From Frozen to Bloom

Frozen to Bloom seder.jpgWhat roots do you want to tap for your community’s future? What seeds do you want to nurture?

This community-tree “seder” was crafted during Snowzilla and seems appropriate to share on another snowy day in DC. This  may seem odd timing – celebrating trees when branches are bare and everything is covered with a thick layer of snow. But the holiday; marks the point when last year’s leaves are long gone and new buds are still weeks away. The challenge is to celebrate future blooms when things look bleakest.

Even though the holiday has come and gone (Jan. 24-25, 2016) this year, the cold, tree-less conditions have not abated in many places. And envisioning new growth and planning for new blossoming is never out of season.

This seder can be used to consider any community’s seeds, roots, and hopes for fruit. It was written specifically for the area east of DC’s Anacostia river, however, and the full story is available on-line and in PDF: Frozen to Bloom).

More in the Jew in the Pew” series, currently appearing in East of the River magazine.

New Year for Trees — Tu B’Shvat

The New Year for Trees is one of four new years in the Jewish calendar. It generally falls at a time when much of the northern hemisphere is at its most frozen and inhospitable.


Blasphemy of Pharaoh’s Overreach: Theology, Context and the Trouble I’ve Seen

“Claiming the center stage, just like Pharaoh and Caesar did in their time, has always been a blasphemous overreach that actually places oneself on the margins of God’s reign,” thus writes Drew G.I. Hart in Trouble I’ve Seen. 

This new title focuses on “Changing the Way the Church Sees Racism,” but much of what Hart says needs equal attention in the Jewish thought. (Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Sees Racism. Harrisonberg, VA: Herald Press, 2016.)

Religious Thought and Practice

Hart notes the optional or alternative status of “women’s,” “peace,” or “black” theology:

According to [teacher John Franke] white male theologians have often seen themselves as objective and neutral overseers of Christian tradition. They function as “theological referees” for everyone else, while imagining their position as neutral and unbiased in the center of all the action….Missing is that white men have a social context too.

— p. 163, Trouble I’ve Seen

TroubleA parallel situation still applies all too well in much of the Jewish world. As does his analysis of how well-intentioned attempts at diversity and inclusion often fail to create real change. Many of his recommendations for the Church are ones other faith communities should explore as well:

  1. “Share life together.”
  2.  Practice solidarity. (See, e.g., Be’chol Lashon, Jewish Multi-Racial Network, and Jews of All Hues, as well as links at “Exodus from Racism”)
  3. “See the world from below,” by changing reading habits, for example. (See “Range of Possibilities” for some suggestions.)
  4. “Subvert racial hierarchy in the [religious infrastructure].”
  5. “Soak in scripture and the Spirit for renewed social imagination.” (Explore  “Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart,” e.g. and these resources from Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center.)
  6. “Seek first the kingdom of God.”
  7. Engage in self-examination.

— from p. 176, Trouble I’ve Seen

Current and Historical Re-Examination

Hart’s exploration of “White Jesus” and related Church history may seem irrelevant to those outside the Christian faith. This is important background for every U.S. citizen, however, and worth review for those as yet unfamiliar.

Moreover, Jewish communities would do well to consider whether our members are aware of essential demographics — such as a recent study showing white men with criminal convictions more likely to get positive job-application responses than black men without a record (see p. 145) — and the individual and cumulative effect of everyday racism experienced by the author of Trouble I’ve Seen.

Most importantly, Jews must join our Christian neighbors in examining how we “resemble this remark”:

Too many in the American Church have perpetuated the myth that this land was build on Christian principle rather than on stolen land and stolen labor.

p.145, Trouble I’ve Seen

Hart’s new volume provides important food for thought as we continue to read Exodus this winter and experience it in the upcoming Passover season.


Drew G. I. Hart

More about “Anablacktivist” Drew G.I. Hart

Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Sees Racism. Harrisonberg, VA: Herald Press, 2016.

What are you reading this Exodus season?

Please share your resources and your thinking.

Heart strings and the holiday cycle


“When the last rose of summer pricks my finger…”

Outside McPherson Square Metro Station, 9/15/15

Outside McPherson Square Metro Station, 9/15/15

Early in the holidays, I shared a message I’d found stenciled on the sidewalk, suggesting that maybe, when one’s heart is already broken, “protect yo heart” might be Days of Awe advice worth considering. Comments included thoughts about the Shekhinah’s wings sheltering “the bereaved, the brokenhearted” and a warning: “…the fact that your heart is broken as an existence proof that you have a heart that can be broken.”

