18 April 2014 @ 11:24 am


Omer earsI'm about to begin teaching a weekly Omer spiritual study group at my synagogue, and as a result, I've been collecting materials to share.

We'll be working sometimes with the kabbalistic paradigm which assigns to each week of the Omer, and to each day within each week, one of seven qualities which we and God share (chesed / lovingkindness, gevurah / boundaried strength, and so on) -- and sometimes with the Mussar paradigm which assigns to each day of the Omer one of the 48 qualities with which one acquires Torah (attentive listening, joy, humility, and so on). My intention is to use both of these paradigms as lenses for the real focus of our study, which is the inner work which each of us needs to do in order to be ready to receive Torah at Shavuot.

Of course, I'll be sharing with them excerpts from my cherished collection of Omer books, among them Rabbi Min Kantrowitz's Counting the Omer: A Kabbalistic Meditation Guide, Rabbi Jill Hammer's Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, Rabbi Yael Levy's Journey through the Wilderness, Shifrah Tobacman's Omer/Teshuvah, and Rabbi Simon Jacobson's The Spiritual Guide to the Counting of the Omer.

I'm also handing out this colorful Omer chart; a teaching from the Slonimer rebbe about how Pesach lifts us to spiritual heights and then the Omer gives us the opportunity to make that climb under our own power; an excerpt from an essay by Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg about leaping and waiting; some Omer teachings from Rabbi Chava Bahle; and this annotated edition of Pirkei Avot 6:6. I'll also be sharing some links with that group, and I figured I'd post them here, too, for anyone who's interested.

Here's the first one:

There’s a place, halfway between now and tomorrow. It’s the place where the road shifts, where time slows and choices open into every possibility, every future.

There’s a place, halfway between Egypt and Sinai. It’s the place where the echoes of slavery fade, the music of freedom begins its song and the thunder of G-d’s voice can almost be heard...

That's from the essay Halfway Between Green and Yellow, by Alden Solovy. Alden also has a list of daily Omer prayers and meditations at Omer | To Bend Light.

Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan offers an excellent introduction to the Omer. In her first post of this year, she explains:

Last year I reflected in dialogue with the writings of the Ramak, Kabbalistic teacher Rabbi Moses Cordovero (1522-1570). This year, I am exploring the names of the sefirot as they appear in their original contexts in the Tanakh, Hebrew Bible.

Each exploration showcases a different facet of the week’s quality, and suggests a different focus for spiritual self-questioning, action, and growth.

Chesed: risky love and kindness, offered in a situation that might be tricky, dangerous, or emotionally fraught. An act of chesed may have only a long shot at success but, if it succeeds, it has a far-reaching effect. At least, that’s how our Biblical ancestors spoke of chesed...

That's from her post Chesed | Love and Kindness.

Rabbi Leila Gal Berner has written a poem for the Omer which I think is terrific:

Forty-nine days,
wandering in the wilderness
newly-birthed to
moving toward
where the Holy One
will entrust us with
the Teaching...

You can read the whole thing at Kol ALEPH: Sacred Harvest.

If you're looking for daily Omer meditations which will come to you via email (and which will remind you to count each day!), I'm receiving two and can recommend both. One is from Mishkan / A Way In; the other is from Journey of the Soul: Making the Omer Count. Also, Rabbi David Seidenberg of NeoHasid.org has created an Omer app which is available for iPhone and for Droid.

May your journey through the Omer be fruitful.





God, do You ever grow weary, snap at Your children, say
things you regret once they leave Your mouth and we shrink away?
Slice the words off before they're spoken. Revise Yourself
into lovingkindness. Be the One we call on when we pray.


In today's NaPoWriMo prompt we're invited to write a ruba'i, a four-line stanza with an AABA rhyme scheme. (A series of these is called a rubaiyat.) Mine arose out of the Torah reading for this Shabbat. This week's passage contains the Thirteen Attributes, which we recite in our liturgy on Yom Kippur. But our liturgical use revises the Torah text in an interesting way.

In Torah God is described as "compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and trangression and sin -- yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children and children's children, upon the third and fourth generations." Our sages chose to leave out the part after the dash, so that when we call upon God in prayer, we're calling upon the positive attributes, not the negative one.

