blessing

12242603645_269a76785f_nThis past Shabbat was my first Shabbat home from my trip to Israel and the West Bank, and I settled back into our usual Friday evening traditions.

Step one is a trip to the A-Frame bakery for a challah and a cookie. We go there on our way home from preschool. I have known Sharon, the baker, for many years. (She catered the party after our son's brit milah.) Every week she marvels at how big he's getting, how tall, how chatty, how sweet.

Step two is Shabbat dinner with special guests who join us via videoconference. At the hour when our son habitually eats dinner, we sit around our small kitchen table with Shabbat candles, silver kiddush cups, and an open laptop.

Skyping with my parents for Shabbat has turned out to be a gift for me as much as it is for him and for them. I'm not sure I've ever lit candles with my parents on a weekly basis. Certainly not in the twenty-odd years since I left home. And now it's something I look forward to every week. Our son does, too.

The previous week when I was in Jerusalem, I experienced some really amazing Friday night kabbalat Shabbat prayer. It was a wonderful service, with great music, great kavanah (intention/heart), and terrific company. I adored it. And I also missed my son, and this Skyping-with-my-parents tradition, keenly. I was aware, in that moment, of what a blessing it is that I was able to miss him so. What a blessing to have him in my life. What a blessing to be in Jerusalem seeking a bit of sustenance for my spirit -- and  to have this reason to feel as though a part of my heart were somewhere else. My heart was in the west while I was in the east, as it were.

All of that was in my mind on Friday night as we sat at the table to Skype with my parents. Things started more or less as usual: he excitedly showed them a seascape he had made in preschool this week, they chatted a bit, and then we got down to making Shabbat. We blessed candles. We blessed juice. We blessed challah. And then, I reminded him, my last blessing would be for him. He knows this already; he sings along with the blessings now, and he knows that after candles and juice and challah I bless him.

But this time he surprised me. "And my last blessing is for you!" he told me in return. He used to respond to my blessing of peace with a blessing of "a piece" of challah, but it's been almost a year since the last time that happened.

"Do you want to go first?" I asked, and he said yes. So I sat back and waited, curious to see what would come out of his mouth.

He said, "Baruch atah Adonai -- " and then paused for a second, and finished, "love -- Mommy." He's got the beginning of the standard blessing formula down! After that the syntax admittedly got a little bit confused. Was he thanking God for love and for me? Was he equating Mommy with love? Was he asking God to give love to me? Honestly, I have no idea, and I couldn't care less. I was so tickled that he wanted to give me a blessing, that he's learned how our standard blessings begin, and that the blessing brought me together with God and with love. What could be sweeter?

It was the best blessing ever, and I told him so. He gave me a hug, and we cuddled for a while, and then I offered the priestly blessing, as I do every week, this time with him half-in my lap. And then we returned to chatting with my parents, who were delighted to have witnessed this spontaneous outpouring of Shabbat joy. A blessing for everyone.


The photo accompanying this post is a few months old (you can tell because he's wearing a wool sweater, and also it's dark outside at his dinner hour, which is thankfully no longer true), but it gives you the basic idea.

This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.


A Shabbat evening with the Nava Tehila community

At my first Jewish Renewal Shabbat services, back at the old Elat Chayyim in 2002, I felt as though my soul had come home. Every time I have davened with Nava Tehila, the Jewish Renewal community of Jerusalem, I have felt the same way.

When I saw that Nava Tehila didn't have a scheduled service during my time in Israel, I shrugged and figured that was just the luck of the draw. They only meet once a month; I was only here for ten days; it was okay. I made plans to spend Friday evening with Bill and Trudianne, two Jewish Renewal friends from Edmonton, whom I met at the Reb Zalman retreat at Elat Chayyim in 2004. I figured we'd come up with someplace to daven one way or another.

But then on Thursday night at my poetry reading (sponsored by Nava Tehila, and hosted in the home of a Nava Tehila member) I learned that the community would be having a service after all. It wasn't an official open-to-the-public service led by Reb Ruth and her band of amazing musicians; rather, a community service, led by community members, hosted in a community member's home. They were gracious enough to welcome us into their midst for the night, and it was exactly what my heart needed.

As the musicians began to play, people lit candles, and I went to kindle two tealights myself. As I lit them, I was overwhelmed by a wave of emotion -- thinking of my usual weekly tradition of lighting Shabbat candles with our son while Skyping with my parents 2000 miles away. I have had an amazing time in Israel, and will be enriched by this trip for a long time to come -- but I also really miss our little boy, and lighting candles without him made me a little bit weepy.

We sat in a circle in a gracious apartment with a big and beautiful mirpesset (balcony) from which one can see the Mount of Olives, the panorama of the Jerusalem foothills, and apparently on clear nights one can see the lights of Amman in the distance across the Dead Sea. There were several guitarists, one person playing a small harp, and one drummer. We moved through the psalms of kabbalat Shabbat, the service of welcoming the Shabbat bride, without any commentary or page numbers (or for that matter, siddurim) -- people just knew the words.

