#BlogElul 4: Accept

Blogelul2013Accepting what is. It sounds so simple, doesn't it? Just -- accept. Experience whatever life gives you.

And when life, or the universe, or God -- however you understand it -- gives you something pleasurable, it's easy to accept. A lunch date with a friend: why yes, that sounds grand! An evening with my family: what a treat! An ice cream cone: sure! 

But sometimes we're handed things we didn't ask for, things we don't want. Difficult diagnoses. Postpartum depression. The loss of a job or a loved one. No one wants to accept those. As though in accepting them, we're acceding to them, agreeing to them somehow.

Does it make a difference if one makes a conscious decision to accept whatever comes? Does that give one any kind of agency in the situation? (Is that feeling of agency enough when what comes is difficult or painful?)

Sometimes I get hung up on my expectations. When I develop a sense for what I think is coming, when I write a "script" for an encounter or an experience, and then life doesn't match those expectations, I can get stuck in the disjunction. Thinking that I know what's coming can be a barrier to accepting what is.

As we move into Elul, into this month of teshuvah leading up to the Days of Awe: can I make a spiritual practice of striving to accept whatever life hands me?

Can I accept whatever each day contains while still working to examine and perfect my heart and my soul? I don't want to accept the places where I miss the mark, the places where my relationships or my actions aren't what they should be. Where's the right line between accepting what life holds, and not accepting the places where I could be doing a better job of being the person I mean to be?

To-do lists, teshuvah, and whatever gets in the way of the work

I feel this week as though I'm running at a faster clock speed than usual. It's not quite mania, but it's not all that different from it, either. There's a low buzz of anticipation at the base of my spine. When I sit still in silence, a million waves of thought rise up and crash on the rocks of my consciousness. Elul is upon us, and I am vibrating.

Just before Shabbat began last week, I bought a copy of Rae Shagalov's Elul Book as a downloadable pdf, and I showed some of the calligraphy to my congregants on Shabbat morning. Here's the passage which particularly struck me. Here's the text (and a thumbnail which shows part of her calligraphy...)

7824828536_a00586b87f_mWake up from the beautiful dream of the whole year! If you received a court summons in the mail, you would feel a shock of fear. You would call the best lawyers. You would call all your friends and ask for their advice. You would carefully go through all of your accounts to determine the truth of your situation.

It's Elul! Your summons has come in the mail! Feel the shock! Call your lawyers! Call your friends! Go through your accounts today! Determine the truth of your situation! Who are your lawyers? Your mitzvahs. Who are your friends? Your good actions!

Sometimes, a person refuses to wake up. What happens? His friend shakes him awake so he won't be late for an important engagement. We have a choice. We can wake up on our own, early, and prepare ourselves carefully; or we can pull the blanket over our heads, refuse to wake up, and be shaken awake by our greatest friend in the world...

I wish I thought that Elul and its teshuvah work were the only reason I'm feeling a bit busy and buzzy and aswirl. I know this is the month for serious internal work. I know I have only four weeks during which to kick my teshuvah process into gear. But I suspect that another big piece of the reason why I'm feeling so agitated is that there's just so much to do before the Days of Awe begin.

Time to reach out to people who never responded when I offered them honors in our high holiday services. Time to check my high holiday songsheet drafts against the prayerbook to make sure I have the right things on each songsheet. Time to intensify the search for someone willing and able to take ownership of the project of getting our congregational sukkah built. Time to troubleshoot and figure out why the high holiday cds we burned for our entire congregation won't play on a cd player, and only half of the tracks will play in my car. Time to, time to, time to --

And at the same time, there's a part of my brain which whispers: time to wake up. Time to take a good hard look at my life. Time to discern, where do I habitually miss the mark? How can I become a better version of myself? What are the places where I'm spiritually lazy? Only four weeks now to prepare myself to attempt to lead my community in prayer, to stand before the King of Kings in God's own throne room, to make something meaningful for those who join us in prayer, and how can I do any of those things if I haven't also done my own teshuvah?

This is my second year as a congregational rabbi, and I'm still figuring out how to balance all of this. I feel as though my own internal work has to take a backseat until the congregational logistics are under control -- and yet if I don't do my own internal work, I won't be able to lead the congregation in the way that they deserve.

Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work. I learned that from the poet Jason Shinder, of blessed memory. Can I find a way to tackle the congregational pre-high-holiday to-do list which will allow me to live out the teshuvah, the repentance and return, that I know I need? Can I make phone calls, send emails, generate revised to-do lists with prayerful consciousness? I've said for years that my challenge is figuring out how to live out my spiritual aspirations not when I'm on retreat, not when I'm on a break from ordinary life, but precisely in and through my ordinary life. Not separation, but integration. Here's another opportunity to (try to) do just that.

Here it is, Elul again at last, the scant four weeks between now and Rosh Hashanah dwindling by the minute. Can I trust that what I'm doing is what I'm meant to be doing? That everything will get done, somehow, some way? That I can make teshuvah not when I'm done with the work at hand, but even as I do the work which needs to be done?

