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Ushpizin: liturgy for Sukkot in time of covid

Sukkot this year will be unlike any other. Some of us won’t be able to safely build a sukkah; others will find in the sukkah the outdoor safety that indoor ventilation doesn’t provide. What does it mean to invite ancestors when we can’t invite guests in person? With what, or whom, (or Whom!) are we sitting when we dwell in our sukkot this year — whether our sukkot be literal or metaphorical? What structures can we build liturgically and spiritually to protect us in these vulnerable times? Four liturgists from within and beyond the denominations collaborated on this set of offerings from Bayit to accompany us through this year’s festival. Here are excerpts; you can download the whole collection at the end of the post.

 

0. This Year’s Sukkah – With Words, by Rachel Barenblat and David Evan Markus, with illustration by Steve Silbert:

We build this year’s sukkah with words. Our words keep us company.  We read the words of this Teaching: this Teaching gathers us in…

1. Invitation to the Builders / Invitation to my Virtual Sukkah by Trisha Arlin:

…You are invited,
Builders of our past sukkot
In the backyard, the park, the roof:
Every year
You put up the walls
You hung the decorations.
Where are you this week?…

2. Far Away So Close by Rachel Barenblat:

…How can I welcome Abraham
and Sarah, David and
Rachel, when I can’t welcome
my own neighbors?…

3. UnSukkah by David Evan Markus:

We don’t build our sukkah with nails
Sharply hammered into sturdy place.

We don’t build our sukkah with roof shingles
And sustainable solar panels for midnight light…

4. In the Open by Sonja Keren Pilz:

Vulnerable
Under the open sky.

The air gets thinner;
Canadian geese fly by…

5. Sitting in Emptiness by Trisha Arlin:

On Sukkot, we sit in the sukkah:
In an empty room
Porous walls
Holes in the ceiling
No door…

6. Sit With Me / Not Alone by Rachel Barenblat:

…The safest companion in times of covid:
Myself. Or you, Holy One:
dressed for the season in worn jeans
and flannel shirt, and maybe flip-flops
reluctant to let summer end…

7. Sitting neither Here nor There by Sonja Keren Pilz:

We used to sit, huddled together,
Sharing blankets, often too cold.
We used to drink,
Hot tea or cider,
Passing the water, the soda, the coke…

8. Tomorrow Again (for Shemini Atzeret) by David Evan Markus:

This is the breezy feeling I hope to remember
Starting tomorrow when beginning begins again

Pulsing reborn from the jumble of these many months
Left on pandemic ground to decay as pungent compost

For the first daring shoots of next year’s who-knows…

9. Simchat Torah, by the ensemble together:

We dance by ourselves.
We dance in our living rooms with Sefaria on our phones.
We dance in the falling rain.
We dance cradling toddlers, or dogs, or emptiness…

Download the whole collection here: Ushpizin [PDF]

 

Prayers by Trisha Arlin, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, Rabbi David Evan Markus, and Rabbi Sonja Keren Pilz. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Megillat Covid: Five Offerings for Tisha b’Av

Here are five offerings for Tisha b’Av, each available as its own downloadable PDF. They are intended for both personal and communal use, and can be used singly or all together. Any of them could be read on their own, or as a prelude to Eicha / Lamentations. The final one has been set to Eicha trope.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a brief excerpt (the whole appears in the PDF below):

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here also is a recording of R’ Krame’s words sung in Eicha trope, recorded by Rabbi Jennifer Singer.

Together these five offerings make up this year’s “Megillat Covid,” the scroll of our mourning and our search for meaning during these pandemic times. Each is available for download as a PDF file here:

MegillatCovid-Barenblat-CryingOut (PDF)

MegillatCovid-Pilz-AlongTheLines (PDF)

MegillatCovid-Spier-Jeremiahs (PDF)

MegillatCovid-Arlin-Alas (PDF)

MegillatCovid-Krame-Remember (PDF) and audio recording by R’ Jennifer Singer:

 

And here’s a sketchnote of R’ Krame’s words, created by Steve Silbert:

 

Contributors:

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat is a founding builder at Bayit and author of several volumes of poetry who blogs as the Velveteen Rabbi.

Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, PhD is the Editor of the CCAR Press. She taught Worship, Liturgy, and Ritual at HUC-JIR in New York and the School of Jewish Theology at Potsdam University, and authored one book, some articles, and many poems, midrashim, and prayers. Her work has been published in Liturgy, Worship, the CCAR Journal, a number of anthologies, and online.

Devon Spier is a rabbinic student, an author, and a visual poet theologian (proemologian), who both weaves and teaches others to weave their stories through poems, prose and theology of digital images.

Trisha Arlin is a liturgist, performer and student of prayer in Brooklyn, NY.  She is author of Place Yourself: Words of Prayer and Intention

Rabbi Evan Krame is a founding builder at Bayit and co-founder of The Jewish Studio.

Steve Silbert is the Bayit builder behind VisualTorah and Sketchnoting Jewishly.

 

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