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A Psalm for Zoom

Here’s another resource for sanctifying the placeless place and sacred space of a Zoom room or other digital gathering space. This could be used as part of communal prayer over Zoom, or as a personal meditation before a Zoom meeting or class. 

 

A Psalm for Zoom

Zoom
Normally, that means karooming
From one thing to another.
Now it means the opportunity to stop;
To connect with community
From distant rooms
To be here and Jerusalem and Sacramento
All at once.
To be still in meditation
And active in thought and creation
Singing with others while alone on my couch.
I am grateful that even in separation we can be together.
You who rule all time and space
Join together with us in this moment.
Help us to feel joined in You
And to know with You
We are never alone.

 

 

By Rabbi Susan Gulack.

Contemporary shiviti by Steve Silbert

A shiviti is a visual tool designed to aid Jewish meditation, either as a prelude to liturgical prayer or as a contemplative practice all its own. (Learn more at this shiviti page at OpenSiddur.) The name shiviti comes from Psalm 16:8, שִׁוִּיתִי יְהוָ”ה לְנֶגְדִּי תָמִי / shiviti YHVH l’negdi tamid, “I place God before me always.” Steve Silbert has created a contemporary shiviti inviting the person who is praying to look inward.

 

By Steve Silbert.

How does Gratitude Change the World? A Prayer for Anger by Trisha Arlin

 

This prayer comes from liturgist Trisha Arlin, who writes, “I wrote this incantation because I found myself feeling furious at all the seemingly contradictory feelings of gratitude, anger, love, hope and despair that I’ve been feeling for months, and especially since the murder of George Floyd. I think this can be read to yourself. Or, if you wish to present it at a service, you may want to assign the more personal lines to one reader and the incantatory lines of murder and awfulness to a chorus of individual or group voices. And thank you for listening. Amen.”

 

How does Gratitude Change the World? A Prayer for Anger

 

Baruch Atah Adonai,
Brucha At Shechinah,
Ruach Ha Olam,
Holy Wholeness,

Every Shabbat
I attend services on Zoom
And almost every single time we are asked by the rabbi,
What are you grateful for?
(A reasonable question)
Write it down in the chat room, she says
And a long list from the congregation rolls out
Of family members
And pets
And clergy
And social justice leaders
And victories
And sour dough bread recipes.

I am also grateful
For the usual stuff
But
The thing is
I hate this question.
I really hate this question.
I am annoyed not grateful.
I am annoyed and not grateful on a daily basis,
I am annoyed and not grateful when I wake up in the morning
and annoyed and not grateful when I go to sleep at night.
I am angry!
Modeh Ani? Hell no.
Bedtime Shma? I forgive no one!
I am angry
and annoyed
and disputatious
and frustrated
but the people who deserve my anger and resistance
do not know or care that I exist.
So I take it out on people who I know mean well
like my rabbi.

Because damn it
This country was founded on genocide and slavery and murder
And it continues:
Rayshard Brooks was murdered
George Floyd was murdered
Breonna Taylor was murdered
Atatiana Jefferson was murdered
Philandro Castile was murdered
Freddie Gray was murdered
Eric Garner was murdered
Sandra Bland was murdered
Michael Brown was murdered
Tamir Rice was murdered
Trayvon Martin was murdered
Emmet Till was murdered

The disproportionate numbers of black COVID deaths;
The mortgages that were turned down;
The jobs that weren’t offered;
The food deserts that led to malnutrition;
The schools with no budgets;
Being afraid to drive or walk or leave the house or breathe.
Murders of opportunity and hope,
Murders of body and soul.
Yeah, I’m angry!

And I’m ashamed of all my white privilege that allows me to know about this
And do nothing
If I want
Except feel bad
And write the occasional check
And mostly not pay attention.
I’m so angry at myself.

So sorry, no gratitude in the chat room today from me.

And?
the things that I am grateful for that you are so curious about,
why do I have to announce them?
You want me to spread my gratitude all around like manure
In this garden of good vibes?
Why?
And please, don’t tell me yours,
I am neither interested nor moved by your gratitude!
Really.
Except of course I am,
I love you
I love you all,
I like it when people are happy.
I like it when people share their happiness,
But not on demand
Not in a chat
And not every week.
Not now
Not this week.
I am happy to share my happiness when it occurs.
When it occurs.