VR Podcast 4: Elul and Teshuvah


VR Podcast Episode 4: Elul and Teshuvah.

Tomorrow we enter the new lunar month of Elul -- a perfect time for a new VR Podcast!

In this episode of the VR Podcast I talk about the lunar month of Elul, explore some ideas about teshuvah (repentance / return), share Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's translation of Psalm 27, and close with a blessing for you for the month to come.




To listen online or download:

18 minutes, 20 seconds / 17.6 MB MP3 file

If you're so inclined, you can subscribe via iTunes.

All feedback is welcome and appreciated, always.


This is real, and I want to be prepared: beginning the journey

This coming Shabbat at my shul we'll begin discussing one of my favorite books: This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation by Rabbi Alan Lew. I've posted about it several times before. I try to make a practice of rereading it each year as we enter this season.

If you live locally, I hope you'll join us at CBI this Shabbat for a discussion of the first three chapters of this book (come at 11am -- or join us at 9:30 for davenen first!) And for those who don't live nearby, I thought I might share a few favorite passages here.

26ac228348a01076986d3110-lThe journey I will describe in these pages is one of self-discovery, spiritual discpline, self-forgiveness, and spiritual evolution. It is the snapshot the Jewish people pull out every autumn of the journey all human beings must make across this world: the journey from Tisha b'Av to Sukkot, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, from birth to death and back to renewal again. Seeing yourself in this snapshot will help you chart the course of your own spiritual evolution. Every soul needs to express itself. Every heart needs to crack itself open. Every one of us needs to move from anger to healing, from denial to consciousness, from boredom to renewal. These needs did not arise yesterday. They are among the most ancient of human yearnings, and they are fully expressed in the pageantry and ritual of the Days of Awe, in the great journey we make between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

I love this way of describing the journey of this season. And I love Rabbi Lew's assertion that every soul needs to express itself, every heart needs to crack itself open, every one of us needs to move from denial to consciousness...and that the meaningful dates on the Jewish calendar over the next few months, from Tisha b'Av all the way to Sukkot, are designed to be our spiritual touchstones on this recurring journey.

Continue reading "This is real, and I want to be prepared: beginning the journey" »

Three poems of teshuvah (a sermon for Yom Kippur morning)

August Rain, After Haying

Through sere trees and beheaded
grasses the slow rain falls.
Hay fills the barn; only the rake
and one empty wagon are left
in the field. In the ditches
goldenrod bends to the ground.

Even at noon the house is dark.
In my room under the eaves
I hear the steady benevolence
of water washing dust
raised by the haying
from porch and car and garden
chair. We are shorn
and purified, as if tonsured.

The grass resolves to grow again,
receiving the rain to that end,
but my disordered soul thirsts
after something it cannot name.

Those are the words of the poet Jane Kenyon, of blessed memory. August may feel like a long time ago now, but try to remember it. Close your eyes if you have to. Can you recall the scent of hay, the sound of summer rain? I love this poem; I love its imagery, “the steady benevolence / of water washing dust,” the grass “receiving” the rain in order to grow again. The grass knows what it is doing. But the soul…the soul may be another matter.

“My disordered soul thirsts / after something it cannot name.”What do you yearn for? Not water, not coffee, not whatever your bellies are already beginning to crave: what are you really thirsty for? Is there something you cannot name which pulls you forward, which leaves you wondering, for which you cannot help but hope?

Kenyon named her soul as “disordered.” I suspect that each of us has a disordered soul. Our spiritual lives are like kitchen tables which become piled with unopened mail. After a while we don’t even want to face the sliding stack of envelopes: there are probably bills in there, requests for things we don’t want to give. It becomes easier to just look the other way. But not today. Today is the day to sit down at that table, take a deep breath, and take inventory of what’s there. Today we put our souls in order at last.

Kenyon’s poem is set at the end of the summer, on the cusp of the transition to fall. The trees are sere; the barn is full. The harvest has been brought in, and though the grasses intend to grow, they are headed for their fallow time, their sleeping-time. In just a few days, at Sukkot, we will celebrate our harvest: and for those of us who no longer farm, who most likely don’t even make hay, the harvest must be metaphorical. What emotional and spiritual riches can we gather to salt away for the winter which is coming? What might we be able to harvest today, on Yom Kippur, from our time together?

“We are shorn / and purified,” Kenyon writes: the grass is shorn and somehow we come away feeling that our excess too has been trimmed away, that the falling rain has made us pure. What is shorn away from us on this day of atonement? What would it take for us to feel pure?

Continue reading "Three poems of teshuvah (a sermon for Yom Kippur morning)" »


I hope all who are reading this had a wonderful Rosh Hashanah! We're cradled now in the embrace of the Days of Awe: Rosh Hashanah on one side, Yom Kippur on the other. These are the aseret y'mei teshuvah, the ten days of repentance and return.

There's so much I want to write. About my first Rosh Hashanah as a "real rabbi;" about reaping the harvest of the sacred storytelling class I took last summer at the ALEPH Kallah; about watching my parents discover my son anew at this wonderful moment in his life. Maybe next week I'll have time to share some of those stories and reflections.