Many of the melodies were melodies I know from previous encounters with Nava Tehila, or from their two beautiful cds. (You can hear their music at Bandcamp.) Spontaneous harmonies unfolded. We sang with gusto. The musicians were terrific: all in synch with each other, changing tempo and mood effortlessly. At the best moments it felt as though we were all part of one organism, one heart with many bodies and voices giving voice to our shared Shabbat prayer.

When we went out on the mirpesset to welcome the Shabbat bride, I found myself overcome by emotion again. Grateful to be here -- grateful to be ringing in Shabbat with a room full of people who know what these words mean and who love them as much as I do -- amazed to be singing these ancient psalms, and these medieval Shabbat hymns, here, in this place, Jerusalem -- awestruck to be davening outdoors, looking over these hills which are at once so parallel to, and so wildly different from, the hills on which our deck looks out at home -- filled with yearning: for home, for here, for the healed and whole Jerusalem of my dreams, for my family (and especially our son), for connection with Shabbat...

And then someone I didn't know placed a kind hand on my arm, and I thanked her silently, and I pulled myself together and let the tears recede, and joined the singing again.

At one point, when we had paused for a moment, we heard the adhān ringing out from minaret after minaret. "God is great," someone murmured. "They're singing harmony with us," someone else said. A moment later came the riotous ringing of Friday evening church bells.

After an hour of luxurious kabbalat Shabbat singing, we heard a d'var Torah from a community member (usually given in Hebrew; tonight, in deference to the many visitors, he spoke mostly in English) and then another community member led us in a short-and-sweet ma'ariv (evening) service. We blessed juice and challah, enjoyed a glorious potluck (my contribution was the fresh strawberries I'd bought in the Old City that afternoon), and then spent some time in triads talking about how we're feeling spiritually as Pesach approaches. My trio sat on the mirpesset, and as we talked, we stopped to marvel at the fireworks down in the valley -- an Arab wedding, my hosts explained.

When we regrouped we sang some spontaneous niggunim -- more close harmonies, more deep feeling -- and then Bill and Trudianne and I regretfully bid the group farewell and caught a cab back to the Old City.

Before I left, I was honored with the request to share a poem. (I read this week's Torah poem from 70 faces, "Like God.") Before I read the poem, I thanked them for welcoming me. I said that every American rabbi comes to Jerusalem hoping for spiritual sustenance, for that feeling of one's soul being revitalized and rejuvenated -- and that I'm not sure everyone actually has that experience, even though it's what we come here for -- and that davening with Nava Tehila gives me exactly that: it fills me up and renews me to return home and bring these living waters back to the community I'm blessed to serve.

On havdalah

Image002On a recent Saturday at my shul, we paused in an evening program to make havdalah. Afterwards, someone emailed me asking to learn more, pointing out that havdalah was entirely new to them, and perhaps to others as well.

Probably you know we begin Shabbat with a simple ritual: we light candles, bless the fruit of the vine (a symbol of joy and holiness), bless bread (which for most Ashkenazi Jews means challah, though in other parts of the world Jews bless other forms of bread, from tortillas to naan) and in many households also bless our children. Before this ritual, it's still work-week; after the blessings are spoken and the candles are lit, we've entered into the time-apart-from-time which we call Shabbat. Havdalah is the mirror reflection of that; as those blessings began Shabbat, havdalah is how Shabbat ends. The word havdalah means "separation."

At havdalah, we light a braided candle with many wicks, and hold it aloft for all to see. In the most traditional paradigm no fire is kindled during Shabbat, so the striking of the match to light the havdalah candle is a powerful first sign that Shabbat is ending. We bless the fruit of the vine once more. We bless fragrant spices, and pass them around to inhale their heady scent. We bless God who separates one thing from another: separates light from dark, one community from another, the rest day of Shabbat from the six days of work. And then we extinguish the candle in the wine. With that sputter and hiss, Shabbat comes to its end.

After the candle is extinguished, many of us have the custom of singing "Eliahu HaNavi" and/or its twin song "Miriam HaNeviah" -- songs expressing hope for redemption. Then we might sing "Shavua Tov" -- "A good week, a week of peace, may gladness reign and joy increase!" And with that, the new week begins.

I love havdalah. It's one of my favorite rituals in Jewish practice. And it is very much a ritual, not a ceremony. What's the difference? A ceremony, such as a graduation, celebrates and makes official something which has already occurred -- in the case of a graduation, it marks the fact that a student has completed a course of study. (But the course of study is complete already, whether or not the student walks across the stage to receive the diploma.) A ritual, such as havdalah, creates a spiritual change while it is taking place.

I love havdalah because it's the second bookend, the close-parenthesis, which balances the ritual of making Shabbat in the first place. On Friday night we light candles and bless wine; on Saturday night we bless wine and extinguish a candle. On Friday night we begin something special and sacred, and on Saturday night we bring it to its close. On Friday night we open a door, and on Saturday night we close it. We both start and finish Shabbat with mindfulness, taking a few minutes to be aware of a moment in time when something changes. Havdalah is a hinge, a fulcrum-point, balancing between the Shabbat which is ending and the new week which is beginning. We teeter at the top of the hill for a moment and then tumble down the other side.