Both comments have stayed with me through the ensuing days. But I admit to finding this breakable heart more debit than asset at the moment, and, while I’ve experienced shelter in my own personal griefs, I am not convinced that it extends to those most in need, in my town or beyond, in the vast, and sadly expanding, diameter of so many bullets and attendant trauma.

…Although I witnessed only one, the District has seen 116 homicides, as of 9/25/15; of course, this figure does not take into account the many other violent crimes in DC — or elsewhere — nor does it calculate the trauma for families, friends, and neighbors of each crime or the disastrous conditions that contributed to the crimes….

“…and I can’t hear the song for the singer”

This morning, the L’Chayim V’Yayin Torah study group completed a year of weekly studies by reading V’zot HaBrachah [“this is the blessing”] (Deut 33:1 – 34:12). We noted how different it was to focus on the death of Moses in this format, where we had time to really consider the scene and his final words. We usually meet this portion as part of a Simchat Torah celebration — in which the final words of the Torah are quickly linked to the initial words, as we begin a new reading cycle.

I personally do not usually mourn, or even much consider, Moses’ death: He remains centered forever, after all, in the narrative of the People’s trek out of bondage and toward freedom. Like Moses, we never quite make it out of the Wilderness, but go around again each year, glimpsing, perhaps, but never getting beyond the River Jordan.

Our study group paused, however, to consider the position of a revolutionary who can only lead the folks so far, who sees but does not cross over. We discussed an essay on this portion — “This is the Blessing: The ‘First Openly Gay Rabbi’ Reminisces” (more below) — which relates the life of Moses to that of a “social pioneer,” being “first” when young and “last” when old.

“When the strings of my heart start to sever”

Meanwhile, a few days ago, I stumbled upon a recording (20 years old, but new to me; see below) from a different sort of revolutionary He is also at the banks of a river — although, unlike Moses, he has not seen the other side. Somehow, “when the strings of my heart start to sever” put me in mind of an oddity of the first and last words of the Torah:


The last word of the Torah is ישראל (Yisrael), making the final letter of the Torah ל, lamed. The first word is בראשית [“in the beginning”], with the initial letter ב, bet. Linking the two letters forms the word “heart [לב, lev]” — either read “backward,” so the Torah is seen as the “heart” of the Jewish people, or stretching the lamed around to meet the bet, as we do when one reading cycle completes and the next begins on Simchat Torah. (more on this here)

“If I were at the border of the promised land, knowing I couldn’t get in,” writes the “social pioneer”(see above):

…I’d say, “Be true to yourself.” I don’t say it glibly: it’s one of the most difficult challenges any of us face….Whatever it costs you to live a life of integrity, you have to do it.
— “This is the Blessing: The ‘First Openly Gay Rabbi’ Reminisces,”
by Allen Bennett as told to Jane Rachel Litman
Torah Queeries. NY: NYU Press, 2009. p.280

The author of “Black Muddy River,” though younger than I am now when he wrote these lyrics, reported later that the song

…is about the perspective of age and making a decision about the necessity of living in spite of a rough time, and the ravages of anything else that’s going to come at you.
— Robert Hunter, quoted in David Dodd’s “Greatest Stories Ever Told”

May all find healing in the rolling to come

Black Muddy River

This particular rendition is an encore at July 9, 1995 Grateful Dead concert (the last before Jerry Garcia died). Vocals are some of Jerry’s last public words.

“Black Muddy River”
When the last rose of summer pricks my fingers
And the hot sun chills me to the bone
When I can’t hear the song for the singer
And I can’t tell my pillow from a stone

I will walk alone by the black muddy river
And sing me a song of my own…

…I don’t care how deep or wide
If you got another side
Roll muddy river…

…When the strings of my heart start to sever
And stones fall from my eyes instead of tears

I will walk alone by the black muddy river
and dream me a dream of my own
I will walk alone by the black muddy river
And sing me a song of my own
And sing me a song of my own
— Robert Hunter, 1986
Full lyrics at Dead-net
David Dodd’s annotated lyrics


Psalms and Their Superpowers


In recent months, the need for deeper prayer – just to cope with events – has become more urgent for me and, I suspect, for others as well. It seems to me that the world around us is also in urgent need of all the help it can get, in the form of prayer and otherwise.

Mishkan T’filah reminds us that “We join together in prayer because together, we are stronger and more apt to commit to the values of our heritage….”

