happy first birthday

On Tuesday No Power in the ‘Verse turned one! I started this blog in the midst of applying to rabbinical school, and I am now trying to finish up my first semester. In that time, I’ve written 63 posts — more than my goal of once a week! Thank you, dear reader(s?), for accompanying me on this journey.

where the magic happens

where the magic happens; photo by salem pearce via instagram

Some of my favorite posts:

My most popular post (because, I think, my husband shared it on Facebook) was about my being forced to think about what makes a marriage.

I continue to enjoy writing posts about the books I read, but those don’t seem to garner many readers. But that’s okay: They, like this blog in general, are first and foremost for me.

This space is proof that writing is a very effective form of therapy.

feminist fishbowl

On Wednesday I spoke on a panel — or more properly, a fishbowl — about feminism at my school’s community time (held once a week for an hour-and-a-half) in advance of our winter seminar the week before school starts again in January, which will be on the topic of feminist theology and practice. Also on the panel were a faculty member (a man) and two fourth-year students (a man and a woman).

We each had four minutes (!), and I was super nervous, in part because I still don’t know the community very well, and I am just not sure where people are on feminism (yes, I know). In the end, I felt that it went really well. It was such an important experience for me personally, since, as I’ve been sharing, I’ve been having a hard time with the very painful misogyny in many of the texts that we’re studying. It felt great to have my say, to share my worldview. Which is, of course, the essence of feminism.

These are the questions that I was asked to respond to, and following that is what I said (slighted edited from notes into a more readable format, and including a few sentences I had to cut on the spot in the interests of time).

1. What does feminism mean to you?
-What is your working definition of feminism/feminist practice?
-How did you arrive at this conception of feminism?
-How is feminism lived out in your life? Your relationships? Your work? Your Jewish practice?

2. Why is it important for Hebrew College, as a community, to be talking about feminism?

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My feminist practice works towards the liberation of all marginalized people, not just women. I have unerring commitment to intersectionality: The patriarchy perpetuates not just sexism but lots of other -isms/privilege: racism, ableism, cisgenderism, heteronormativism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, etc. The identity of an oppressed person is not just shaped by gender.

Essentially, our world is perfectly suited to educated, wealthy, straight, white, able-bodied, cisgendered men, and there are way more people who are not that. This means that a very small group of people have power and privilege. I’d like to create a world that is suited to all people.

patriarchyI can’t walk away from misogyny, so I can’t walk away from feminism. And I won’t walk away from feminism, because it is the only defense I have in world that is hostile to me –  not the other way around.

I’ve never taken a women’s studies or feminist theory class. In fact, I spent my college years doing just about the opposite, studying classics (ancient Greek and Latin texts). The definition above was forged in the fires of the rape crisis center where I worked as a hotline counselor and hospital advocate for seven years; I received extensive training before I started and ongoing training as I continued to volunteer. I answered crisis calls on a 24-hour hotline, and I went to the hospital when patient identified as a sexual assault survivor. (For simplicity, I will be talking about survivors as women, but I want to acknowledge that women are not at all the only people who are raped.)

I understand the phenomenon of sexual assault in a feminist context: that is, rape is about power and control, and not desire or libido. It is perhaps the most violent manifestation of patriarchy, and it is a direct result of the “rape culture” in which we live.

Rape culture is set of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women; it views sexual violence as a fact of life, when in fact what we think of as immutable is an expression of values and views that can change. In addition to its the part it plays in the lives of women, rape culture also narrowly circumscribes men’s roles.

A few examples: rape culture is 1 in 33 men and 1 in 6 women being sexually assaulted in their lifetimes; rape culture is encouraging women to take self-defense as though that is the only solution required to prevent rape; rape culture is the claim that sex workers can’t be raped; rape culture is the threat of being raped in prison being an acceptable deterrent to committing crime; rape culture is tasking women with the burden of not getting raped and failing to admonish men not to rape; rape culture is refusing to acknowledge that the only thing a person can do to avoid being raped is never to be in the same room as a rapist.

My feminist practice is based on the principle that the personal is political. Just to give two examples: I listen. I know precisely my experience of sexism, but that does not mean that I know what it’s like to be queer, or a person of color, or disabled, or any number of things. It behooves me to check my privilege and to listen and to accept as true others’ telling of their experiences

And on the flip side: I tell my story. As an excellent web resource says, “Because women’s stories aren’t told, it’s incumbent upon female feminists to tell their own stories, to fill that void, to be unrepentant and loquacious raconteurs every chance we get, to talk about our bodies, our struggles, our triumphs, our needs, our lives in every aspect. It’s our obligation to create a cacophony with our personal narratives, until there is a constant din that translates into equality, into balance.”