For now, I just want to say -- and I mean this, honestly -- if I have hurt or offended you in the year which just ended, I ask your forgiveness. Jewish tradition recognizes a distinction between sins which impact the relationship between a person and God, and sins which impact the relationship between people. As we read in Talmud:

את זו דרש רבי אלעזר בן עזריה, (ויקרא טז) מכל חטאתיכם לפני יי תטהרו, עברות שביןאדם למקום, יום הכפורים מכפר. עברות שבין אדם לחברו, אין יום הכפורים מכפר, עד שירצה את חברו

R. Elazar b. Azariah taught this interpretation of the verse "From all your sins you shall be made pure before God." (Lev. 16:30) For transgressions between a person and the Everpresent One, the Day of Atonement atones, but for transgressions between a person and one's fellow, the Day of Atonement atones only if the person regains the other's goodwill."

I ask for your goodwill and your forgiveness for any places where I may have missed the mark in our relationship in the past year.

Wishing all who live by the Jewish festival calendar a g'mar chatimah tovah -- may you be sealed for a good year to come.

As Elul draws to its close

Tomorrow night, at the closing cusp of Shabbat, we'll hold Selichot services -- the formal beginning of our high holiday season. The Days of Awe are almost here! Here are a few of my favorite posts from this moment in previous years:

  • Release, 2010

    Hatarat nedarim means "releasing of vows." It's a ceremony in which one person assembles three others to serve as a beit din, a court of law... The idea is that these friends serve as representatives of the court on high, and that if each of us can honestly say to these friends that we made vows in the last year in error and wish to be released from them, as our friends hear and accept our regrets, the heavenly court does the same.

  • Looking forward to selichot, 2010

    "Ana B'Koach" is the prayer I turn to when I'm asking for help in letting go of something that has me all worked up in guilt and recriminations. I'll be singing Hanna Tiferet's melody for the prayer, which features just the first line... So often we tie ourselves in knots over things we've done or haven't done. This season of teshuvah (repentance / return) is a perfect time to work on untangling what's become tense and knotted in our spiritual lives.

  • Petition: a prayer for selichot, 2009

    Compassionate One, remember / we are your children // help us to know again / that we are cradled...

  • The Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, 2005

    Buying groceries, and learning Torah. Making a pot of Joe (because my grandmother Rachel's honeycake recipe requires a cup of cold coffee) and practicing the last section of Tuesday's Torah portion, in which God hears Ishmael’s soundless cries...

Shabbat shalom to all; may this Shabbat bring a heightened sense of how near we are to these majestic Days of Awe!

How do I want to be remembered?

This morning I wrote my own obituary. It was homework for the Sage-ing class I'm taking during this final semester of the ALEPH Hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) program. And wow, was it a fascinating experience.

Writing the story of my life to date, in condensed but meaningful form, was thought-provoking. What are the details I would want to share about my growing-up, about my formative relationships, about my childhood and my college years and my journey into poetry and the rabbinate?

Then, of course, the obit became more of a "here's what I hope the rest of my life might look like." I hope to live for many more decades; I'm only 36. So I spun out a fantasy of what the next fifty or sixty years might hold for me, and then wrote about it in the past tense, as though it had happened exactly the way I'm imagining.

If, God willing, I live into my nineties, how would I want to be able to describe my life? How would I want to be able to describe my relationships, my work, my impact on the world? How do I want to be remembered?

It's an amazing spiritual exercise. And, not for the first time, I'm struck by the additional power this class has for me because I'm taking it during a fall semester, as the Days of Awe approach. We're well into the month of Elul, the month which offers the opportunity for reflection and discernment before the New Year comes.

This obituary exercise is a powerful thing to do just before the Days of Awe. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer which we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (see Everyday I write the book) teaches us that God opens the book of memory, which reads from itself, as each of us has signed our name through our deeds. What are the actions which I've recorded in the book of memory this year? Who am I, and what do I want my time on this earth to be?

Before you ask: sorry, but I'm not going to share that obituary here! The part which describes the life I haven't yet had feels too personal and revelatory. (Besides, I don't want my advance obituary to show up as a google search result.) I am saving it on my computer, though. Maybe I'll take the time to revise it over the years to come as my life unfolds. If nothing else, someday it will give my descendants a glimpse of how I saw myself while I was still here.

Alicia Ostriker's Psalm 27

Psalm 27 is traditionally read / studied / sung every day during the month of Elul. Here's one way to interact with the psalm today: by reading this contemporary poem which plays with the psalm's language and themes.


elul: psalm 27

we are told to say the following
every day for a month
in preparation for the days of awe:

you are my light my help
when I'm with you I'm not afraid
I want to live in your house

the enemies that chew my heart
the enemies that break my spine
I'm not afraid of them when I’m with you

all my life I have truly trusted you
save me from the liars
let me live in your house   

-- Alicia Ostriker (from her three-part poem Days of Awe.)


Thanks for this rendition of psalm 27, Alicia. What a beautiful distillation of what's at the psalm's heart.