But my gratitude is not for tourists.

The planet is on fire,
Sickness of all kinds surrounds us and
People are being killed by racists and idiots.
Cruelty goes unpunished
The greedy and stupid are in charge
And we can’t get away from it.
No distractions work for long.
Which is probably a good thing.
It feels hopeless
I suspect that’s a white privilege, too.

Protests and Solidarity help
And I see change happening.
But it is a fight that never ends
So screw gratitude.

Sorry.

There is a parable in the Sefer Ha-Aggadah,
The Book of Legends,
About a king who had a beautiful orchard
Which, when he had to leave for a year,
He left in the hands of a keeper.
And when the king returned,
The orchard had been terribly neglected,
Overgrown with thorns and thistles.
He was going to tear the orchard down
But looking down at the thorns
He noticed among them
A rose-colored lily.
And the king said
“Because of this lily, let the entire orchard be spared.”
And the rabbis say,
“Likewise the whole world is spared, for the sake of Torah. “

And if I acknowledge the beauty in my life, what will be spared?
If I have hope, will institutional racism disappear?
How does my gratitude change the world??

I’m asking because I really want to know.

Baruch Atah Adonai
Brucha At Shechinah,
Ruach Ha Olam,
Holy Wholeness,
Thank you for listening.
Amen.

 

 

Liturgist Trisha Arlin is author of Place Yourself: Words of Prayer and Intention, available at Dimus Parrhesa Press. Find her on Patreon, here

Mah Nora HaMakom Hazeh – a chant for (digital) sacred space

One of the challenges of convening a group for prayer over Zoom is shifting gears into sacred space.

How can we sanctify the space where each of us is planted, knowing that as we shelter-in-place during the pandemic, our desks or dining tables or coffee tables serve purposes both secular and sacred? The table from which I’m joining the Zoom call might be the same table where I paid bills an hour ago, or folded laundry, or homeschooled my kid. How can we skillfully make that space feel holy when it’s time for prayer?

And how can we sanctify the placeless place of the Zoom room itself? A Zoom room doesn’t have the comfort or majesty or familiarity of a synagogue. We may associate Zoom spaces with committee meetings and other secular activities, not the sacred purpose of prayer. And a Zoom room isn’t a “place,” exactly, any more than the internet is a “place.” How can we make that “place” holy and fitting to hold a community gathering in prayer?

At a recent digital Shabbaton convened to explore these questions, we used this chant by Rav Kohenet Taya Mâ Shere for both of these purposes. We sang it as a call-and-response. (Participants were muted, but the two of us sang the back-and-forth, inviting the community to sing along with the response half of the chant.) We sang it explicitly to sanctify the physical place from which each of us was calling in and to sanctify the Zoom space.

We used this chant as our melodic and thematic throughline. We sang it at the start of services, during the d’var Torah (The Mishkan’s Next Digital R/Evolution, on this very theme), and again to close the service and seal our time together. The call-and-response linked us together across nine different states and two different countries. And the words reminded us that where we are is holy — where we are in the world and in our homes and in our bodies, and where we are in the space of the internet and our hearts’ interconnection.

 

מה נורא המקום הזה/ Mah nora hamakom hazeh

How awesome is this body!

How awesome is this place!

How awesome is this journey

Through time and space.

 

(If you can’t see the embedded audio player, try going to this post directly at yourbayit.org/makom/.)

 

Chant by Rav Kohenet Taya Mâ Shere. Her albums include Wild Earth Shebrew, Halleluyah All Night, Torah Tantrika and This Bliss; find her music at her website.

 

 

Post by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Markus.

Psalm 27 – a new translation by Rabbi Jamie Arnold

Here’s a new translation of Psalm 27 by Rabbi Jamie Arnold. Psalm 27 is traditionally recited daily during Elul, the month leading up to the Days of Awe… though the introspection and teshuvah work that this psalm cues us to do can be a meaningful part of spiritual practice all year long.