Finally, why is it important for Hebrew College, as a community, to be talking about feminism? Because we’re still asking that question.

dear diary

Yesterday one of the Hebrew teachers at school sent a notice to the community email list about a missing item, “a clear plastic bag containing a small brown leather-covered diary.” Fortunately, he was able to email the list a few hours later to let us know that he had found it.

He teaches Biblical and rabbinic Hebrew (I’ll have him next year for Hebrew 7 and 8), and he is, simply, an expert. As my Mishnah teacher says, “If we don’t know about a Hebrew word, we ask –, and if he doesn’t know, then no one knows.” What makes this all the more amazing is that teaching Hebrew is his second career: He spent more than 20 years as a lawyer specializing in banking regulation.

In response to this email, one of my classmates, who is at home for now with his new baby, responded to the list: “Maybe it’s the sleep-deprivation, but –‘s email about his lost diary sent my mind wandering: What gems might be found in the diary of –?” His imaginings follow.

I’m not sure if they will translate well to a non-rabbinical school audience. But I share them because they were funny to my class, which is having a rather hard time coalescing as a cohort. Our class dynamic is strained, to say the least, and there are several differing strong personalities. We’ve spent the last month at our weekly class meetings talking about who we are as learners, just to try to clarify expectations for how we each want our classes to go. We haven’t even been able to arrive at a general agreement about how to structure our class meeting time. In short, we are deeply in the “storming” stage of group development. It’s been difficult and quite frankly, for me one of the most stressful aspects of my experience in rabbinical school so far.

But today after class meeting, right when the email arrived, we just sat around the table and laughed. It gave me hope for our future as a class.

(Oh, and the diary in question actually belonged to the teacher’s grandfather, during his U.S. Army service in World War I.)

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Dear Diary,

Another day, another student mistaking the cohortative for the jussive. (Shoot me!) These youngsters wouldn’t know a verbal noun if it was giving them a neck message during community time. But, Diary, they do try.

“–, is this aphel?”
“No, it’s pe’al.”

“Oh, –, is this itpa’el in the first person plural?”
“No, that’s just nitpa’el.”

“–, is that the number 3?”
“No, that’s a bet in Rashi script.”

I need a drink.

Yours,

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Dear Diary,

I’ve had it! Yet again a student has alluded to me curling up at night with Jastrow. True, I do have a love of all things grammatical, but that doesn’t mean that’s all that I love. I also love linguistics and Near-Eastern-religious-history and Sasanian pop-culture. I won’t be pigeon-holed. It just so happens that last night I curled up with an article on the relationship between the rabbinic idiom “af al pi” and the Akkadian god of indigestion “Afalpian.” When I finished the article, I watched “Dancing With the Stars.” So there!

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Dear Diary,

What a glorious day! I have reached new highs in my pronunciation of the gutteral ayin sound. The throatiness, the hollowness, the sound of a choking animal — it’s all there. Perhaps my career trajectory will hold true: high-powered-attorney-turned-rabbinical-school grammar-guru-turned-Israeli radio-announcer. It’s all falling into place!

Lovingly,

a prayer for the children of abraham

Since the uprising began in March 2011, there have been an estimated 40,000 deaths in Syria.

But journalists are not flocking there. The conflict is not the main subject of every media outlet’s programs. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are not brimming with posts advocating for each side.

These Syrians, it seems — like the Rwandans and the Sudanese and many, many others before them — had the misfortune (on top of many other misfortunes) of being killed by their countrymen.

I have long maintained that I would rather do  . . . anything, really, . . . than talk about Israel and the Palestinian territories. I have many friends who are devoting their lives to the conflict, and I know that I couldn’t spend a day in their shoes. But last week I felt sick and overwhelmed, and reading the news from the region became an obsession. So here I am, again wading into the fray, again writing about a difficult issue.

I started this post the way that I did to underline the irrationality that underlies this conflict from left to right, from top to bottom. I understand that number of deaths alone isn’t an indication of merit for attention, and the contrast here tells me what is at stake are things other than the fact that people are dying, which is right about where the issue loses me. As it turns out, for many people, only certain deaths matter.