(Here's Reb Zalman's translation of the full psalm; here's a wonderful Nava Tehila melody for one verse from this psalm; here's a round up of various links, essays, poems, and artworks arising out of the psalm; here's Achat Sha'alti, a musical setting of part of the psalm.)


Sufficient. "Enough to meet the needs of a situation or a proposed end," says Merriam-Webster. "Adequate for the purpose; enough," says Dictionary.com. On the surface the term speaks of having what one needs, but underneath there's often a hint of perceived lack. Don't we want more than mere sufficiency?

Just "enough" sounds like it might imply scarcity. We want more than enough. More food on our plates, more shiny toys in our possession, more clothing in our closets. In the way we see ourselves, too, there can be the drive for more-than-enough. We hold ourselves to impossible standards, afraid that if we are just "enough," we're not doing all that we can or all that we should. There's a way in which "enough" doesn't feel like -- well, enough.

During this month of Elul, as the Days of Awe come hurtling toward us at light speed, I'm working on cultivating my sense that what I am, what I bring, is enough. Even if I'm not living up to some imagined super-mom ideal, the love and attention I bring to my son are enough. Even if our high holiday services aren't exactly perfect for everyone who attends, the love and attention I bring to the community are enough.

Enough doesn't have to imply "just barely." What if we embraced the sense that we're living up to everything we need to be? What if we replaced the word "enough" with "plenty:" what I'm doing is plenty; what we have is plenty; there's plenty to go around? What if "enough" connoted abundance, all our needs met and our wants fulfilled?

I found my way this morning to I Am Enough: a self-kindness collaborative. Here's the first post, from Tracey Clark, which explains how the collaborative came to be (and which also features a truly stunning image by Brene Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.) The stories posted there are simple, direct, and moving. They're also all written by women, which makes sense to me; women often swallow a lifelong diet of subtle pressure to be more, to do more, to see ourselves as perennially not-enough. I know that men struggle with this too. And we don't have to.

Seeing ourselves as enough is a radical act. During this season of teshuvah, as we aspire to repair our broken relationships with ourselves, with others, with the world, with God, this is one place we might choose to begin. What would it feel like to know that we are enough?

On compassion (inspired by Dr. Dan Gottlieb)

I'd never read anything by Dr. Dan Gottlieb when one of my friends pointed me to his essay Lessons From a Wheelchair: Treat Your Body With Compassion this morning.

Gottlieb has been in a wheelchair for thirty years, paralyzed from the waist down. Several months ago, a recent accident on a ramp (which ended in an invisible stair) led him to fall, landing on his neck. Since that accident, he's lost more functionality and he's been in great pain. This essay chronicles the accident, his responses to it (including despair), and eventually his shift into a place of feeling compassion for his body and its suffering.

It's a remarkable essay, not because it chronicles such a riveting story but because of the simple acceptance and kindness it shows. My own health struggles have been infinitely less dramatic than Gottlieb's, but even so, my relationship with my body isn't always what I wish it were. My body isn't always what I wish it were! And it's so easy to get hung up on feeling frustrated by my body's limitations, or to fall into the habit of running my body ragged and not taking good enough care of myself.

Gottlieb's essay inspires me. Faced with physical trauma I can't begin to imagine, he finds his way to a place of feeling blessed by love and relating to his own body with compassion. This is the kind of profound existential shift which I hope that my prayer life (including my meditation practice) can help me achieve. This is, I think, a kind of teshuvah, a turning or re-turning to orient oneself in the direction of holiness and connection with God. When I can relate to my body, mind, and spirit with compassion, I am more able to experience God's presence in my life.

(Two other essays by Dan Gottlieb which I just read which have moved me profoundly: How I Know That Listening Is an Act of Love, about his accident and the act of listening which helped him move toward recovery, and Life Lessons We Learn From Our Children, about the sense of wonder that he's learned from his autistic grandson.)

In Jewish tradition God is often depicted as containing the paired qualities of judgement and compassion, din and rachamim. These are big themes during the upcoming Days of Awe. We understand God as the One Who judges us, and also as the One Who is compassionate toward us. We're created, Torah teaches, in the image and likeness of the divine; maybe it's not surprising that we relate to ourselves, and to each other, with judgement and with compassion, too.

It's easy to judge, and to find others -- and our own selves -- lacking. How might our lives change if we made a conscious effort, this month and every month, to relate to ourselves and to others with compassion instead? Try going a whole day without judging your body: don't knock yourself, don't look in the mirror and criticize what you see, don't get angry with your body if something hurts or if something isn't working; just cultivate compassion for your body.

The body is a good place to start. It's the physical house in which we each live, and I'm not sure I've ever known anyone who had an entirely uncomplicated relationship with their body. But once you can feel compassion for your body, how about cultivating compassion for your heart, and for your mind, and for your soul? What would that even feel like, replacing the constant mental narrative of judgement with deep compassion for ourselves and for others?

If we understand God as the source of both compassion and judgement, maybe cultivating our own compassion is a way to cultivate God's compassion. It could be what the kabbalists call "arousal from below" -- when we arouse our compassion here in the world where we live, we awaken and enflame God's compassion from on high. Or, maybe when we ourselves are more judgemental, we experience God as a harsh judge, but when we are more compassionate, we experience God as more compassionate too.