Orion-Jupiter-and-clouds-Nov16_2012S-1024x682I love havdalah because it's so poignant. Usually the ritual is done in semi-darkness; we're supposed to be able to see three stars in the sky, so night is really falling. The day of Shabbat is coming to its end. And we gather together, sometimes standing in a circle with our arms around each other, and sing these last songs and gaze at this candle and smell the sweet spices which are meant to revive us from the impending departure of that second Shabbat soul. It feels as though we're coming together to savor the last moments of Shabbat sweetness before they're gone for the week.

I love havdalah because there are so many beautiful teachings about its additional layers of meaning. For instance: when the braided candle is held aloft, there is a custom of holding up one's hands to see the light illuminating our fingernails and our skin. The Hebrew word for light (אור) and the Hebrew word for skin (עור) are homonyms: they are both pronounced or. When we hold up our hands before the havdalah flame, we remember the teaching (from the Zohar) that in the world to come we will wear skins made out of light, garments woven out of the brightly shining mitzvot we performed in this life.

But most of all I love havdalah because even without all of the extra teachings and interpretations we can lay on top of it, it works. It makes a difference. Spending five minutes in a darkened room holding that braided candle aloft, making these blessings, breathing in the sweet spices, and then plunging the candle into the wine -- it does something. You can feel the change in the energy of the room. Something has ended and something else has begun.



Ending Shabbat: Havdalah - Ritualwell (overview, prayers and resources)

Havdalah: Taking Leave of Shabbat - My Jewish Learning (overview)

Havdalah blessings  - Union for Reform Judaism

Debbie Friedman's transformative havdalah melody (includes video) - Jewish Women International

The havdalah category of this blog


Image source for the second image: Astro-Bob.

Welcome your extra soul, and irrigate the thirsty world

Small-water-features-pouring-urnOur practice of Shabbat restores primordial wholeness to the cosmos. It has the capacity to irrigate the thirsty world. Shabbat is a transformation inside of God in which we are actors.

So teaches Rabbi Marcia Prager, the dean of the ALEPH rabbinic ordination program. (I first shared these teachings here back in 2008.)

Our practice of Shabbat restores wholeness to the cosmos. That is one chutzpahdik assertion. That there is brokenness in the world (in all of the worlds) is beyond doubt. But to suggest that we can repair that brokenness through celebrating Shabbat? Holy wow. And yet this is what our mystics teach: that when we enter into Shabbat wholly, we bring healing to God.

What does it mean to say that "Shabbat is a transformation inside of God in which we are actors"? Perhaps this: God experiences brokenness and separation, because we, God's creation, experience brokenness and separation. But on Shabbat, we create wholeness in ourselves -- and in so doing, we create wholeness inside God. Another way to frame it is through kabbalistic language: when we observe Shabbat, we enable God's transcendence (distant, far-off, high-up, infinite, inconceivable) and God's immanence (embodied, here with us, as near as the beating of our own hearts, relational, accessible) to unite.

And that is why when we experience Shabbat -- celebrate Shabbat, "make" Shabbat, enter into Shabbat -- we open a spigot of blessing to irrigate the thirsty world. Every blessing has the capacity to turn such a spigot, and Shabbat is the blessing of all blessings. Think of all of the sorrow, the distance, the brokenness, the spiritual and emotional thirst in the world. And then recognize that when we open ourselves to Shabbat, and allow Shabbat to work in and through us, we can become channels for the irrigation which would soothe that thirst. It is the active participation of our hearts and souls, experiencing the mitzvah of Shabbat, which unite God far above and God deep within. When that happens, blessing flows.

1389194539_b9e31c1b6dSome of that blessing flows directly into us. On Shabbat, tradition tells us, each of us receives a neshama yeteirah, an "extra soul." It stays with us until sundown on Saturday, when it returns to God. (This is one explanation for why we breathe fragrant spices during havdalah -- like smelling salts, they're meant to revive us from that soul's departure.) That extra soul is part of who we are, but during the week it's distant. We have two "levels" of soul (actually by some metrics we have four or five, but for now, I'm just talking about two) -- a "lower" soul which enlivens the body, and a "higher" soul which resides with the Mystery we call God. On Shabbat, those two unite. The reality of who we are is joined with the potential of all that we might be.

The Talmud Yerushalmi teaches that Shabbat is equal to all of the other mitzvot put together, and that if just once every Jew in the world truly observed Shabbat together, moshiach would promptly arrive. The teaching raises some questions: what would it mean for all of us to observe Shabbat at the same time? How do we define "us" in a modern, post-triumphalist paradigm? How do we define "observed Shabbat"? For that matter, what would it mean for moshiach to come? But I understand that piece of Talmudic wisdom in this way:  if we truly experience the day of Shabbat, we can experience a taste of the messianic era. 

Of course, in order for that to happen, we have to make the time to enter into Shabbat. To stop doing and simply be.

We have to be willing to let Shabbat change us.