 

PSALM 27 – For love’s sake

the courage to live as if… / Bitachon

 

My deepest fear?

The energy illuminating everything

            cannot be seen or named.

When all I see is reflection and refraction,

who am I to be afraid

            of dark or light?

            of seeing, being seen, or not?

 

Silence is the mother of all sounds,

            syllables, names.

When a wisp of breath and unspoken incantation

guards the fortress of my life

            Who shall I fear?

            Which ‘I’ is the one that worries?

 

Fear and worry come fast, consuming my flesh from within,

            thieving me of ease and joy.

If only they would stumble, topple like the walls of Jericho.

For now, they have set up camp, settling in,

            starving head of sense

            and heart of wonder.

If you force upon me this unwanted war,

I will trust in… this, this mystery

            of light and sight, hidden forces

            made visible through masks of refraction.

 

My deepest desire?

One?  If granted one last wish,

this would be my re-quest:

 

To sample sabbath rest

            in the house of wonder

            every living day,

to see with eyes of equanimity and ease

            waking me to each new dawn

            in a palace of delight.

 

Point me north to find shelter from my worst fears

            under a blanket of stars-promising-progeny,

            winking at me through the leafy roof of a succah

Let me hide in the hidden folds of this makeshift shelter,

            tent turned tabernacle, sanctuary erected on

            and protected by a mountain of smooth, solid sandstone.

 

There now.

See my head rise above engulfing echoes of oys and veys

Releasing, sacrificing wants no longer suited for service

Fragmented breaths pressing through parsed lips into a horn

            transforming silent fears into jubilant song. Teruah.

I will sing. Zivchei teruah.

Atonement through attunement.

Shema qoli. Hear my voice

            turning silence to song

Choneini. Fill me with an easy grace

            in the face of my unfulfilled desires

Aneini. Gift me with a humble responsiveness

            to your unmet needs.

 

Your Deepest Desire?

Voice whispers through my heart and says,

            Seek my face.

I will seek your face, the hidden light,

             reflected in every face, revealing light.

Do not let anger distract me from seeing your majestic face

            tucked away in the creases of faces furrowed

            by anger in the face of injustice

            and a fear of being forgotten.

My father, my mother, yours, all beloved

            parental protectors will die.

            time will orphan me if I live that long.

And yet, magnetism prevails, a law of nature

            in-gathering, out-glowing

            showing all the wisdom of your ways

            paths paved by and for service and song

Don’t let worry distort these nefesh-soul, body-based truths

            with false testimonies, hyperboles, and half-truths

            blowhards fermenting fears to safeguard their power.

 

Our Declaration:

Lulei.  What if? What if it were not so?

Doubt. Division. Danger.  Death.  As if!

I choose to live as if I have the courage

            to act in the face of doubt

            to see the hidden connections and blessing

            to belong and be beholden to the living land, eretz chaim.

Together, let us draw new kinds of lines in the shifting sands.

I choose to trust you, to empower you, to re-see you,

            to celebrate your courageous heart, amatz lev

            to reshape this longing in your likeness.

 

Rabbi Jamie Arnold, who serves Congregation Beth Evergreen, is translating the psalms anew and posts his translations periodically at his blog. He participated in Bayit’s first online class for clergy, “Entering the Psalms.” (The next session of that class will begin in late October.)

Ashrei á la the Dalai Lama

This variation on the Ashrei uses quotations from His Holiness the Dalai Lama to articulate the themes of the Ashrei. Like the classical Ashrei, it is an alphabetical acrostic, and it’s singable to the same melodies as the Hebrew. When you reach the “R” line, pause and listen for a few moments during the ellipses. 

 

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.

If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

 

Account for the fact that great love /and great achievements involve great risk.

But when you lose at something you attempted / don’t lose the lesson.

Chart by the three R’s: / Respect for self, Respect for others and Responsibility.

Don’t forget that not getting what you want / is sometimes a stroke of luck.

Each time you realize you’ve made a mistake / take immediate steps to correct it.  

Friendships include differences / don’t let a dispute injure a relationship.

Genuine friends will stand by you / whether you are successful or unlucky. 