Powerful stuff for this moment in the Jewish spiritual year. Thanks, Dr. Dan.

New Year's Card 5772 / 2011

Each year I write a new poem which relates somehow to the Days of Awe, and share it as a new year's card with friends and family during Elul. (All of my new year's poems, from 2003-2011, are available here.)

Two years ago, my poem arose in part out of the experience of pregnancy; last year's new year's card featured a poem arising in part out of the experiene of breastfeeding. (If you click on that link, you can also find my poem translated into Hebrew by my friend Rabbi Simcha Daniel Burstyn.)

This year's poem/photo card -- which continues the trend of drawing on parenting metaphors! -- appears below. I wish all who read this a happy and healthy new year!


Right here, right now: a poem of preparation



Early evening, the rains
finally over and gone
I take my son outside
and point out the rising moon
almost full, the lunar month
halfway past. From his vantage
the best part
is our fluffy white cat
perched on the railing
close enough to touch.
I'm thinking about
the Days of Awe: who's
our shofar-blower this year,
what have I forgotten to print,
gotta get that suit from the cleaners
but he's my Buddha, always
right here, right now.
My son knows how to let go
and laugh, wholly lifted.
I don't need to roll up my sleeves
and scrub my soul with a toothbrush.
Return happens in an instant
as soon as I release myself
and climb back
into God's arms.

This morning at meditation I offered our group the mantra I learned from Lorianne of Hoarded Ordinaries years ago: right here, right now. It's a powerful exercise for me in these hectic weeks at the start of the school year as the Days of Awe approach. Breathing in: right here. Breathing out: right now. Whatever arises in my mind from yesterday or last year or ten minutes ago, whatever comes bubbling up in anticipation of tomorrow or next week or ten years from now, just let it float away. Right here, right now. That's where teshuvah happens.

The idea of teshuvah as something which happens in an instant was raised for me by a recent post from Reb Jeff. I feel like my son is reminding me of the same deep truth. For all that I resonate with the notion of teshuvah as a practice of the internal work of discernment which is the appropriate focus for these weeks in our calendar year, there's also value in the notion of teshuvah as an instant existential leap.

I was feeling guilty earlier today that I haven't made more time lately for poetry, and then this poem came knocking at the interior of my consciousness. It's an early draft; I imagine it will change eventually. But I'm sharing it here in hopes of spurring myself to keep creating, and in hopes that it might speak to some of you.

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.

The vidui prayer of Yom Kippur...and of every night.

During a conversation in my Sage-ing class about our responses to the Heschel piece that I wrote about last week, I had a realization that I think might deepen my experience of Yom Kippur. One of the repeated elements of our Yom Kippur liturgy is the vidui, the confessional prayer. We say it in each of the services on that day; it takes the form of an alphabetical acrostic of sins, recited in the plural. (Here's a good translation, with classical commentary, courtesy of Jonathan Baker.)

There's also a deathbed vidui, a confessional prayer said when one is dying. (The text of this traditional prayer is more personal than the vidui we recite on Yom Kippur, but both prayers are called a vidui, and they have themes in common.) Some who have encountered the experience of being with a loved one at the moment of death might link that vidui mentally and spiritually with the one we recite on Yom Kippur.

But Reb Nadya reminded us, in class, that the vidui is also part of the daily liturgy of the bedtime shema. (It's also part of the daily liturgy of penitential prayers called tachanun.) I wrote a little bit about the bedtime shema in a post about the angel song I sing sometimes to Drew; here's a solid introduction to the bedtime Shema at Chabad, and here's the text of the bedtime shema in English.

I think the vidui of Yom Kippur -- and for that matter the vidui before death -- would take on a different tone if we were accustomed to praying it (or something very like it) each night before going to sleep. If each night we tried to make teshuvah, to recognize where we've missed the mark and to release the karmic baggage of our own misdeeds and the misdeeds of others, then the work of making teshuvah during Elul and the Days of Awe would be an entirely different thing.

Here's the bedtime prayer of forgiveness which I keep at my bedside.

Bedtime Prayer of Forgiveness

You, My Eternal Friend,
Witness that I forgive anyone
who hurt or upset me or offended me -
damaging my body, my property,
my reputation or people that I love;
whether by accident or willfully,
carelessly or purposely,
with words, deeds, thought, or attitudes;
in this lifetime or another incarnation -
I forgive every person,
May no one be punished because of me.
Help me, Eternal Friend,
to keep from offending You and others.
Help me to be thoughtful
and not commit outrage,
by doing what is evil in Your eyes.
Whatever sins I have committed,
blot out please, in Your abundant kindness
and spare me suffering or harmful illnesses.
Hear the words of my mouth and
may the meditations of my heart
find acceptance before You, Eternal Friend
Who protects and frees me. Amen.

(Rendered from the Hebrew by R' Zalman Schachter-Shalomi; reprinted with permission of the Spiritual Eldering Institute.)