The older Gates of Prayer tells us that “Some will pray together who cannot pray alone, as many will sing in chorus who would not sing solos.” It also cautions that public worship is different from private worship in a public place.

Here are some thoughts to help us explore what it means to engage in public worship, maybe to better understand what we’re trying to accomplish, individually and collectively, with our prayers.

Toward Communal Prayer

We never pray as individuals, set apart from the rest of the world….Every act of worship is an act of participating in an eternal service, in the service of all souls of all ages.

At times all we do is to utter a word with all our heart, yet it is as if we lifted up a whole world. It is as if someone unsuspectingly pressed a button and a gigantic wheel-work were stormily and surprisingly set in motion.

It’s like being a faucet or a crack in the rocks from which the water emerges. The spring doesn’t make the water. At best, it knows how to get out of the way and open itself wide to the flow. If it’s really blessed and happens to be connected to some sweet, clear water, then it will taste like a revelation to those who encounter it.

The words above are from the 20th Century Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (Man’s Quest for God. Santa Fe, NM: Aurora, 1998) and from the poet and essayist John Barlow (Afterward, Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics . NY: Simon & Schuster, 2005). I thought both authors captured essential aspects of prayer, particularly public worship –

  • connecting with something larger than ourselves
  • realizing that offering a heartfelt word might be in our power, but anything beyond that is outside our control
  • and recognizing that something that is not us is moving whenever we actually encounter moments of insight or solace or inspiration

As we settle into a house of worship, our city, nation, and globe face intense challenges that we don’t always acknowledge inside these walls. There are undoubtedly many other personal concerns weighing on the hearts of those here this morning.

And yet Shabbat asks us to rejoice and delight in its goodness.

Trying to figure out how to get from the work-a-day world to Shabbat is hard enough. But moving from grief and anger and worry, maybe even despair, to Shabbat is yet another level of challenge. This is where I call on the psalms, with their range of emotions, to exercise their superpower. I find that psalms let us move through difficult states of being to get to praise and joy.

Psalms Work

In particular, psalms attributed to the offspring of Korach offer us an amazing offer us an amazing variety of images to explore as we find our way in prayer.

[Remarks originally prepared for Shabbat Korach]. So, I thought it would be interesting to consider a few of these psalms. They touch on the usual Shabbat morning themes –

  • waking up our bodies, minds, and souls;
  • acknowledging our blessings; and
  • becoming aware of community, before we reach the formal call to worship.

Psalm 84

(text here)
First, like Mah Tovu, which often opens our prayers, this psalm is filled with place language:

  • mishkenotekha, translated as “your places” or “tabernacles” or “sanctuaries,”
  • beitecha, “Your house,” in verse 5
  • beit elohei, “house of my God” in verse 11
  • ken, “nest” in verse 4
  • mizb’chotekha – “your altars”
  • Zion, which is understood in many ways, as both a physical and a metaphorical place, and
  • chatzrot – “courtyards” in verses 3 & 11, which we also find in Psalm 92 the psalm for Shabbat

But Psalm 84 also includes nearly as many expressions for travel:

  • a soul that is longing to be elsewhere – in those courtyards – in verse 3
  • crossing the Valley and transforming it in verse 7
  • walking from strength to strength in verse 8
  • walking the holy road in verse 12 – and, my favorite
  • “highways in the heart” or the “heart as an easy road”

On the Way/Here
We also find several phrases that suggest states of mind than physical locations
ohalei-rasha: tents of wickedness, or “tents of those estranged from your will”
and histoteif, which my commentary calls an infinitive form of the noun, saf – threshold – used as a gerund, so “standing on the threshold”

This expression sort of encapsulates the psalm’s twin themes of being in a place and simultaneous on the way.

This dual status – being here and on the way – is, I think, part of how prayer works. So let’s make sure that we’re here – body, mind, and soul – as we consider

How beloved are the places we perceive the Holy One
How strongly our souls long for the Courtyards
How even the bird finds a home and the swallow a nest
How happy are they who dwell in God’s house
and how happy are we still on the threshold dreaming of a sweet day in God’s Courtyard

…on this pilgrimage Jews have been taking in one way or another for millenia.

See also “heart highways” for more on Psalm 84.

Psalm 42

(text here)

Psalm 42 is one that takes us through a range of emotions – celebrating kindness by day and song at night, on the one hand, and yet feeling “bent low” and “in tumult.” The throngs were crying in joy and thanksgiving, but that memory brings sadness because the moment of gathering, and perhaps of insight, is passed.