I've often been asked about the "visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children" verse. I read it as descriptive rather than prescriptive. It's a psychological truth: parents who don't do their own spiritual work will almost inevitably replicate their patterns and their traumas in parenting their children, who will replicate them in turn when they become parents. Parents who do the inner work they need to do -- which our tradition calls teshuvah, re/turning-toward-God -- are more able to break those cycles.

Sometimes the God of Torah speaks from a place of anger. As a parent, I choose to read those passages as God learning to parent on the job, as it were. Sometimes frustration overcomes the intention to speak kindness. But in my understanding of God, the lovingkindness and compassion are always there, even when God speaks harshly. And we, made in the divine image, have the divine capacity to revise ourselves each day into the people we mean to be. That's what these seven weeks of the Omer are for.





cold coffee splashes
over half-moons of ice

scattering splenda
into the morning air

-- far from the thick mud
scented with cardamom

which I drank from thimbles
beneath vaulted ceilings --

this is sweet and milky
thin as a rain puddle

ice knocking the glass
like muted wind chimes


vinho verde winks
promising a good time
beneath cheap eyeshadow

Today's NaPoWriMo prompt invites the writing of a poem which uses three of the five senses. After a while it became clear that my first draft needed to split into two poems, so I wound up with one longer one, one shorter one. The short poem doesn't really fulfill the prompt, but I like it anyway.

Moadim l'simcha -- for those who are celebrating Pesach, I hope your festival is full of rejoicing! And for those who are counting the Omer, happy second day of the Omer -- the day of gevurah she'b'chesed, boundaried strength within lovingkindness.



16 April 2014 @ 06:44 am



We didn't open the door for Elijah last night.
Miriam's Cup wasn't full of living waters.

The hidden matzah languished, unlooked-for.
Costumes for the pageant never left their box.

No one asked about the seder plate stowaways.
We decided to skip all of the poetry.

I didn't wake to the melody of imagined trumpets
summoning me to join the pilgrimage.

When I close my eyes, I don't see my ancestors.
No glimpse of my great-grandchildren up ahead.


Today's NaPoWriMo prompt invited us to write a ten-line poem in which each line is a lie.

The couplet about the imagined trumpets is a reference to the melodic motifs of festival nusach, the melodic mode used for chanting prayer on the Three Pilgrimage Festivals.



15 April 2014 @ 06:45 am




You stand beside and sing the words with me.
I did the same in Texas years ago.
How is this night different? Come and see.

My childhood seders aren't for you to know.
You draw an orange on your seder plate.
What will you remember as you grow?

You're bleary-eyed: we kept you up too late.
I can't regret allowing you your glee
at finding hidden treasure. Now I wait

to see what sticks. What matters most to me
is that you come to love the telling too.
Once we were slaves to Pharaoh; now we're free.

The songs, the story -- they're my gift to you.


Today's prompt at NaPoWriMo asks us to try terza rima, a form featuring three-line stanzas with a specific rhyme scheme.

My poem arises out of last night's seder, which was wonderful in so many ways. Chag sameach / happy holiday to all who celebrate!


15 April 2014 @ 04:00 am


13539661493_7d503a9c2a_nChag sameach - happy Pesach!

Tonight at our second-night seders we'll begin the tradition of Counting the Omer. "Omer" means measures. When the Temple still stood, it was customary to bring harvest offerings three times a year, at Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot. The tradition of counting the Omer dates to those days. We would count the days between the Pesach spring harvest of early wheat and the Shavuot summer harvest of new barley, and then offer a measure of that grain in thanks to our Source.

Today most of us see the counting of the Omer through a different lens. Instead of the agricultural reason, we focus instead on the idea that Shavuot is the anniversary of the revelation of Torah at Sinai. At Pesach we celebrate our liberation; at Shavuot we celebrate our entering-into-covenant with God. Freedom alone is not enough. The real meaning of our liberation is that we become free to enter into relationship with the Holy One of Blessing. We count the 49 days between Peach and Shavuot in growing excitement and anticipation, knowing that on the 50th day, the Torah is coming!