How might our experience of the Days of Awe (and our experience of going to sleep and waking each night and morning, for that matter) change if we tried to take on the practice of saying this prayer -- or something like it -- every night before sleep?


Pulped tomatoes; peaches under vodka.

My fingers are slightly scalded. I was too eager to pulp the blanched tomatoes; once their skins split in the cold water, I wanted to squeeze their gushy insides into the pot too fast. I should have let them rest. I'm nursing a cold drink now not only because I'm thirsty, but because it feels good on my fingertips.

Sunday night of Labor Day Weekend. Drew is, thankfully, asleep. I have two tasks at hand. First a bag of local peaches, bright and rosy, goes into the boiling water to blanch; now the skinned fruits, cut into dice, are adding their color and their flavor to an infuser of vodka. When we sip it in deep midwinter, we'll marvel at the way it brings back late summer's sticky heat.

And the tomatoes! Ethan brought home a bucket of heirloom tomatoes from Caretaker Farm on Friday. We spread the tomatoes out on our dining room table to ripen for a few more days, and tonight after Drew's bedtime I blanch and skin and pulp them. Five quarts of tomato pulp grace our chest freezer now, waiting.

I've lived in New England for 19 years now, but I'm not a native. I was born and reared in south Texas, where summer won't end for a long time yet. My parents are still enduring near-100-degree days -- while here, even on a relatively hot and sticky early September night, my son needs long-sleeved pyjamas. Part of what makes northern summer so sweet is that it is so brief. We love it because we know it isn't going to last forever. Having just read R' Heschel on death, with two funerals in recent memory, I'm conscious right now that it isn't just summer which inevitably ends.

Being who I am, I can't help linking all of this with this moment in the Jewish seasonal calendar. Elul: the month of walking in the fields with the divine Beloved. Elul: the month of intensifying the inner work of teshuvah, turning and re/turning toward God. Tonight I processed some of the season's literal harvest; what metaphorical and spiritual harvest will I gather in when we reach Sukkot at the end of this festival season? A few of my fingertips are tight and painful because my desire to dive in to the work at hand was too ardent; I didn't want to wait for the fruits to cool. Is my ardor for teshuvah, my ardor for connecting with God, that strong?

Where I live, everything is lush now. The goldenrod is bright and blooming. The trees are full, majestic in their dark green summer robes. Farmstands are practically giving away corn, peaches, tomatoes -- the fruits of our land at this time of year. But this morning I saw apples at a farmstand, too: apples which speak to me of autumn, of the turning year, of dipping in honey for Rosh Hashanah. The first early red and yellow leaves are beginning to turn.

We, too, are beginning to turn. Toward God; toward harvesting the fruits of the year now ending; toward the horizon where the darkening sky begins to draw autumn's cloak up and over creation. What of this summer will we preserve, in our spirits and in our hearts? With what memories will we feed ourselves when winter lashes at the windows? What is the spiritual harvest of this season for you?

How to return: Heschel on death (in the season of teshuvah)

I've just read the most remarkable essay. It was assigned for my Issues of Sage-ing in Hashpa'ah class, but it feels to me like the perfect reading for the beginning of Elul, the beginning of the journey toward the Days of Awe when our liturgy will call us to consider life and death.

The essay is by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, and it's called "Death as Homecoming." (The essay is published in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.) Just think about that title for a moment. Death as homecoming. What does that evoke for you? Can you imagine your own death this way, not as an ending but as a coming-home? Heschel writes:

The Hebrew Bible calls for concern for the problem of living rather than the problem of dying. Its central concern is not, as in the Gilgamesh epic, how to escape death, but rather how to sanctify life.

That's such an important distinction, for me. Of course I can understand the inclination to try to escape death. I can understand the feeling that life is too short, that one wants more. It's a great mythic narrative, the attempt to escape or cheat death. But that's not the Hebrew Bible's way, and it's not Judaism's way. Let death be what it is; what really matters is whether and how we sanctify our time in life.

Our existence carries eternity within itself. "He planted life eternal within us." Because we can do the eternal at any moment, the will of God, dying too is doing the will of God. Just as being is obedience to the Creator, so dying is returning to the Source.

Death may be a supreme spiritual act, turning oneself over to eternity... Death is not sensed as a defeat but as a summation, an arrival, a conclusion.

(The quote about life eternal is from the blessing we recite when we are called up to the Torah. After the Torah has been read, we say "Blessed are You, Adonai, Who has given us a Torah of truth and planted eternal life within us; blessed are You, Adonai, giver of the Torah.") I keep turning Heschel's words over in my mind like a pebble between my fingers: our existence carries eternity within itself. Being is obedience, and dying is return.

Death as homecoming. Of course, it's a homecoming we can't begin to understand. I've been thinking about this lately -- between one holy opportunity to participate in taharah (preparing for burial the body of someone who has died) and two holy opportunities for funerals -- and ultimately I bump up against the mystery of what can't be known.