It’s also worth considering, as we explore the idea of prayer, that depths are calling to depths and breakers and waves crashing, but the soul’s desire is compared to longing for a simple drink from a stream. And that seems sufficient. In fact, the psalmist wisely doesn’t desire ocean depths, even while thirsting for the presence of the Living God.

See also “Why Doesn’t She Drink?

Using and Leaving the Psalms

If we don’t manage to transform anything, if only our own perspectives on our own cares, maybe our prayer is not all it could be. And, knowing that everyone here brought at least some burdens that need lifting up, and that our city and country and world need lifting up as well, shouldn’t we use the tools at hand to see if we can do as Heschel described, uttering a heartfelt word in hope of setting off that gigantic wheel-work that lifts the world?

Some related ideas as we prepare to leave the psalms — please see “Melody of Understanding“…

First: Pope Gregory (on PDF) says that God already had us in mind when the psalms were inspired and that they speak to us today “as if they were at this instant pronounced for the first time.” John Barlow notes that the material he helped create continues to grow and reveal itself over time, “resonating with frequencies unheard at the time of their writing.” And Eknath Easwaran suggests that we can respond to sacred text through “attentiveness, persistence, and the desire to move from inspiration to insight to action.”

I add: perhaps together we can help each other dare to be vulnerable enough to drink from that stream, and, if we all walk together through the Valley of Weeping, maybe we can transform it together into that wellspring of life.

Why doesn’t she drink?

כְּאַיָּל, תַּעֲרֹג עַל-אֲפִיקֵי-מָיִם
כֵּן נַפְשִׁי תַעֲרֹג אֵלֶיךָ אֱלֹהִים.
2 The way a deer longs for streams of water,
my soul has longed for you, God of Strength.
— Psalm 42:2 (whole psalm here)

R. Shefa Gold (C-DEEP, Kol Zimra) offers a teaching on this verse:

The deer…is standing at the riverbank. Her longing is for that water that is right there, right in front of her.
— chant and full teaching, “Longing: Kayn Nafshi Ta’arog”

David Blumenstein (Kol Zimra, Fabrangen West) adds another layer:

Why doesn’t she drink?
Deer, vulnerable when they drop their heads, are cautious about drinking.

A few notes about Psalms 42 and 84 (discussed in previous post):
Ps. 42:2 is used in the Kabbalat Shabbat piyut “Yedid Nefesh
Ps. 42:5 opens the Yom Kippur piyut “Eleh Ezkerah
Ps. 42:3 & 84:3 form the refrain of “Tzam’ah Nafshi” by Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) Ps. 84:6 is used in a Yehuda Halevi (1075?-1141) Selichot poem
Ps. 84:5 opens Ashrei, which means that afternoon services begin with celebration of “the house” and/or praise for showing up
Psalm 84:6-8 appear in Christian and Rastafarian songs, celebrating “going to Zion”

heart-highways, God’s strength, the holy road

Content are the ones whose strength comes from you, their heart is an easy road […in whose heart are the highways.]. (Ps. 84:6)
אַשְׁרֵי אָדָם, עוֹז-לוֹ בָךְ
מְסִלּוֹת, בִּלְבָבָם

Some read “highways in the heart” straightforwardly: knowing by heart an actual path to the Temple in Jerusalem and, by extension, paths to other instantiations of God’s house. Thus, we might read: “Happy are they who know the road to Temple Micah [or your local house of worship] and which buses stop nearby.” Or, more broadly: “Happy are those who know what it takes to Jewishly mobilize zir own household.” (Note on translation and more of Psalm 84 below.)

Others see a more metaphorical way to God or “path of the upright.” Jeremiah (31:20) uses the similar “set your heart toward the highway” to mean “get yourselves back to God,” however understood.

The word “m’sillah” [here: “highway” or “road”] is linked to “sullam,” which appears only that once in the Tanakh, when the angels in Jacob’s dream are climbing whatever it is between earth and heaven (Gen 28).

The weird plural – “in their heart” — simply reflects translation messiness, but it also hints that a community has a collective heart-road to navigate. When the Temple stood, the highway not a “personal trip.” Each person brought zir own offering, but the worship process was collective. Moreover, offerings were part of a resource-distribution system with care for the poor and vulnerable as a key element.

“Their heart IS an easy road,” also reinforces the idea that this road-heart is for travel. We are not, as Korach wants, holy (a condition) but on a journey, with God’s help, toward becoming holy. קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ

The earlier clause, “whose strength comes from you” calls us to humility, remembering that we act in the world with God’s help, and to urgency – God’s strength is surely needed and we better get to it.