Happiness is not something ready made. / It comes from your own actions.

In disagreements deal only with the current situation. / Don’t bring up the past.

Judge success by what you gave up / in order to get what you wanted.

Keep an open heart / everyone needs to be loved.

Love and compassion are necessities. / Without them, humanity cannot survive.

Maintain a sincere attitude / be concerned that outcomes are fair

Nurture a loving atmosphere in your home / it is the foundation for your life.

Open your arms to change /  but don’t let go of your values.

Please be gentle with the earth / it’s the only planet we have.

Quit complaining about others / and spend more time making yourself better.

Remember that silence . . . / . . . is sometimes the best answer.

Share your knowledge wisely. / It is a way to achieve immortality.

Twice or even once a year / go someplace you’ve never been before.

Understanding for others / brings the tranquility and happiness we seek.

Verify your understanding /  but don’t forget to believe and have faith.

We all need some time alone / make room for you each and every day.

X-ray vision doesn’t exist / but seeking the truth is a good start.

You are not alone / God made all of us unique but not special.

Zero in on what matters / and start each day with loving yourself.

 

וַאֲנַֽחְנוּ נְבָרֵךְ יָהּ, מֵעַתָּה וְעַד עוֹלָם, הַלְלוּיָהּ. / Vaanachnu n’vareich Yah me’atah v’ad olam, hal’lu-Yah!

(And we will bless the Name of God now and forever, hallelujah!)

Edited / curated by Rabbi Evan Krame.

Being Real, Digital Edition

Once there was a toy rabbit who yearned to become Real. He loved his Boy, and he was loved by his Boy. And when his Boy fell ill, the toy rabbit was his constant companion.

When the Boy recovered, the doctors said the rabbit was contaminated and needed to be burned. In that darkest night, as the rabbit waited, he wept a tear. And from his tear a flower grew, and from within the flower came the Shechinah. She told him that as he had become real to the Boy who loved him, now he would be real to everyone.

Okay, in the original telling it wasn’t Shechinah, it was a fairy. Close enough.

So in this sacred text — which, as you probably know, is a children’s book by Margery Williams called The Velveteen Rabbit, from which my blog takes its name — the way one becomes Real is through loving and being loved… and through the actions fueled by that love, especially accompanying someone into the darkness of illness and loss. That sounds about right to me.

Becoming Real requires empathy. How can we safely feel empathy in these times of pandemic when there are so many reasons to despair? And how do we accompany each other, as the rabbit accompanied his Boy, when we are physically separated or quarantined?

That last question is the easiest for me to answer: we accompany each other however we can. Write a letter, send an email or text, make a phone call, meet over video… If nothing else, hold the other person in your heart and stretch out your soul to connect with theirs.

During this pandemic we’re learning how to be in community even when we are physically alone. On the second night of Pesach, I sat alone with a Zoom screen in front of me — and R’ David and I co-led a seder for our communities, and it felt real. It wasn’t “as-if” — it was really seder. I imagine many of you had similar experiences.

I remember being a child, getting a long-distance phone call from my parents, and feeling amazed that they could be so far away and I could still hear their voices. There was a bit of a lag, as our voices traveled beneath the ocean, but that didn’t matter.

Remember the miracle of long-distance phone calls? Or the first time you ever saw a loved one’s face over video? Or: imagine reading an email and feeling that a loved one is with you. Or reading a blog post that makes you feel understood. Or texting with a friend, carrying their words and their presence on your smartphone throughout the day.

Our vernacular separates between the internet and “RL,” real life. But connections forged or sustained online are real, just as our davenen together tonight is real.

An emotional and spiritual connection — with another; with community; with our Source — can be real no matter what tools we’re using to create or sustain it. The bigger challenge is being real in the first place. The Velveteen Rabbit reminds us that being real requires openness and empathy enough to companion each other in tight places.

Sometimes it’s hard to be real when someone is suffering. It’s hard to sit with someone in their sorrow. The word compassion means “feeling-with” or “suffering-with.” Being real asks us to feel-with each other.

Sometimes our own struggles prevent us from being real. When my son was born I suffered from postpartum depression, but I told my doctor I was fine, because I was ashamed and I didn’t want him to really see me. That fear kept me from being real.