My Facebook friends basically fall into four groups: progressives, libertarians (hey there, DPR folks!), Jews, and family. (Of course among those there is a fair amount of intersectionality.) And I follow an even broader range of people on Twitter. I am guessing that everyone who posted about the conflict is convinced of the rationality of his or her position, but I’ve seen expressed everything from “Israelis are Nazis” to “Palestinians are animals.” My views are not fully developed, and I still found fault in what almost everyone posted. Which tells me there is necessarily a great deal of nuance to be embraced.

We only barely addressed the conflict at school. Even before the latest escalation in violence, we didn’t talk about Israel. There is even an agreement that topics about Israel/Palestine are not to be posted to community email lists, at least in part because of the many different opinions held by members of the community. (Since I’m new, I’m not completely familiar with the history there.) This is crazy. I’m not saying that the practice is not an appropriate response to a past situation. But it’s objectively odd that there exists a group of rabbis-in-training who don’t talk about Israel with each other (and I say this even as I am loathe to do so). However, in light of the current situation, there are now voices advocating that we do in fact start having these tough conversations.

On Monday, Hebrew College was a co-sponsor of CJP’s Rally to Support Israel, and the day before a letter was sent to President Daniel Lehmann questioning that sponsorship, signed by current and former Hebrew College rabbinical students. This prompted both a public response from President Lehmann, as part of his already scheduled “Community Update” address, and an email response from Dean Sharon Anisfeld (and no change in the school’s status as a sponsor). In a development that probably surprised exactly no one, it only took four responses to the dean’s email to get to, Your position means that you don’t care about me/my family. I was writing this post as that began to unfold. (Since then, more level heads have tried to prevail, with success for now.)

The one place at school that we did touch on the attacks was Hebrew class: My teacher started a discussion about the name of the IDF’s operation, “Pillar of Cloud,” a reference to the manifestation of G-d in the Torah that guided the Israelites out of Egypt. I suppose the effort was admirable, since there was silence everywhere else. But I can’t think of a topic that requires more careful or more precise language, and in Hebrew I can barely summarize an article about Israel’s indigenous plants. (Yes, this is an actual example.) Plus, my teacher is an Israeli whose entire family still lives in Israel. She laughed as she told us the story of her sister stubbornly driving on through rocket sirens, but she’s not where I would chose to start this difficult conversation.

I, too, have family (on my husband’s side), plus friends and classmates, in Israel; I don’t know anyone — or even know if I know anyone who knows anyone — in Gaza, such is the divide that exists in that tiny corner of the world. But I’ve seen too many claims of righteousness based on the fact of “having skin in the game.” In this conflict, in its current form, there is not — and there never will be — a winning side. I can only see death and despair — and more distance.

There were glimmers of reason among the overwhelming voices of intransigence. Two great primers came to my attention: how to support Israel without being racist and how to criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic. Wiser friends — and wiser friends of friends — than I wrote insightful words, and I am grateful to them. But the war of words paled in comparison to the actual war, and even I, as steadfast a believer in the power of language as there ever was, wondered what we were doing. As if an article could comfort. As if an email could soothe. As if a status update could transform. As if 140 characters could heal. As if a blog post (ahem) could assuage. We feel helpless, and so we fight who we can and how we can.

May there indeed be peace in our days.

*The title of this post is taken from an original poem at Velveteen Rabbi.

saying thank you

Being a student again after 10 years of not being a student is an odd experience. I have moments while sitting in class: “I can’t believe that this is my life now.” My responsibilities are to go to class and do homework. As hard as the transition has been in some ways, most of the time my life also feels like an incredible luxury. Perhaps even downright self-indulgent.

It is undoubtedly a huge time commitment: I’m at school most days from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (and some days later than that), with activities scheduled almost all of that time; if I’m lucky, I get two free lunch hours a week. But I spend my time at prayer, studying, and in class. I’m focused on my intellectual and spiritual development. Even at my job — staffing the school’s front desk weekday evenings and Sundays — I can do my homework, or write, or read.  The extracurricular optional and required activities are lectures, book talks, or other professional advancement or cultural opportunities.