We have to be paying attention.

Shabbat, and that extra soul, arrive whether or not we notice. But if we can be mindful tonight as sundown falls -- how might the windows of our hearts be opened? With the eyes of that new soul, what might we see?


How Shabbat is like a snowstorm

DrivewayThis morning I met again with my usual cohort of Jewish clergy who study sacred texts together each week in the coffee shop. This week, one of our conversations about Heschel's Heavenly Torah went in a direction I didn't expect. We were talking about a passage which contrasts two different ways of approaching Shabbat. In one paradigm (which Heschel links with Rabbi Akiva's school), Shabbat is envisioned as the bride of Israel, our holy mate with whom we experience a supernal connection. In the other (which Heschel connects to Rabbi Ishmael and his disciples), Shabbat is compared to a wolf who causes disturbance both before and after his arrival. The Akivan image of Shabbat as our bride was familiar to all of us, but when it came to the Ishmaelian simile, we kind of scratched our heads: Shabbat, a wolf? What an odd comparison!

And then my friend and colleague Rabbi David Weiner shifted the metaphor in a way that made it clear. Shabbat, he said, is like a winter storm.

Before a storm, we scurry around procuring things we'll need -- batteries, flashlights, water, food, what-have-you. We're consumed with anticipation. We batten down the hatches and get ready. And then the storm arrives, and suddenly there's nothing we can do. We stay home. We relax. We have family time. Maybe we play in the snow with our kids. Maybe we read books. Maybe we sit by the fire. Maybe we make time to daven or learn some Torah. All of our usual making and doing and planning is suspended during the time-out-of-time which is the duration of the storm. And then the storm ends, and afterwards we scurry around again, shoveling our walkways, digging out our cars, preparing to dive back into ordinary life.

ShabbatJust so, Shabbat. Before Shabbat, we scurry around getting everything ready: the challah, the candles, the juice or wine, the festive meal. All of the weekday and workday to-do items have to be completed before sundown on Friday, because once the sun goes down, we enter into holy time. We stop making and doing and focus instead on just be-ing. We have family time. Maybe we play in the snow with our kids, read books, sit by the fire. Ideally, of course, we daven and learn some Torah -- in community, if circumstances permit. Shabbat, like the snowstorm, gives us permission to set aside the to-do list and to just be for a while. And then Shabbat ends and we scurry around again, thinking about work again, preparing to dive back into ordinary life.

Both a snowstorm and Shabbat offer a break from ordinary workday realities. A time to cease the mechanisms of production and to relax, secure in the knowledge that there's nothing we're supposed to be doing, so we can just be for a change. Of course, snowstorms come and go according to weather patterns most of us don't understand; Shabbat comes every seventh day without fail, if we are awake and alert enough to notice and experience her visit. (Also snowstorms can be dangerous, which is where the comparison breaks down a bit -- I can't really think of any way that Shabbat might pose a danger to anyone.)

It was hard for me to understand Shabbat being like the wolf who causes a stir both before and after his arrival, but Shabbat being like the winter snowstorm which forces us to slow down, stop working, enjoy family time -- that's a metaphor which immediately resonates for me.

For all who are experiencing major winter weather this week, may your snowbound time be safe and comfortable and as restorative as a midweek dip into Shabbat. And for all of us, no matter where we are, may the coming Shabbat bring us the relaxation, surrender, and whimsy which at our best we're capable of finding when the world around us slows down because of snow.

Thanks to the Union for Reform Judaism for reprinting this post at the Reform Judaism blog!

A poem about the end of Shabbat on the road



Two thousand miles away
as evening cloaks the rockies
you gather to dine on song
as the angels do.

My holy third meal
will be local beer
and collard greens
at the airport food court.

You sing psalm 23 with fervor.
Even as the Queen prepares to depart
Her presence is so close
you can almost touch.

I wait for my aircraft.
Is this the magic hour
when my redemption
will draw near?

Se'udah shlishit means "the third meal." It's customary to eat three celebratory meals on Shabbat, one on Friday evening, one at Shabbat lunch, and the third late on Shabbat afternoon, and that third one is called se'udah shlishit. The meal is usually quite small; in some communities, it's only a token few bites of food, followed by long singing.

I have two strong memories of se'udah shlishit with my ALEPH community. One happened in January of 2009, the Shabbat when I had miscarried here at OHALAH. I remember sitting in an unlit room (with big windows through which we could see the impending evening) and singing psalm 23 and beginning to mourn my own deep loss. And the other happened in June of that same year, and was incredibly powerful and healing for me. I wrote about it here -- As Shabbat wanes.

It's a time of incredible poignancy. In a way, it's the time when Shabbat is most present and can be most palpably felt -- and in another way, it's the time when Shabbat is beginning to depart. There's also a tradition which says that at Shabbat mincha (afternoon prayer) time, that's when we are closest to moshiach (redemption.)

Yesterday, during the hour when I suspected my hevre (friends) were observing se'udah shlishit in Colorado, I was stuck in an airport, wondering when and how I would make it to Colorado for OHALAH. This poem was the result. It's a bit tongue-in-cheek, of course, but writing it allowed me to feel connected with my community from afar, and I share it here with a smile.