Highway travelers cross through “Weeping” and “transform it into a wellspring of life.” Commentary varies: Cisterns shlepped in for travelers? Those with a joyful destination seeing beauty in desolation? Footsteps upon footsteps carving a stream-bed, gradually watering an arid spot?

If we transform nothing, why pray? If we fail to touch that Valley of Weeping, what are we? If not now, when?

Are we – as individuals, as a [prayer] gathering, as a nation – heading somewhere particular?

We join together in prayer because together, we are stronger and more apt to commit to the values of our heritage….
In worship, all should be reminded of the social imperatives of community.
Prayer must move us beyond ourselves. Prayer should not reflect ‘me’; prayer should reflect our values and ideals.
Mishkan T’filah introduction

Psalm 84


ב  מַה-יְּדִידוֹת מִשְׁכְּנוֹתֶיךָ–    יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת.
2 How beloved are the places we perceive you Arranger of the Heavenly Spheres [How lovely are Thy tabernacles, O LORD of hosts!]
ג  נִכְסְפָה וְגַם-כָּלְתָה, נַפְשִׁי–    לְחַצְרוֹת יְהוָה:
לִבִּי וּבְשָׂרִי–    יְרַנְּנוּ, אֶל אֵל-חָי.
3 My soul pales with languish, longing for your courtyards –
my heart and my flesh cry out [sing for joy] to the Source of life….
ו  אַשְׁרֵי אָדָם, עוֹז-לוֹ בָךְ;    מְסִלּוֹת, בִּלְבָבָם.
6 Content are the ones whose strength comes from you;
their heart is an easy road…. […in whose heart are the highways.]
ז  עֹבְרֵי, בְּעֵמֶק הַבָּכָא–    מַעְיָן יְשִׁיתוּהוּ;
גַּם-בְּרָכוֹת,    יַעְטֶה מוֹרֶה.
7 Those who cross through the Valley of Weeping [Baca] transform it into a wellspring of life. Your rain covers them with blessings.
ח  יֵלְכוּ, מֵחַיִל אֶל-חָיִל;    יֵרָאֶה אֶל-אֱלֹהִים בְּצִיּוֹן.
8 They walk from strength to strength, witnessed by God in Zion….

Translations (c) Pamela Greenberg, The Complete Psalms (NY: Bloomsbury, 2010). [“Old JPS, ” 1917 Jewish Publication Society (public domain) in brackets]
Note: Additional [bracketed] translations included where Greenberg’s differs substantially from more familiar renderings.

Greenberg translates, especially in ascriptions, expressions – like Ha-Gittit above – which others leave or treat as proper nouns.

She uses direct address for God to avoid divine gender and to create a more “pray-able” text. Old JPS and Hebrew script from Full public domain text of Psalm 84 here.


Grateful Thanksgivakkah

In honor of this odd confluence of holidays — 30 Days of Dead, Chanukah, and Thanksgiving — I offer these thoughts on Jewish worship, text study and the Grateful Dead. It is not necessary to know anything about the (Grateful) Dead or to like them, musically or culturally, to explore this analogy. I’ve been told by fans and non-fans that it is helpful. I hope you enjoy and find it useful and welcome comments.

The material was originally shared at Temple Micah (DC) for Shabbat Shelach in 2011. Here’s the introduction from that dvar torah.

Not Just for Dead Fans

How the Grateful Dead, Jewish Text and Worship Explain One Another and Raise Interesting Questions.”

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Notes on Psalm 27

Two Sources for Basic Commentary
Rabbi Benjamin Segal offers an analysis of Psalm 27 in its biblical-literary context and discusses the unity of psalm, behind its apparently disparate set of emotions. The very readable series from Schechter Institute in Philadelphia also includes complete text of each psalm in English and Hebrew. This commentary includes a note on the use of Psalm 27 in Elul and the Days of Awe. [UPDATE 2017: Sadly, this on-line resource appears to be gone; Segal’s A New Psalm: The Psalms as Literature is now published by Geffen Books.]

Machzor Lev Shalem offers explanatory notes as well as a few thoughts on Psalm 27 in the penitential season. Unfortunately, the Rabbinical Assembly’s link to this material, previously offered here, is no longer public. Instead, a few notes are shared in More Exploring Psalm 27 (2 of 4). (Here is the machzor’s own website.) The Kol Nidrei sample pages include Zelda’s poem on “that strange night,” inspiration for this essay during Elul 5772.

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