Continue reading "How to return: Heschel on death (in the season of teshuvah)" »

Elul: the season of reflection begins

We've entered into the month of Elul, the month which leads in to the Days of Awe. It's traditional this month to read Psalm 27 each day (I posted my favorite translation, by Reb Zalman, a few years ago) and to begin intensively doing the work of teshuvah, turning-toward-God, aligning our lives in the right direction again in anticipation of the coming new year.

Elul poses some new challenges for me this year. This is my first year as a mother and a working rabbi, both. My friend R' Shai Gluskin tweeted me the other day with his wish that we, and all who connect to Jewish time, should have the gevurah (strength / good boundaries) to make time for our own spiritual work during this month. I think that's going to be my biggest challenge.

This is a month for doing the spiritual work of discernment. Where am I doing the right things, aiming in the right direction, and where could I be better aligned with holiness? These are perennial questions -- which is why Jewish tradition suggests answering them each week (before Shabbat) and each month (before Yom Kippur Katan, the day of moon-dark which precedes new moon.) But they take on new urgency at this season, as we prepare to make a full accounting of our souls during the Days of Awe.

A few years ago I wrote:

Between the beginning of Elul and Yom Kippur there are forty days, and the rabbis found significance in the number. (I write about this every year; forgive me if you've heard this before.) The flood lasted for forty days. Moshe spent forty days atop Sinai receiving the Torah from God. (In the Christian understanding, Jesus spent forty days fasting in the desert.) In the early rabbinic imagination, forty was understood as the number of weeks between conception and childbirth. So forty represents something growing from inception to fruition. If Elul and the Ten Days of Teshuvah which follow are our season for walking in the fields with the divine Beloved, what exactly are we tending? What do we hope to harvest forty days from now on Yom Kippur, the day when tradition says the gates between us and God are all opened?

What I like about all of this is that the Days of Awe don't arise out of nowhere. They're not random blips on the calendar, great looming mountains on an otherwise flat horizon. We're supposed to be aware that they're coming. As this month's moon grows and shrinks, we have the chance to get ready. To consider what's working well in our lives, and where we could be doing better. How's your relationship with your body: are you caring for it the way you want to be? What are the currents and undercurrents in your emotional life and your relationships with others? Are you thinking about the big issues that atter to you, and telling the important stories you want to tell? Where are you at spiritually, and where would you like to be?

They're still good questions. Still questions I want, and need, to be asking myself this month. I'm going to strive to ask them, no matter how long my to-do list looms.

R' Alan Lew on taking responsibility for our patterns

The (second) temple in Jerusalem, writes Rabbi Alan Lew (of blessed memory) in his excellent book This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, fell to the Romans not because of hatred between/among Jews (as the mishna would have it), but because Rome was so powerful that nothing could stand in its way. And surely the rabbis of the Talmud knew this about the Roman Empire. So why did they cast blame on the children of Israel? Why blame themselves for what was clearly beyond their power?

Lew's response rings in me like a shofar call. He writes that to spiritual leaders, the only question worth asking about any recurring catastrophe is: how am I complicit in this, and how can I keep it from happening again? This is true, of course, not only on a national level, but on a personal one, as well:

Spiritually we are called to responsibility, to ask, What am I doing to make this recur again and again? Even if it is a conflict that was clearly thrust upon me from the outside, how am I plugging in to it, what is there in me that needs to be engaged in this conflict? Why can't I just let it slough off me like water off a duck's back, as I am able to do with so many other things?

...Why do our relationships always fail in precisely the same way? Why do we always fall into the same kind of conflict at work? Why do we always have the same arguments with our children? With our parents? ...What is the recurring disaster in our life? What is the unresolved element that keeps bringing us back to this same moment over and over again? What is it that we keep getting wrong? What is it that we persistently fail to look at, fail to see?

Tisha b'Av is the day on which we are reminded of the calamity that keeps repeating itself in the life of our people. And against all reason -- against the overwhelming evidence of history -- Moses and the rabbis insist that we are not powerless in the face of that calamity. Moses and the rabbis insist that we take responsibility for what is happening to us. Moses and the rabbis insist that we acknowledge our complicity in the things that keep happening to us over and over again.

I don't know about you, but this is exactly what I needed to read today. (And apparently that too is something which recurs for me; I just read the post I wrote about this book back in 2006, seasonal teachings from Rabbi Alan Lew, and sure enough, one of the quotes I just lifted up is in that post, too...)

This is, I think, part of the hard work of teshuvah (repentance / return.) In order to make teshuvah, to turn myself in the right direction again, I need to be willing to take a good hard look at myself and my patterns. I need to take responsibility for whatever recurs for me emotionally and interpersonally. Which isn't to say that I alone am responsible for everything that unfolds, or that I should castigate myself for my failings -- that would be a dangerous misreading of the teachings of this season. But Tisha b'Av calls me, calls us, to recognize the ways in which we are complicit in the things which are broken in our lives.