Illustrated travelogue

When I left home it was a beautiful afternoon:

I decided to take route 43 all the way to the Northway, and it was stunning:

I caught sight of Albany from a distance as I drove by:

The Adirondacks were pretty glorious, too:

But then the hills went away, and as soon as I crossed the border the fields were sere and flat:

And by the end of the day I was safely ensconced with friends, making Shabbat creatively with a tealight and a Montreal bagel!

Yom Kippur and Shabbat: Lightning and Light (A sermon for Kol Nidre)

This summer, for the first time, our son has been afraid of thunder and lightning. I can't blame him for that. Thunder and lightning can be scary. Especially when you are small, and you don't remember ever having experienced them before. At times like those, even the comforting presence of your stuffed animals isn't enough: you need a parent to cuddle you and tell you everything's going to be okay.

So that's what I do. I tell him it's all going to be okay. I tell him it's only thunder, it's only lightning, it's not going to hurt him. When the lightning flashes, I tell him it's the clouds playing with their flashlights, just like he does. When the thunder cracks and rolls, I tell him it's the clouds playing their drums.

This is probably proof, if proof were needed, that I am a poet and not a scientist. I think in metaphors. We have friends who teach their kids about electrical charge building up in the clouds. I make up stories about the clouds having parties with their flashlights and their drums.

I did learn something extraordinary about lightning this summer, though.

And because they say the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else, I'm going to share it with you now. Here is what I learned about lightning, in a class on kabbalah and quantum physics which I took with R' Fern Feldman and Dr. Karen Barad at the ALEPH Kallah:

In a stormcloud, air molecules become polarized. The negatively-charged ions cluster at the bottom of the cloud, and the positively-charged ones cluster at the top.

You know how if you hold two magnets near each other, the ends which have the same charge will push each other away? The same thing happens with the stormcloud and the earth. The negative ions at the bottom of the cloud push the negative ions in the ground further into the ground, because like repels like.

The negative ions in the earth sink down low, moving away from the cloud. So the surface of the earth becomes positively charged. Now the earth and the cloud are charged in opposite directions: positive earth, negative cloud.

Here's the wild part: as the cloud sends electricity down, the earth sends electricity up. Before the lightning ever comes down from the cloud, the cloud is reaching down with its negative ions and the earth is reaching up with its positive ions.

If you look at time-lapse photography of lightning, this is what you see: the cloud sends little rivulets of light downwards, and the earth sends rivulets of light upwards. They are reaching for each other. And when they connect, most of the light goes up.

The moment I learned this, I thought about spiritual life. I thought of the story from Torah about Jacob camping out for a night and dreaming about a ladder with feet planted in the earth and a top stretching into the very heavens, with angels going up and down the ladder in constant motion. One of my favorite teachings asks: it makes sense for angels to be coming down the ladder from heaven to creation, but what's with the angels going up? And the answer is: the angels going up are our prayers. When we pray, our prayers become angels which ascend this cosmic ladder, and in response, blessings come pouring back down.

Continue reading "Yom Kippur and Shabbat: Lightning and Light (A sermon for Kol Nidre)" »

Shabbat shalom to all!


Drew and mama make motzi. Photo by David Curiel.

Every Friday, I post on my synagogue's Facebook page, "Shabbat is coming! Get ready for that extra soul to descend and enliven you..." I love the idea that we each receive a second portion of soul, a neshamah yeteirah, on Shabbat. An extra spiritual spaciousness. An opportunity to breathe deeply and open up our heartspace.

There's an old story which says that every Friday, an angel looks in through the window at each household. If that angel sees familial strife, dirty dishes, tension and frustration, the angel sorrowfully says, "...may next week be just like this one."

But if the angel sees a set table, a family relating to each other with loving harmony, candles and challah and grape juice or wine, the angel joyfully says, "...may next week be just like this one!"

As we move toward Shabbat today, may each of us find the resources we need (both practical and spiritual) to reach a state of readiness -- so that when that angel peers in at us, it is able to offer the blessing that our Shabbat joy should continue, now and always.

Shabbat shalom!

A poem for Shabbat by Danny Siegel

Erev Shabbas

by Danny Siegel

It's so stupid,
Wednesday afternoon,
soaked in the idiotica of errands
and all those "things to do"
that steal a man's minutes, his years --
I forgot the Queen.
Her Majesty was due at four-eighteen
on Friday, not a minute later,
and I was wasting hands, words, steps,
racing to a rushing finish-line
of roaring insignificance
I just as well could fill
with preparations for the royal entourage:
cleaning and cleansing each act's doing,
each word's saying,
in anticipation of the Great Event of Shabbas.

Continue reading "A poem for Shabbat by Danny Siegel" »

The first Shabbat back home

8667917025_bdf841f59d_mIt's always a little bit hard to come home from the ALEPH Kallah. I love home! I love my family; I love my little shul; I love my smalltown life. But there is always a pang, a twinge, at leaving a community of hundreds of dedicated Jewish Renewalniks who care as much as I do about Judaism, about spiritual life, about healing creation.