Sometimes it’s hard to be real with God. Because I get trapped in katnut, in my small human mind. Or because the words of inherited liturgy feel empty. Sometimes prayer can feel like a long-distance call where I’m not sure anyone’s picking up on the other end.

But authentic spiritual life asks us to be real. Our prayers aren’t just words on a page, they’re pointers to lived emotional experience. To really pray the words of Ahavat Olam, or to remix them anew, I have to feel unending love streaming into creation.

And, I also have to be careful about how I channel unending love. Authentic spiritual life asks me to open my heart — to my yearnings, to the needs of others, to my Source — and it also asks me to maintain boundaries. In the language of our mystical tradition, it asks me to balance the overflowing love we call chesed with the healthy limits we call gevurah.

Authentic spiritual life asks us to feel-with each other even during pandemic, even during this time of rising awareness of how systemic racism harms Black and Indigenous People of Color, even in times of personal grief. If we refuse to feel with each other, then we break that nourishing human interconnection that is our obligation and our birthright.

We need to feel, without spiritual bypassing, while maintaining a container strong enough to hold safely. This inner structural integrity can help us build systems and structures of integrity in this world that so needs repair. And that includes our Jewish communities, too: we need to be real in order to build a Jewish spiritual future worthy of the name.

And we need to be real for the sake of our own souls. I’ve learned that the flow of creativity requires me to be real: with myself, with God, with you. The posts and poems and prayers that seem to resonate most are ones written from that place. I think they speak to people deeply precisely because they’re real. It’s my responsibility to cultivate sufficient gevurah to write about what’s real in a way that’s safe for me and for my readers.

In seeking to strike that balance, there’s risk — and there’s also reward. As we read in Mishlei, “As water reflects face to face, so the heart reflects person to person.” (Proverbs 27:19) When I’m willing to be real, others are real in return. You meet my honesty with yours, my heart with yours, my words with yours, my prayers with yours.

Reb Zalman z”l used to say that we all have our own unique login to the Cosmic Mainframe. “To log on to God,” he said in 2004, “we need only awareness, because God is there all the time, making your heart beat.” That login is open to us even in quarantine. We just have to be willing to be real at the table, the meditation cushion, the Zoom screen.

And our connections with each other and with community are still open to us even in quarantine. Online life, online davenen, online friendship: these aren’t “virtual reality.” They’re as real as we allow ourselves to be.

 

Offered as a keynote teaching at the 2020 Clear Vision Reb Zalman Legacy Shabbaton at Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland, Oregon — designed to dovetail with the Shabbat morning d’var, given by R’ David Markus, on The Mishkan’s Next Digital (R)Evolution. Reprinted from Velveteen Rabbi.

 

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat.

A New Melody for Gratitude

From founding builder Rabbi Bella Bogart comes this new setting for Modah Ani, the morning gratitude prayer. She writes:

Modeh Ani, meaning “I give thanks,” is a morning prayer traditionally sung or recited by Jews before rising from bed. It offers thanks to God for restoring a person’s soul when she awakens. The prayer highlights God’s mercy and trust in giving a soul back to a person to greet a new day, because Jewish tradition teaches that a soul departs from a person during sleep and returns in the morning.

Modeh Ani encourages me to recall entering a sacred covenant with God and to recall God’s trust in choosing me to help mend our broken world amidst the chaos of a new day. When my “soul” returns to me, my conscience and awareness also return, reminding me that I have the capacity and responsibility to build good relationships and healthy communities.

“I am grateful before You, living and enduring God, that you have mercifully restored my soul to me. Great is Your faithfulness!”

R’ Bella uses feminized God-language and names God as Breath of Life: modah ani l’fanayich, ruach ha’olam / she-he-che-zart bi nishmati b’chemla, rabbah emunatech. If you prefer masculine God-language and naming God as Sovereign / King, this melody also works well with the traditional words: modah/modeh ani l’fanecha, melech chai v’kayam / she-he-che-zarta bi nishmati b’chemla, rabbah emunatecha.