Before I left D.C., I shadowed the rabbi at Sixth & I for an afternoon and evening, and she reflected with me on her rabbinical school experience. “I miss it,” she said. “I miss being around all of those holy folk.” I understand now what she means: I feel incredibly blessed to constantly be around such thoughtful people. I am stimulated and challenged all the time.

calling cards from Letter Writer’s Alliance

In response to this overflow of shared wisdom, I recently visited the Letter Writers’ Alliance — of which I am a proud member! — to purchase these calling cards. I’m planning to give the to my classmates and teachers with notes of appreciation. I gifted my first one on Tuesday!

Despite how much time school requires, I often feel guilty for not making time to do something for others. In D.C., I used to spend a fair amount of my time as a volunteer for various organizations, and I haven’t yet found space for that in my new life.

I am filled with gratitude for my life and the opportunities that I have. And next semester I want to challenge myself to move a little more out of the rabbinical school bubble.

seek always g-d’s face

בקשו פניו תמיד collage; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Last week the “Year of Shacharit” tefila group looked at the section of the prayerbook between baruch sheamar and ashrei (up next). As the group’s faculty advisor noted as he began leading us through the davenning, there are just “so many words” here. (Included in the section are a passage from II Chronicles as well as Psalms 100, 19, 34, 90, 91, 135, 136, 33, 92, and 93).) And it’s a mostly overlooked part of the liturgy.

The ideas in this section that most struck me while we prayed were seeking, wandering, and joy.

One of the first phrases that he brought to our attention was backshu fanav tamid, “seek always G-d’s face,” a quote from Psalm 105. Hebrew College Rabbinical School founder Art Green uses the idea in the title for one of his books on Jewish spirituality, Seek My Face. As he notes in his introduction, “Personal journeys seldom have a clear beginning, and they rarely have a definite end. If there is an end to our journey, surely it is one that leads to some measure of wisdom, and thence back to its own beginning. But somewhere along the way, we come to realize that we must know where we have been going, why we have been going. Most of all, we come to understand as best we can the One who sends us on our way.”

From here, the liturgy recounts G-d’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and our wandering in the desert — making explicit Art’s move above: seeking implies wandering. A journey.

The psalms that follow urge praise and bask in the comfort of the surety of G-d. One of my favorite phrases is one that we end up singing a fair amount during the morning service at school: ivdu et Adonai b’simcha, bo’u l’fanav birnana, “worship the Lord in joy; come before the Lord with flowery singing.” It’s not every far into this section of the prayerbook, but I think it’s a great finale to the actions thus far: Wander and seek — and then rejoice.

During our davenning our facilitator asked us to reflect: In what ways does G-d protect me as I wander?

G-d protects me by giving me the strength to handle whatever I encounter.

G-d protects me by reminding me of G-d’s previous promises to my ancestors.

G-d protects me by giving me support in form of family and friends.

G-d protects me by guiding me to resources.

G-d protects me by giving me health and wealth.

Seek G-d and G-d’s strength; seek always G-d’s face.

Worship the Lord in joy; come before the Lord in flowery singing

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This post is part of a series about my year-long tefila (“prayer”) group. Read other posts about the group here. View my artwork inspired by the group here.

RAPE

Trigger warning: This post is about my struggle over the past few months with being triggered by various events, as result of my many years of volunteering at the rape crisis center in D.C. It doesn’t contain details of any sexual assault, but it nevertheless may be upsetting for survivors.

This is a hard post to write for many reasons — and not just because it’s highly personal. But I process by writing, and this issue has become part of my rabbinical school experience. And it will likely come up again.

I realized two weeks ago that I’ve been re-traumatized — and have been in that process for a few months — by a confluence of events. When it finally occurred to me, I felt enormous relief. Being able to put a name and a reason to what I’d been feeling was incredibly comforting. Then I felt stupid: How could I have not realized what was happening, and how could I not have realized how long it had been going on? I’d been feeling overly emotional, on edge, scared, out of control, hurt by things that were not personal, unable to hear anything about sexual assault without intense pain. And on and on. Basically, I felt crazy, and I didn’t know why. And I’ve felt this way before, and I’ve had this realization before. I just had to get there. AGAIN.

mlk quote on store window; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

It started during the pre-semester seminar at school, in which we looked at the Torah and Haftarah readings for the high holidays. One day in class we started talking about trauma. I don’t remember how we got there, and I don’t remember how we got out of there. I just remember sitting in chair, my brain screaming, “No! No! NO! No-stop-talking-stop-talking-please.” I wanted the ground to open and swallow me up. The presentation I wrote for the end of the seminar was,in retrospect, a clue that things were getting difficult.