This past Saturday morning when Shabbat services began we were only two people. I breathed deeply and told my one congregant that even if it were just us, we would have a perfectly sweet service. It's a beautiful July day; people are on vacation; it can be hard to muster a minyan in a small town in high summer. I know this, and it's okay.

But then another couple arrived. And someone else. And someone else. And then just as we were about to reach the amidah, we broke the minyan barrier and were able to daven the amidah aloud, and to read from the Torah scroll. I got to give blessings for the various aliyot. We said prayers for healing. We recited mourner's kaddish in the comforting presence of community.

We had a glorious kiddush, with fresh strawberries and dill crackers. And then we sat around the table and studied the haftarah reading for last week, Isaiah 1:1-27, and talked about theologies of trauma and teshuvah, and about God as the angry parent, and about redemption, and about how prayer doesn't mean much unless we back it up with ethical living.

It was so beautiful and so sweet! We may not have the combined energy of 600 Shabbat-blissed Renewalniks, but what we're doing is cut from the same holy cloth. I'm so grateful to be serving this community. I'm so grateful that this is what I get to do.

Photo by Len Radin.

A delicious mikveh before Shabbat... with a few surprises

As Shabbat approaches, here's one final post about the ALEPH Kallah -- a mikveh story from last Friday...


Mikveh spot, Kallah 2013. Photo by Miriam Charney.

There are few things I love more in this world than a Jewish Renewal pre-Shabbat mikveh, especially when it comes after a dense and delicious week of learning and playing and praying together.

We gather at the lake and shoo away the men and boys; this is our reserved time at this beautiful beach. There are no screens to shield us here (as there usually are at Isabella Freedman), but the beach feels secluded. Anyway, our time is short -- the men will be here in 45 minutes -- so we shrug and get moving. We strip down to wherever we are comfortable: some of us in swimsuits, some clothed, most naked. (Some enter the water clothed and then become naked.) We are old, young, tall, short, curvaceous, skinny, pale, dark. Some of us bear scars, empty spaces where one or both breasts used to be. We are here to immerse before Shabbat, and to emerge ready to welcome and honor the Sabbath Queen.

I walk into the waters, soft sand beneath my feet, until I can barely stand. We are bobbing up and down gently in the dark lake. The waters are as dark as strong tea from the tannins in the pine needles which litter the lakefloor. We sing a chant as more women join us. Our mikveh leader reminds us that when we were babies, someone looked at our thighs and said "what beautiful pulkes!" A ripple of wistful recognition runs audibly around the group. Many of us remember hearing that said to our beautiful chubby babies before they began to crawl. I remember our son's sweet baby thighs and how much I wanted to just kiss kiss kiss every inch of his beautiful skin.

And then she tells us that our thighs are still beautiful, and a rueful sigh floats over the surface of the waters. How many of us are able to truly feel that? And our bellies -- how frequently we wish them away, bemoan their size, agonize over their curves. They, too, she tells us, are beautiful. Our breasts, or the places where breasts used to be: beautiful. Every inch of every one of us is beautiful. Each one of us is a reflection of God.

I wish that it weren't profoundly countercultural to tell a group of women -- ranging in age from twenties to eighties -- that each one of us is beautiful, that we are made in the image of God, that we should cherish our bodies instead of resenting or loathing their "imperfections." But it is. And it's deeply moving to hear these things sweetly said by the rabbi who is leading our ritual. Maybe in this moment, as Shabbat approaches, we can really believe her. We can wash away the decades of learned self-deprecation and emerge from the waters knowing our own beauty.

We break into groups of two and three so that each woman can be witnessed by one or two holy spirit sisters as she dunks. We begin sharing quietly with our sisters what we wish to release on our immersions, what we want to wash away (spiritually speaking) in order to greet the Shabbat Bride with a whole and joyful heart.

And then two police cars pull up, lights flashing.

Continue reading "A delicious mikveh before Shabbat... with a few surprises" »

Meditation to prepare ourselves for Shabbat

The Shabbat bride is on her way and she'll be here at sundown tonight!

In the understanding of our sages and mystics, Shabbat isn't just a day off from work. It's a day of cosmic alignment, a day when creation is irrigated with blessing. And we have a role to play in that process.

Think back on the week now ending. Start with last Sunday: what did you do on Sunday? What was sweet, and what was bitter? Where did you live up to your hopes, and where did you miss the mark?

And then let it go.

Remember Monday. What was good, what was difficult, where did you shine, where did you fail? And then let it go.

Tuesday. Wednesday. Thursday. Today. Turn the days over in your mind like pieces of sea glass in your hand, holding each one up to the light to see where it gleams and where it's flawed. And then let them all go.

Do you want to thank someone for a kindness this week? Reach out and do so. Do you need to apologize to someone for a place where you erred this week? Reach out and do so.

Seal the week's sweet memories in your heart; release the week's bitter memories from your consciousness.