When I was in Jerusalem shortly before Pesach, I saw early spring grain growing wild on a patch of unbuilt land near Emek Refaim and marveled at that tangible evidence of how our festival calendar is rooted in the natural rhythms and cycles of the  Near East -- both ancient and modern. But even for those of us who live far away from the Mediterranean, and those of us who've never grown a stalk of wheat or barley in our lives, the Omer period can be a fertile and fruitful one. I am quite attached to the kabbalistic custom of associating each week (and each day of each week) with one of seven middot, divine qualities in which we as God's children partake. The first week is the week of chesed, lovingkindness; the second week, gevurah, boundaried-strength; the third week is tiferet, harmony and balance; the fourth, netzach, endurance; the fifth week is hod, splendor and humility (there's a koan for you, eh?); the sixth is yesod, foundation and generations; the seventh is malkhut, sovereignty and nobility. And within each week, there is one day for each quality, so that over the course of the seven weeks, we have the opportunity to closely examine ourselves through the 49 different lenses of these qualities as they combine in us.

If you're looking for a reminder to engage in the daily Omer count, along with a sweet contemplative or mystical teaching for each day, Rabbi Yael Levy at Mishkan Shalom sends one out every day. You can sign up here: Count the Omer with Mishkan Shalom. There's also a compilation of Omer resources at Kol ALEPH, the official blog of ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Wishing you a meaningful journey through the Omer!


Photo source: my photostream. (Taken in Jerusalem a few weeks ago.)

14 April 2014 @ 04:58 am



BlogexodusWhat do you want to be?
Have you always known?
Can you imagine the becoming?
What would it feel like?
Would you carry your body differently?
How would you walk in the world?

Will you be at a seder tonight?
Will you pay attention to your heart?
Do you know to what you've been enslaved?
Are you ready to leave Mitzrayim?
What do you need to jettison?
Can you promise not to tarry?

What will you do when you reach the sea?
Will you curse the day you took the risk?
Will you berate those beside you?
Wish for your comfortable straitjacket?
Or will you stride into the waters?
Can you trust that they will part?

Do you see what this holiday is about?
Do you see what this poem is about?
What do you yearn for?
And what do you yearn for?
And what do you yearn for?
It's right here, waiting for you.

Today's NaPoWriMo prompt invites us to write a "twenty questions" poem, in which every line but the last is a question. I combined that with today's #blogExodus prompt, "Be," and this is what resulted.

Today's the last day of #blogExodus. Pesach begins tonight. I will miss this daily spiritual discipline of paying attention to the journey leading to Pesach! But starting tomorrow night I'll get to enjoy a different discipline, the forty-nine days of Counting the Omer. (Stay tuned for more about that tomorrow.)

If you are celebrating Pesach tonight, I wish you a sweet and meaningful festival of freedom.


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

14 April 2014 @ 04:29 am


Tonight at the seder we will read or sing the psalms of Hallel. (At my house we'll do some reading, some Hebrew, some English poetry of praise. Tomorrow night at the synagogue's community seder we'll probably sing excerpts from the psalms in Hebrew.)

It's customary to pray the psalms of Hallel at Pesach morning services, too. If you might not be going to shul tomorrow morning, or if you might be looking for a different take on Hallel, here's something I wrote a few years ago:

2. (114)

let all offer praise
to what brings us forth from constriction
when we remember to say thank you
the hills and horizon dance.

3. (115)

You spun the heavens on Your unthinkable loom
and fashioned the elements of creation with Your deft hands

the heavens are Yours
but the earth is in our keeping

the dead can't praise, but we can
help us remember


You can read the whole poem cycle here: Six poems of praise (Hallel).

(And if you like these, keep an eye out for my new collection Open My Lips, due out later this year from Ben Yehuda Press!)

13 April 2014 @ 11:07 am


Dsc00643This morning my co-teacher and I hid scraps of chametz -- leaven -- around the synagogue. Not because we wanted to give our cleaning crew an extra challenge tomorrow, but because we wanted to teach some of our youngest members -- and their families -- about a strange and beautiful ritual done right before Passover begins.