I underestimated how triggering rabbinical school would be. By which I mean that I didn’t think about it at all. This, too, seems foolish in retrospect. There is no shortage of abusive texts in the Jewish tradition, and I think I’ve only touched a handful so far. From stories of sexual assault in the Tanakh to an explanation in the Talmud that women die in childbirth for not observing halakha, the fear and disgust of women is  . . . everywhere. When we read and discussed the story of the gang rape and dismemberment of an unnamed woman in Judges, I wanted to weep.

Compounding the experiences of reading these texts is being a Hebrew College student — a wonderful experience, but also one that has left me feeling more vulnerable than usual. This is a very earnest community, and I am asked to share of myself often — or at least more than I was in my everyday life in D.C. I thus feel more emotionally “raw” than I have in the past.

And then there was a sexual assault on the campus of Andover Newton Theological Seminary (ANTS), which shares the hill with Hebrew College. The president of ANTS came to an all-school meeting to . . . I don’t know: Give us more information about it? I couldn’t stay in the room to hear it. I was terrified. I had no idea what kind of training the president had, so I didn’t trust that she wouldn’t saying anything triggering. Was she going to tell us what happened? What ANTS was doing? Whether the rapist was a member of the community or a stranger? To what end? I don’t even think that “sharing information” serves any purpose, since the only way to stop rape is for rapists to stop raping. There’s simply nothing a potential victim can do to ensure his/her safety.

And then there was the election. With all of the rape. I am glad that dominant narrative was that these old men need to just stop talking — and I rejoiced when they all, to a one, lost their elections — but I still stand in shock that our nation’s leaders, to say nothing of their constituents, think it’s acceptable to make such callous statements about sexual assault survivors.

And then a friend of mine was raped.

Hence the title of my post. It has been as though in every direction I turned there was in front of me a giant neon sign. It hasn’t been this bad in many years. Most of the time, I can say “ouch,” and then move on. But not this time. This time, I felt buried under the avalanche.

I feel better now, better than I have in a while. It’s an unbelievably empowering action to be able to name what is going on. I am also doing more self-care, recognizing that some of my self-destructive behavior was a result of being triggered.

I know I’m going to feel “normal” again soon. I also know that I’m not going to make it through another five-and-a-half years if I don’t. I’m beginning to think about how to deal with what Phyllis Trible calls “texts of terror.” I hope that I’ll be able to try on a variety of options for engaging with these texts and with my tradition. There are women at Hebrew College who have done a lot of work in this area. I’ve thought about doing some writing, to perhaps give [my] voice to the voiceless.

For now, I am grateful just to feel more like myself. Which is challenging enough without the experience of trauma.

baruch sheamar

ברוך שאמר collage; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

בָּרוּךְ שֶׁאָמַר וְהָיָה הָעולָם. בָּרוּךְ הוּא.

בָּרוּךְ עושה בְרֵאשִׁית. בָּרוּךְ אומֵר וְעושה.

בָּרוּךְ גּוזֵר וּמְקַיֵּם. בָּרוּךְ מְרַחֵם עַל הָאָרֶץ.

בָּרוּךְ מְרַחֵם עַל הַבְּרִיּות. בָּרוּךְ מְשַׁלֵּם שכָר טוב לִירֵאָיו.

בָּרוּךְ חַי לָעַד וְקַיָּם לָנֶצַח. בָּרוּךְ פּודֶה וּמַצִּיל. בָּרוּךְ שְׁמו.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעולָם, הָאֵל הָאָב הָרַחֲמָן הַמְהֻלָּל בְּפִי עַמּו. מְשֻׁבָּח וּמְפאָר בִּלְשׁון חֲסִידָיו וַעֲבָדָיו וּבְשִׁירֵי דָוִד עַבְדֶּךָ. נְהַלֶּלְךָ ה’ אֱלהֵינוּ בִּשְׁבָחות וּבִזְמִירות. נְגַדֶּלְךָ וּנְשַׁבֵּחֲךָ וּנְפָאֶרְךָ וְנַזְכִּיר שִׁמְךָ וְנַמְלִיכְךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ אֱלהֵינוּ. יָחִיד חֵי הָעולָמִים. מֶלֶךְ מְשֻׁבָּח וּמְפאָר עֲדֵי עַד שְׁמו הַגָּדול: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ מֶלֶךְ מְהֻלָּל בַּתִּשְׁבָּחות.