In this way, you clear out the channels of your heart, mind, and soul. You're washing out the pipes, as it were, ensuring that nothing is blocking the flow of blessing from coming into your life -- and, through you, into the world.

Our tradition teaches that we each receive an extra soul, or an extra portion of soul-awareness, on Shabbat. When you light candles tonight, take a deep breath and feel the expansiveness of that second soul settling in. And then open your heart and let blessing, joy, and kindness flow from God into you, and from you into everyone you meet.

Who separates, and connects, Shabbat and week

8991890544_aeb0e20fe9_mIt's not something I often do, by myself. I don't know why not. It only takes a few moments. At this season and at this latitude, of course, it happens well after putting our son to bed; in deepest midwinter it happens in the afternoon, well before even his early supper. I love that when we live attuned to the seasons around us, we experience that pendulum shift. The challenge, of course, is to enjoy what we have now without fearing what comes later; to enjoy what comes later without yearning for what we have now...

Havdalah makes me think of the end of the various retreats I went on as part of my rabbinic school journey: the end of a week at the old (or new) Elat Chayyim, the end of smicha students' week, the end of the ALEPH Kallah, the end of a week of DLTI. Our learning always culminated in a Shabbat which honestly felt like a foretaste of the world to come. And then we would gather for havdalah, standing in a big circle -- outdoors, if the season permitted it -- and the flame of the havdalah candle held aloft would streak our faces with gold.

I always used to cry during havdalah at those retreats. I would cry because the end of Shabbat meant that our retreat was ending; that my precious time with my community of fellow travelers, students and teachers alike, was waning; because as much as I looked forward to returning to my ordinary life back home, every time I parted from those beloved friends (and our shared paradigm, our shared language, our shared love of learning and of Torah and of God) felt like tearing myself away from something I wasn't sure how to live without.

Of course, the gift of havdalah is that it ushers in a new week, full of new joys and new adventures. And at the end of each week, Shabbat returns -- if we're willing and able to take notice. The flywheel keeps turning. Shabbat leads to week, which leads to Shabbat, which leads to week. Shabbat wouldn't be so special if it weren't experienced against the backdrop of weekday; but the weekday too has its ordinary pleasures.

There's something magical and bittersweet about havdalah, about marking the end of Shabbat with these words and these intentions. A last taste of Shabbat before it goes away for a week. The wine, a remembrance of how just last night we made kiddush. The fire, which gleams and glints on our fingernails, reminding us that we are beings made of light. The spices, which pre-emptively revive us lest we faint away at the removal of the second soul which tradition says we borrow during Shabbat. The blessing for God who separates between -- and, in the version I favor, also connects between -- Shabbat and week. (I learned that variation some years ago.)

Once the candle fizzles out in the wine, there's a palpable feeling of something missing. Singing Eliahu Hanavi and Miriam HaNeviah stirs my heart. What would it feel like, if the entire cosmos could live in Shabbat consciousness all the time? If cruelty and suffering could cease, if we could live in a world truly redeemed? God only knows. But at least we have the opportunity to dip into that feeling once a week, if we're willing and able to take it. And even when we sorrow at its departure, we know it will return.

Shavua tov / a good week, a week of peace; may gladness reign, and joy increase.




Distinctions (a poem for havdalah), 2013

As Shabbat wanes (2009)

A Shabbat afternoon poem

Saturday Afternoon Request

Help me to silence
my mind's aggravation alarm,
to quiet the voice which says
the to-do list matters,
to temporarily eschew
continuous partial attention.

Open me to long slow conversations
on the sunlit grass, to the beat
of the hand-drummers who accompany
the singing of psalms, to a boat
lazily drifting on the glassy surface
of my heart's own pond.

You're waiting for me
like a lover, eager
to embrace me again.
Remind me: this is the way
back to Eden, the bloom
on the thirteen-petaled rose.




I wrote this poem remembering some of the sweetest Shabbatot I've spent on retreat with my Jewish Renewal community -- days when, following a week of Torah study and learning, I was able to fully and wholly immerse myself in the sweetness of Shabbat, in a time apart from ordinary time, in a remembrance of Eden and a foretaste of the world to come.

The last line is a reference to a classical metaphor from the Zohar -- see R' Adin Steinsaltz's book of the same title.

Shabbat shalom to all!

Distinctions: a poem for Havdalah


In the end we're like children:
we thrive on distinctions
between me and you, us and them.
Made in Your image
we separate light from darkness,
family from stranger, weekday
from that fleeting taste of Paradise.

Wax drips from the braided candle.
Cinnamon tingles the nose
to keep us from fainting
as the extra soul departs.
Stop now. Notice this hinge
between Shabbat
and what's next.

Plunge the candle into the wine
but don't cry: even without a flame
our light still shines. This
is our inheritance, better than rubies.
And now it's Saturday night, the cusp
of a new beginning, another day.
This week, may our hearts be whole.



This poem was written to accompany havdalah, the ceremony which ends Shabbat and begins the new week. (Though if you don't have the custom of making havdalah regularly, I suppose you could read this poem in place of havdalah; it's not the same as actually doing the ritual, of course, but it's a way of marking the transition with mindfulness.)