Approaching Av... and Ramadan

On the Jewish calendar, next week we'll enter the month of Av. Av is a month of introspection. On the 9th of Av we observe a communal day of fasting and mourning in remembrance of the two fallen temples in Jerusalem and in remembrance of our communal suffering from the crusades to pogroms. Some see Tisha b'Av as a day to recognize the brokenness of creation writ large. And from there, we count 49 days until Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. These seven weeks, taken together, offer a picture of what the Hasidim call "descent for the sake of ascent" -- from the spiritual depths of 9 Av, we are newly able to make the spiritual ascent into and through the month of Elul to the Days of Awe. From Tisha b'Av to Rosh Hashanah unfold seven weeks during which we can do the internal work of tefilah, teshuvah, u-tzedakah -- prayer, repentance / turning-toward-God, and giving to the needy, which our liturgy teaches us can sweeten the severity of divine justice in our lives.

On the Muslim calendar, the lunar month which will begin next week is the month of Ramadan. Ramadan too is a month of introspection; of fasting, prayer, and giving alms to the needy. A time during which Muslims strive to align themselves with the will of God and to become conscious of God's presence in the world and in their lives.

Ramadan and Av do not always coincide. A few years ago, when I was blessed to attend a Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Leaders, Ramadan coincided with the month of Elul, which immediately prececes the Days of Awe. (I wrote an essay about that: Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan & Elul.) Both the Muslim calendar and the Jewish one measure months by the moon, but the Jewish calendar is metonic; seven years out of every nineteen we insert a "leap month," which keeps our calendar more-or-less aligned with the solar one. So our high holidays always fall in the northern hemisphere autumn, and Pesach always falls in northern hemisphere spring. (The rabbis who designed our calendar were, alas, not thinking about the needs of Jews in the global South!) The Muslim calendar doesn't have this kind of correction mechanism, so Muslim holidays move around the solar calendar; this year Ramadan begins around August 1, next year it will begin around July 20, the year after that around July 10, and so on.

In the confluence of our calendars this year I find a powerful reminder that we and our Muslim cousins -- descendants, our tradition says, of the half-brothers Yitzchak and Yishmael, Isaac and Ishmael -- are walking parallel paths toward the Holy Blessed One. During the coming lunar month, as the moon waxes and wanes, both communities (in our varied forms -- Jews whose practice ranges from Reform to Hasidic, in Israel and in Diaspora; Muslims of Arab, South Asian, African American, and every other descent, all around the world) will be engaging in prayer, in fasting, and in giving generously to those in need, in order to more wholly align ourselves with God's will.

I love that our two religious communities share a vision of how we can make use of the practices of prayer, fasting, and tzedakah / zakat in order to realign ourselves toward God. And I love that this year, Jews and Muslims the world over will be entering into a sacred season of doing this spiritual work at the same time. May we give one another strength and blessing in the weeks ahead!

Recommended reading for the season:

  • 30 mosques - a Ramadan road trip to 30 different mosques all over the USA. A beautiful set of anecdotes and photographs which illustrate the diversity of American Muslim life and practice.

  • Prayers for the Ninth of Av - Reb Zalman's prayer, meant to be offered on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av when our grief begins to give way to hope for transformation. I especially like how his prayer touches on Jerusalem / Al-Quds.

  • Hungry for Ramadan - My friend Shahed Amanullah of altmuslim blogged daily through the month of Ramadan in 2007; these are his posts on Beliefnet.

  • New moon ritual for Elul - An earth-based Jewish ritual for the new moon which will come 3 weeks in to our 7-week journey from 9 Av to the Days of Awe.


One of the songs in my "Days of Awe" playlist (the one I listen to in the car when I want good music which puts me in an Elul/Tishrei frame of mind, not the one filled with melodies I need to practice for the Days of Awe themselves) is Bernice Lewis' "Gotta Get Better" off of her album Religion & Release. Gotta get better at letting go... She probably wasn't talking about hatarat nedarim, per se, but I thought of her song when I read the recent post on the Reb Zalman Legacy Project blog reminding us to consider doing that ritual this year before Rosh Hashanah rolls around.

Hatarat nedarim means "releasing of vows." It's a ceremony in which one person assembles three others to serve as a beit din, a court of law. (Within Chabad, it's traditional to assemble ten rather than three -- and it's presumed that all are men. Within my egalitarian liberal framework, of course, gender isn't an issue.) The idea is that these friends serve as representatives of the court on high, and that if each of us can honestly say to these friends that we made vows in the last year in error and wish to be released from them, as our friends hear and accept our regrets, the heavenly court does the same. Ideally, each person gets to play both roles; each of us gets to experience being the person asking for release, and being one of the people granting it.

The vows in question can't be interpersonal vows. If I promised you that I would do something, and I haven't done it, then I need to come to you and personally seek your forgiveness. Hatarat nedarim is designed for vows we've made to ourselves and to God. Maybe I promised myself that I'd start working out this year, but I didn't manage it. Maybe there's some emotional work I meant to do this year, but it hasn't happened. Maybe I dropped my davenen practice, or forgot to express gratitude. All of these intentions and resolutions are considered "vows" in Jewish tradition. The ritual of hatarat nedarim is designed to help us feel release, so we're not tying ourselves up in knots over all of the places where we've missed the mark in these personal ways. If we can do that before Rosh Hashanah, we enter the new year with a clean slate.

Continue reading "Release" »