Once our Hand in Hand families had arrived, we sang a song together. We told the Pesach story, which the kids acted out with gusto (if not always with total comprehension.) Then we handed out wooden spoons and feathers to our littlest kids. We made a blessing together. And they went on a scavenger hunt, searching the building, calling out in excitement when they found what we'd hidden.

The chametz all went into brown paper bags, which in turn went onto the synagogue's barbecue grill along with our lulavim from last fall -- the bundles of myrtle, willow, and palm fronds which we ritually shook in the sukkah every day. And then we lit them afire.

This is a ritual called bedikat chametz. It originates in the Mishna, in tractate Pesachim. I've been reading about it for years at my first-night seder, when it is our family custom to read Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb's poem "Spring Cleaning Ritual on the Eve of the Full Moon Nisan."

On the eve of the full moon
we search our houses
by the light of a candle
for the last trace of winter
for the last crumbs grown stale inside us
for the last darkness still in our hearts...

Literally, of course, chametz means leaven. It comes from the root l'chimutz, to sour or ferment, and we cleanse our homes of it at this season because during the week of Passover we eat matzah instead, the humble waybread of the journey. But metaphorically chametz can mean the puffery of ego and vanity; it can mean the old sourness we've been fermenting in our hearts and spirits over the last year; it can mean whatever we need to let go of, in order to move through the birthing waters of the Sea of Reeds and into freedom.

As we burned the lulav fronds and the crumbs, I was thinking:

All that rises up bitter
All that rises up prideful
All that rises up in old ways no longer fruitful
All Hametz still in my possession
but unknown to me
which I have not seen
nor disposed of
may it find common grave
with the dust of the earth
amen amen

"All chametz still in my possession but unknown to me..." -- that's the traditional close to the ritual of bedikat chametz. Whatever we haven't found and rooted-out -- in our households, in our hearts -- we declare it to be ownerless, no longer ours, one with the dust of the earth. At a certain point we have to accept that we've done the best we can. The festival is coming tomorrow night, and however clean we've managed to make our houses -- however we've managed to refine our souls in preparation for the holiday -- has to be enough.

As we were burning our palms from last autumn's sukkah, our Christian friends were celebrating Palm Sunday. As I understand it, some of their leftover palms will be saved and burned to ash next winter, to mark foreheads on Ash Wednesday. I don't have deep wisdom to offer about this calendrical connection, but I think it's neat the way we link our fall festival with our spring one this way -- and they in turn link their spring festival with the following winter.

 All that rises up bitter / All that rises up prideful / All that rises up in old ways no longer fruitful...

May I really be able to shed old bitterness, old pride, old habits which no longer serve. So that I can move into Pesach with a light soul and an open heart. So that I can lead my family, and my congregation, along that path with me. So that this can truly be the season of liberation -- including liberation from the husks of old attitudes and prejudices, old unkindnesses, old ways of being in the world.


If you want to do bedikat chametz, here's a short ritual: the aforementioned poem, plus the blessing before and after the leaven hunt: Bedikat Chametz [pdf] I made it a few years ago, so the date of the first seder is wrong, but otherwise everything about it still works.

13 April 2014 @ 05:13 am



Blogexodusslavery into freedom
midwives into dissidents
basket into ark
Hebrew into prince
babbler into stutterer
boy into man
overseer into corpse
bush into flame
was into will-be
fugitive into emissary
staffs into snakes
Nile into blood
darkness into light
Pharaoh's heart into stone
Pharaoh's daughter into God's
no into yes
dough into matzah
Sea of Reeds into birth canal
mourning into dancing
degradation into praise

This poem draws on the outlines of the story of the Exodus as told in Torah, as well as in midrash. For instance: "babbler into stutterer" is a reference to the midrash about Moshe and the coal, and "Pharaoh's daughter into God's" is a reference to the story which holds that Pharaoh's daughter changed her named to Batya -- bat Yah, "daughter of God" -- when she left Egypt with Moshe and the assembled multitudes.

The Mishna teaches that וצריך להתחיל בגנות ולסיים בשבח - when we tell the story of the Exodus at Pesach, we begin with degradation and end with praise. At its heart, the Pesach story is a story about change: once things were that way, now they are this way. Once we were slaves; now we are free.


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