I'm experimenting with seven-line stanzas, meant to evoke the seven days of the week. "[T]o keep us from fainting
as the extra soul departs" is a reference to the teaching that an extra or second soul descends and enlivens us during Shabbat. We smell sweet spices at the end of Shabbat in order to revive ourselves despite the departure of that extra soul.

"[E]ven without a flame / our light still shines" is a reference both to the practice of extinguishing the havdalah candle in the sanctified wine, and to a line from the prayer we read as we begin havdalah: layehudim haita ora v'simcha v'sasson v'ikar, ken tihiyeh lanu, "and for the Jewish people there was light and joy, gladness and honor; so may it be for us."

Shabbat in the modern world

The challah is hidden beneath the animal-print cloth, a challah cover made from a potential nursery fabric reject. The wine, juice, and candles are obvious. What's perhaps less obvious is why there's a laptop open on the table: so we can Skype with my parents in Texas while we say the blessings over candles, wine, challah, and the kiddo.

I close the priestly blessing with the line asking God to bring our son peace, and he still tears off a corner of challah and says solemnly "and the last thing we bless is, I ask God to give you a piece," and hands me some more bread. I know he won't do it forever (he's already outgrown some of his early malapropisms) but I so love that he does it now.

And I love that the miracle of Skype allows me to share that with my parents week after week.

Shabbat shalom to all!

Best-laid plans

Friday begins with a hitch in our plans: my car won't start. So Drew and I won't be going in to town for school or work. We're staying home and waiting for the tow truck instead.

Midmorning it occurs to me that we have flour and yeast and water. Instead of going to the A-Frame as we usually do, we can bake our own challah!

Drew's willing to be lured away from the cartoons and the marble run game for a while. He pulls his footstool into the kitchen. He stirs the bowl a bit, announcing excitedly that he is helping.

A few hours later, when the dough has risen, I invite Drew back in. He seems to like patting the flour (which he calls, adorably enough, "flowers") and trying to roll snakes of dough beneath his hands.

Braiding seems like too much of a challenge for him, so I braid one big challah and one tiny one, and with the other pieces we make a twist and a spiral roll, which we set to rise.


While the smaller challot are baking, we read It's Challah Time! -- a longtime favorite -- and he takes obvious pleasure in being able to say, "I did that!" every time we come to a step in which he participated.

Once the first batch is out of the oven, I say hamotzi and we share a little challah roll. It's delicious: light and fluffy, tearing apart like the dinner rolls they used to serve at the Barn Door when I was a kid.

But as yummy as the bread is, Drew's obvious delight is even more so. (To be fair, he's equally delighted by the appearance of the mechanic and his big tow truck later in the day. Large vehicles are super-exciting to this three-year-old boy.)

As sundown approaches, I put one of our small braided challot beneath a napkin and tuck candles into our candlesticks, extra-excited about making the blessings with Drew over Shabbat challah we made with our own hands.



Of course, because nothing ever goes as one anticipates, it turns out at dinnertime that he doesn't like our challah. It seems to have become denser, now that it's cooled; it's not as soft and airy as the one the baker makes. He refuses to eat it. And then, for good measure, refuses to eat anything else, and blithely tells me he's done with dinner.

Oh, well. I'm still happy we made challah together. Even if he didn't eat a single Shabbat bite.

In which Drew blesses me with peace (after a fashion)

Drew enjoys a Shabbat PB&J.

First we play peekaboo with the candles. I cover my eyes, Drew covers his, and we peek at each other and grin. I sing the blessing over the Shabbat candles, sometimes rushing a little bit when Drew imperiously tells me to stop singing now.

Then we bless the fruit of the vine. Drew raises his sippy cup of watered grape juice, I raise my wine glass, we clink them together and say "cheers," and I sing the one-line blessing over wine. After it's over, Drew likes to sing out with "a-a-men."

Then we bless the challah we picked up at the A Frame bakery earlier in the afternoon. I uncover it and raise it up and sing the hamotzi, and Drew sings a-a-men. (If I forget, and sing it myself, he chides me: "No, mommy! I want to do it!")

And last of all, I bless him. I go over to his side of the table and I say the words of the priestly blessing in English and Hebrew:

 יְבָרֶכְךָ ה' וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ , May God bless you and keep you.  יָאֵר ה' פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ , May God's face shine upon you and be gracious to you.  יִשָּׂא ה' פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם, May God lift up God's face to you and bring you peace.

And then I kiss him on the head and tell him I'm proud of him.

Tonight, a few moments after we've concluded our blessings, Drew turns to me and solemnly says, "And last, I blesses you." This is new and adorable, and I beam. "I blesses you and bring you piece of challah. Do you want a piece of challah, mommy?"

Of course. He has no idea what "bring you peace" means -- as far as he can tell, I'm blessing him that he might receive a piece of yummy bread. All I can do is laugh and tell him that yes, I absolutely do, and also, he's the best. Which he is.