Blessed is the one who spoke — and the world was. Blessed is G-d.

Blessed is the one who creates in the beginning. Blessed is the one who speaks and does.

Blessed is the one who decrees and implements. Blessed is the one who has pity upon the earth.

Blessed is the one who has pity upon humanity. Blessed is the one who pays a good wage to one who fears G-d.

Blessed is the one who lives forever and is alive for all eternity. Blessed is the one who redeems and rescues. Blessed is G-d’s name.

Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, sovereign of the universe, G-d, the merciful father, extolled praiseworthy and magnificent, by the mouth of G-d’s people, by the tongue of G-d’s Chassidim and G-d’s servants, and by the songs of your servant David. We will glorify you, Lord our G-d, with praises and with songs. We will amplify you and exalt you and glorify you and say your name and crown you, our king, our G-d. Unique, life of the universe, king praiseworthy and magnificent, eternities of eternity, G-d’s name is great. Blessed are you, Lord, king extolled with praises.

This week the “Year of Shacharit” tefila group met to reflect on baruch sheamar, the opening blessing of psukei dezimra (“verses of singing”), a series of introductory prayers before the morning service proper. Our intensive look into this prayer was a little more intellectual than our past attempts. And, as with previous experiences, I was once again pleased by the alignment of form and content.

Baruch sheamar enumerates qualities of G-d, alternately punctuated with the refrains baruch hu (“blessed is he”) and baruch sh’mo (“blessed is his name”), so I’d always thought about the prayer as a panegyric. But I think the prayer is actually fairly specific in its praise: G-d is blessed because G-d does what G-d says. G-d follows through. G-d connects intention and action. There is a certain comfort (especially to a Type-A personality like me) in a G-d with those characteristics.

We examined the prayer in small groups, taking turns reading it to one another, and then we formed new groups to talk about parts that felt compelling to us. Saying and hearing this prayer — as its form of being prayed — seemed so right to me because in this prayer we praise G-d for what I would call “performative speech,” or changing reality with utterance. Human beings do so rarely (think “I do” in a marriage ceremony, or “you are under arrest”), but G-d does so often. It is one of the first characteristics we are told of in the Torah: “And G-d said, ‘Let there be light,” and there was light.” Perhaps it is the defining characteristic of G-d. I believe there are many ways to do so, but we often pray by saying prayer.

As far as the order of the liturgy, thinking about this prayer in relationship to birkot hashachar — prayers of thanksgiving — I wonder if we are now in the liturgy being called to create, to join in creation with G-d, that is to say: to act?

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This post is part of a series about my year-long tefila (“prayer”) group. Read other posts about the group here. View my artwork inspired by the group here.

korbanot

קרבנת collage; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

We take a journey through time, flying up out of the 21st century CE room at Hebrew College, into the air, back down to the 5th century BCE Temple in Jerusalem.

We say birkot hashachar together as we ascend the steps of the Temple. Fifteen steps is fourteen fixed prayers and one individual prayer. And then we split up.

The Temple is crowded, and it’s hard to take it all in. I meet with the high priest in his inner chamber, but I have nothing to give. He gifts me anyway.

We don’t say blessings. We do blessings. We offer sacrifice. We are offered in return.

We convene again, and we descend the steps. We run. We fly. We are back at Hebrew College, its own Temple.

We say baruch sheamar.

I wrote most of this right after a guided meditation for korbanot, the prayer that my tefila group is looking at this week. Unlike the guided mediation for elohai neshama, the prompts for this exercise were not the actual words of the prayer (which is part of why I haven’t reproduced them here, as I have for previous tefila group posts) but the idea of the prayer.

Korbanot are a selection of biblical and Talmudic passages that explain how the service in the Temple operated. It can be generally said that in the post-Temple era, prayer replaced sacrifice. Thus, “[a]lthough these passages can be found in most traditional prayer books, reading them has become less common. Because of their focus on animal sacrifice in the Temple many liberal prayer books do not print them at all” (Ben Kell). Indeed, the siddur that I use does not include them.

As part of what I would describe as a liberal Judaism, I am uncomfortable with references to the Temple that indicate a longing for its return – which I would suggest that these do. Thus, I appreciated the fact that we did not focus on the prayers themselves; it is unlikely that I will incorporate them into my practice. My ambivalence about the prayers is reflected in my collage (above), into which I incorporated photographs of temples that don’t cause me so much consternation: the Pantheon in Rome and the altar of Vespasian in Pompeii.