Enero 2020: Palabras del Torá / January 2020 Torah video

Palabras del Torá / a “vort” of Torah – R’ Rachel Barenblat from Bayit: Building Jewish on Vimeo.

 

Each month Bayit offers regular video “vorts” (words of Torah / teachings from Jewish tradition) offered in or translated into Spanish, designed for Cuban Jewish communities and available to Spanish-speaking Jews everywhere. This month’s video offering features a teaching from Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, translated into Spanish by Rabbi Juan Mejia. The text follows, in Spanish and then in English.

¡Shalom javerim y buenos días amigos! El mes pasado celebramos la fiesta de Januká.  El próximo mes nos traerá Tu Bishvat, también conocido como el “año nuevo de los árboles”.  Pero Enero es un mes en espera. Un festival ya pasó y el otro todavía no ha llegado. 

Esta pausa entre fiestas es parte de nuestra vida espiritual también.  Nuestra vida espiritual no consta sólo de experiencias cumbre cuando la comunidad se reune para las fiestas o una celebración.  Por supuesto que éstas también son parte de nuestra vida espiritual. Pero los tiempos tranquilos, los tiempos de espera también son parte de nuestra vida espiritual.

La vida judía – como toda vida espiritual- tiene un ritmo natural de avance y retroceso.  En hebreo decimos “ratzó vashov”. La vida espiritual avanza y retrocede como la marea. Tanto la marea alta como la baja son parte del ritmo natural del mar. Igualmente, las cimas y los tiempos tranquilos son igualmente parte del ritmo natural de la vida espiritual. 

Amo a nuestras fiestas y los rituales que las acompañan.  Pero también amo los tiempos tranquilos. Estos me recuerdan que puedo encontrar santidad y apoyo en las pequeñas tareas que forman parte de mi día a día.  Estas pequeñas prácticas son parte de las herramientas que la tradición nos ofrece para construir vidas judías con sentido. 

Creo que es importante que estas prácticas no nos exigen venir a un sitio especial, o usar objetos especiales o incluso hablar en hebreo.  Somos judíos donde quiera que vayamos, no sólo en la sinagoga. Somos judíos sin importar en qué lenguaje estemos hablando o rezando.

Acá les presento mis dos prácticas favoritas.  Estos son sus textos y las melodías que las acompañan. Pero creo que lo más importante, más que las palabras o la música, es el movimiento del corazón.  Estas son dos de las herramientas esenciales de mi caja de herramientas espiritual. 

La primera de ellas es agradecer a Dios al despertarme.  Hay una oración tradicional para este fin llamada el Modé Aní.  Esta se encuentra al comienzo de la mayoría de los libros de oración / siddurim: “Te agradezco, mi Dios vivo y duradero, por haberme devuelto mi alma. Grande es tu fidelidad.”

Amo esta oración porque me recuerda que estar vivo es un regalo. Y me recuerda que aunque puedo haber cometido errores ayer, Dios tiene fe en mí para ser mejor hoy.  Amo la idea de que del mismo modo que buscamos tener fe en Dios, también podemos creer que Dios tiene fe en nosotros. 

Si no conoces las palabras tradicionales, o estas no resuenan contigo, puedes adoptar esta práctica con las palabras de tu propio corazón. Cuando te despiertes en la mañana, toma un momento para cultivar un sentimiento de gratitud.  Una vez esto se volvió un hábito para mí, hizo mis mañanas más luminosas. 

Recitar el Shemá antes de dormir es otra herramienta espiritual para el tiempo corriente. Primero hacemos una pausa y meditamos sobre nuestro día.  Resolvemos mejorar mañana y dejamos ir los errores y afanes del día- tanto los propios como los ajenos. 

Y después decimos el Shemá, un recordatorio de la unidad de Dios y un recordatorio de que somos parte de la unidad del Universo.  Hacer esto todas las noches es una forma de mantenimiento espiritual diario para el alma. Y, en mi opinión, también me ayuda a conciliar el sueño más rápido. Mi corazón se aligera.