Yet I find compelling the metaphor of prayer as concrete action. I generally pray without expectation of its literal efficacy in anywise other than on me. Could I also begin to think about my prayer as an offering to G-d?

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This post is part of a series about my year-long tefila (“prayer”) group. Read other posts about the group here. View my artwork inspired by the group here.

birkot hashachar

ברקת השחר collage; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽנוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם

. . . אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לַשֶּׂכְוִי בִינָה לְהַבְחִין בֵּין יוֹם וּבֵין לָיְֽלָה.

. . . שֶׁעָשַֽׂנִי בְּצַלְמוֹ.

. . . שֶׁעָשַֽׂנִי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

. . . שֶׁעָשַֽׂנִי בַּתּ חוֹרִין.

. . . פּוֹקֵֽחַ עִוְרִים.

. . . מַלְבִּישׁ עֲרֻמִּים.

. . . מַתִּיר אֲסוּרִים.

. . . זוֹקֵף כְּפוּפִים.

. . . רוֹקַע הָאָֽרֶץ עַל הַמָּֽיִם.

. . . שֶׁעָֽשָׂה לִּי כָּל צָרְכִּי.

. . . הַמֵּכִין מִצְעֲדֵי גָֽבֶר.

. . . אוֹזֵר יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּגְבוּרָה.

. . . עוֹטֵר יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּתִפְאָרָה.

. . . הַנּוֹתֵן לַיָּעֵף כֹּֽחַ.

Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, sovereign of the universe: who gave to the rooster ability to distinguish between night and day; who made me in G-d’s image; who made me a Jew; who made me a child of freedom. G-d gives sight to the blind, clothes the naked, releases the bound, raises the downtrodden, treads the earth upon the water. G-d provided me my every need has made me everything I need, has made ready a person’s steps. G-d girds Israel with might, crowns Israel with glory. G-d is the one who gives to the weary strength.

This week my tefila group focused on Birkot HaShachar (“blessings of the dawn”), a series recited at the beginning of the morning service. The blessings focus on praising G-d for the renewal of the day and mirror the order of activities upon rising. Like elohai neshama, the liturgy speaks directly to G-d, but here as “our G-d” instead of “my G-d.” Some of the reflections are personal; others, more communal.

As part of our commitment to considering the transitions between prayers, we began our session with elohai neshama, singing it a few times through to an arrangement by a classmate. We then went outside for stretching and birkot, and then came back inside for korbanot (next up in the liturgy), a series of blessings that reference temple sacrifice.

As with last week, the form and content of our principal prayer meshed perfectly. It was a great choice to go outside for birkot hashachar; by doing so we were able to see the more literal side of some of the blessings. It was a beautiful, crisp morning, and I looked up at the sun beginning to shine through the trees, and I felt like I could fly as my tallit billowed around me.

We sang birkot hashachar to an arrangement of yet another classmate (so much musical talent in the Hebrew College community!), set to the song “One Voice” by The Wailin’ Jennys. My classmate leading the prayer shared a kavanah from yet another classmate: Over its duration, “One Voice” progresses from “[t]his is the sound of one voice,” to “[t]his is the sound of voices two,” to “[t]his is the sound of voices three” and ends with “[t]his is the sound of all of us.” In a similar way to birkot hashachar, it mirrors what happens as we move through our day. At first it’s just us, and then voice after voice adds to our experience.

I often feel this way about my morning. I get up alone, and when I get to school I begin greeting people, and we begin davenning. Usually at some point in the service, we have one voice in prayer — and it’s an amazing experience. I sometimes stop singing myself and just listen to all the voices.

Before Tuesday I actually hadn’t heard “One Voice.” I did have the sense while we were singing that I wish we could have gotten progressively louder. But there are only six of us in the group. So when I access my memory of our singing birkot hashachar, I imagine us as we were, standing outside, looking at G-d’s creation, singing in “One Voice.” And I imagine that we resound.

one voice – the wailin’ jennys

* Thanks to a classmate, whose translation of the phrase שֶׁעָֽשָׂה לִּי כָּל צָרְכִּי I prefer to my original.
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This post is part of a series about my year-long tefila (“prayer”) group. Read other posts about the group here. View my artwork inspired by the group here.