Amo como estas prácticas en la mañana y en la noche enmarcan mi día. Me ayudan a comenzar y a terminar mi día con un sentimiento de conexión. Y me recuerdan que las cosas pequeñas pueden ser más grandes que la suma de sus partes.  A pesar de sólo tomar unos pocos minutos, su impacto es profundo. 

Meses como éste, sin grandes fiestas, nos vienen a enseñar (y a recordarnos) que toda la vida es vida espiritual.  Meses como estos nos recuerdan que nuestra vida espiritual está compuesta de simples acciones cotidianas. Todo lo que hacemos es parte de nuestra vida espiritual, o puede serlo, si prestamos atención.

Estas pequeñas prácticas diarias son algunas de nuestras herramientas judías para ayudarnos a prestar atención.  Nos despiertan, no sólo del sueño físico sino del sueño espiritual. Con ellas podemos construir vidas judías ricas y significativas no sólo durante las fiestas sino siempre. 

 

Shalom chaverim y buenos dias amigos! Last month we celebrated the festival of Chanukah. Next month will bring the holiday of Tu BiShvat, known as the “new year of the trees.” But January is an in-between month. One festival is over and the next has not yet arrived.

This pause between holidays is part of spiritual life too. Spiritual life isn’t only the peak experiences when communities come together for holidays or lifecycle celebrations. Of course those are part of spiritual life! But the quiet times, the in-between times, are also spiritual life.

Jewish life — all spiritual life — has a natural ebb and flow. In Hebrew, we say ratzo v’shov. Spiritual life ebbs and flows like the tide. High tide and low tide are both part of the natural rhythm of the sea. Peak times and quiet times are both part of the natural rhythm of spiritual life.

I love our festivals and the rituals that come with them. But I also love the quiet times. They remind me that I can find holiness and sustenance in small actions that are part of my every day. These small practices are among tradition’s tools for building meaningful Jewish lives. 

And I think it’s important that some of these practices don’t require us to come to a special place, to use special items, or even to speak Hebrew. We are Jewish everywhere we go, not just at synagogue. We are Jewish no matter what language we use to speak or to pray. 

Here are two of my favorite daily practices. There are texts and melodies that go with them, but I think the movement of the heart is the most important thing, more important than any special words or tunes. These are two of the most essential tools in my spiritual toolbox.

The first one is thanking God when I wake up. There’s a short traditional prayer for this purpose, called Modeh Ani. You can find it in most siddurim / prayerbooks: “I am thankful before You, living and enduring God. You have restored my soul to me; great is Your faithfulness!”

I love this prayer because it reminds me that being alive is a gift. And it reminds me that even if I feel like I made mistakes yesterday, God has faith that I can be my best self today. I love the idea that just as we seek to have faith in God, we can also believe that God has faith in us.

If you don’t know the traditional words, or if they don’t speak to you, you can do this practice with the words of your own heart. When you wake up in the morning, just pause and cultivate a sense of gratitude. Once this became a habit for me, it made my mornings feel brighter.

Saying the Shema before sleep is another spiritual tool for ordinary time. First we pause before bed, and reflect on the day. We resolve to do better tomorrow, and try to let go of the day’s hurts and mistakes — both mistakes we made ourselves, and mistakes made by others.

And then we say the Shema, a reminder of the Oneness of God and a reminder that we are part of the great unity of the universe. Doing this every night is a form of daily spiritual soul-maintenance. And I think it helps me fall asleep more easily, too. My heart feels lighter.

I love how these morning and evening practices bookend my day. They help me begin and end each day with a sense of connection. And they remind me that little things can add up to more than the sum of their parts. They take only a few minutes, but their impact is deep.

Months like this one, with no big holidays, come to teach us (and then to remind us) that all of life is spiritual life. Months like this one remind us that spiritual life is made up of simple everyday actions. Everything we do is part of spiritual life… or can be, if we pay attention.

And these small daily spiritual practices are some of our Jewish tools for helping us pay attention. They help us wake up: not just from literal sleep, but from spiritual sleep. With them we can build Jewish lives that are meaningful and deep: not only at holiday times, but always.

 

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Translated by Rabbi Juan Mejia.

Lamentations (Then and Now)

 

This responsive reading is intended for congregational use during Tisha b’Av. Most of these words come directly from refugee testimonies (citations below). They have been shaped into the form of a prayer, but have not otherwise been edited in any way. The indented lines are from the book of Eicha / Lamentations. 

In reciting this prayer together, we bring the words of today’s refugees into our own mouths.  May speaking these words galvanize us to build a world of justice, so that we can make manifest Tisha b’Av’s promise of redemption.1

Lamentations (Then and Now) [pdf]

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

 

Lamentations (Then and Now)

 

Hear, all you peoples,
And behold my agony:
My girls and my boys
Have gone into captivity! (1:18)

They told me, ‘you don’t have any rights here,
and you don’t have any rights to stay with your son.’

I died at that moment. They ripped my heart out of me.
For me, it would have been better if I had dropped dead.

For me, the world ended at that point.
How can a mother not have the right to be with her son? 2

I raised my grandchild since she was little…
They didn’t tell me why they were taking her.

They just told me they were going to separate her from me…
My granddaughter calls me mommy.

And she told me [by phone], ‘mommy, I want to be with you
on mother’s day.’ She just wants to be with me. 3

The way they treat us, I cannot survive for long.
The officers don’t respect us for who we are – because of our skin…

The way we are exposed to sickness,
not being able to go outside.

We need the wind. And the water we are using
is not good enough to shower or drink. 4

At Ursula, we are kept in a cage. It is very crowded.
There is no room to move without stepping over the others.

We have to sleep on the cold, concrete floor.
The lights are on all the time.

My sisters keep asking me, ‘when will mommy come get us?’
I don’t know what to tell them. 5

I have not been told how long I have to stay here.
I am frightened, scared, and sad.

I have a cold and cough. I have not seen a doctor or been given any medicine.
It is cold at night when we sleep.

We have not been able to shower.
The toilet is out in the open in the cage, there is no privacy.

There is no soap to wash our hands.
We have not been given a toothbrush or toothpaste to brush our teeth.

They keep asking their mothers,
“Where is bread and wine?”
As they languish like battle-wounded…
As their life runs out
In their mothers’ bosoms. (2:12)

When we arrived they took the clothes my baby was wearing.
We were not given any food or water or anything to drink.

We were put into a cage filled with loads of people. Too many to count.
There was nowhere to sit there were so many people.

One of the other boys got into trouble
and he was taken to the freezer box as a punishment.

I am in a room with dozens of other boys. Some are 3 or 4 years old.
Right now there is a 12-year-old who cries a lot. Others try to comfort him.

One of the officers makes fun of those who cry.
It is cold at night in our room. We spend the entire day in our room.

The tongue of the suckling cleaves
To its palate for thirst.
Little children beg for bread;
None gives them a morsel. (4:4)

The meals are the same every day and there is not enough.
I am often hungry. One time the food was so bad, it made me sick.

There are very young children who are here all by themselves.
They do not have anyone to care for them.

Every night, the guards wake us at 3am and take away our blankets.
The water in the jugs tastes awful, like it’s from a dirty well.

Most of the children are all alone. One was only two years old.
She had to sleep on the floor. It is concrete. It is very cold.

We are locked in a room for most of the day.
The room has no windows.

I need comfort, too.
I am bigger than [other children] are, but I am a child, too.

Return us to You, O God
And let us return;
Renew our days as of old!
For if you were to reject us,
Bitterly rage against us —
Return us to You, O God
And let us return;
Renew our days like the dawn! (5:22)

 

Quotations assembled / curated by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat.

 

Sources:

1. Tradition teaches that the messiah will be born on Tisha b’Av. The seeds of hope are planted even in — or especially in — our darkest time of despair.

2. Valquiria, forcibly separated from her six-year-old son after they requested asylum at a port-of-entry in El Paso (source: Amnesty International report “USA: You Don’t Have Any Rights Here”)

3. Clara, grandmother whose granddaughter was separated from her (ibid.)

4. Bokole, a refugee from the DRC (ibid.)

5. All other quotations (except those from Lamentations, which are indented) are from testimonies given by young migrants detained in Customs and Border Protection facilities.

Photo credit: The Washington Post.