a day of mourning

Today is Yom HaZikaron in Israel, the day of remembrance for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. In addition to the national memorial services that take place, the day opens (the preceding evening, since Jewish days begin at sunset) with a country-wide siren during which everyone and everything stops for a minute of silence.

It’s also Patriots’ Day here in Boston, a local holiday ostensibly commemorating the battles of Lexington and Concord — also known as the day the Boston Marathon is run. There’s also always a Red Sox home game.

As I drove to school this morning, I thought about how the Jewish calendar and the secular calendar are often at complete odds with one another. This morning’s tefila was soulful and somber. My Bible teacher, who raised her children in Israel, read a piece she had written when one of her son’s fellow soldiers was killed near the Golan Heights. The mother of the slain soldier had asked my teacher to take care of her own son (the one who had survived), that he might not be forever haunted by his friend’s death. It was heartbreaking.

As I drove to school this morning, I thought about how so many of my friends would be running the race, or watching the race, or watching the baseball game. One of my classmates, who has lived in Boston for several years now, said that it was too bad that those of us new to Boston wouldn’t get the chance today to enjoy Patriots’ Day the way it should be celebrated: by drinking lots of beer and watching the race. We talked about going down to Commonwealth Avenue, near the infamous Heartbreak Hill, during lunch. (Homework called instead.)

As I drove to school this morning, I thought about how I wished I were running the race today. It’s been my dream since college to one day qualify for the Boston Marathon. I wondered if I would be able to get fast enough to do so during my five years here.

As I sat in Hebrew class this afternoon, my husband texted me that bombs had exploded near the marathon finish line. As of this writing, two people are dead and dozens are wounded. (Everyone I knew running or watching the race is fine.) We began a frantic checking in via Facebook, Twitter, text message, and phone call.

And just like that, the days synched.

tefillin

tefillin bag; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

tefillin bag; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Earlier this semester I took on mitzvat tefillin, the mitzvah of tefillin, or “phylacteries” as they are often referred to in English. (I am not sure why the latter word is any clearer than the former, but some have heard the Greek word rather than the Hebrew.)

Tefillin are the set of black boxes with leather straps that are worn on the head and on the arm during weekday morning prayers. They are the Talmudic solution to the exhortations in the Torah (in several places) to “bind them [these words] as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as totafot between your eyes” (Deuteronomy 6:8). The meaning of “totafot” is not entirely clear; it is often translated as “frontlets” (which, in some possibly circular logic, is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a band or phylactery worn on the forehead”). And tefillin is a rabbinic word; it’s not found in the Tanakh.

The rabbis interpreted “them” (which refers back to “these words” from an earlier verse) to mean the verses in which totafot are mentioned in the Torah; thus, each set of tefillin contains the four verses from Exodus and Deuteronomy written on parchment scrolls.

At the beginning of last semester, I borrowed a set of tefillin from the Women’s Tefillin Gemach, a free loan society (“gemach”) that, as you might guess, lends tefillin to women. Many people — including lots of my classmates — inherit tefillin from their grandparents (or maybe even parents). Obviously that is not an option for me, but the gemach exists as well for women who were born Jewish; some might have been passed over, in favor of a brother or other male relative, for inheritance of a set. Unlike wearing tallit, laying tefillin is still not all that common among women. Even among my classmates, I would estimate that less than half of the women wear tefillin, while most of the men do.

I borrowed a set of tefillin from the gemach in August, tried them on once, and then let them languish in my tallit bag. There was enough going on already during my first semester of rabbinical school, and I just wasn’t able to take on one more new thing. So I prayed last semester just in my tallit (which itself was a new practice).

still life with tefillin; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

still life with tefillin (with metal casings for the boxes); photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

During our winter seminar on feminist theology and practice, I started thinking about tefillin again, especially as we talked about changing prayer and other ritual to make it more accessible for those for whom it was not originally created. And then I came across an abridged prayerbook with blessings in all feminine G-d language. I decided that I would start to wear tefillin — and that I would learn the blessings from this book (and deliberately not learn the traditional blessings). So I say the traditional blessing when putting on my tallit — and something a little different when putting on my tefillin. It’s a way of making my own a practice that still feels very . . . male.

I also say an alternative passage from the Tanakh as I finish putting tefillin on my hand. Traditionally, one recites Hosea 2:21-22: “And I will betroth you to myself forever; I will betroth you to myself in righteousness, and in justice, and in lovingkindness, and in compassion. And I will betroth you to myself in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.” This is certainly a lovely sentiment. However, the prayerbook I found suggested an alternative, which resonated much more with me. The passage I say is from Ruth 1:16, her devotional words to her mother-in-law, Naomi: “For where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your G-d, my G-d.” Indeed, the words of a fervent convert are certainly more appealing to me than the problematic metaphor of marriage between G-d and Israel.

I learned the blessings and the passage from the Tanakh one night while working at the front desk at school (which I do two nights a week). And that same night I learned also how to wrap tefillin . . . by watching a video on YouTube! (All of the many how-to videos of course all feature older men — or IDF soldiers — so I may have found an eventual project!) That evening I just put on the tefillin and took them off, over and over and over again, until I was able to do it fairly quickly (it’s a complicated process).

tefillin barbie by jen taylor friedman

tefillin barbie by jen taylor friedman

Worn, tefillin look weird. Full stop. It’s possible that since I didn’t grow up seeing them, I find them a little more jarring than most Jews, but I think it’s more probable that they’re just odd. I say this because the first time I was shown how to put on tefillin, by my bat mitzvah rabbi, she said, “Don’t they look funny?” — and I loved her for that. However, wearing tefillin while praying has felt completely natural. It just seems right. I am so excited to continue the practice and to observe what effect it has on my prayer.

This is not to say I haven’t had my frustrations. My first barrier to overcome was my fear (or fear of my annoyance) that it would take too long to put them on. That evening spent practicing got me to an acceptable speed (and yes, I timed myself!).

What I’m having trouble getting past is the fact that tefillin are meant to be laid against the skin, and the wrapping starts at the upper arm. Tefillin were not designed with women in mind — nor for that matter were women’s clothes designed with tefillin in mind. Most men’s upper-body garments are conducive to being pushed up or aside to expose the upper arm; the same is generally not true of a lot of women’s clothes. So in the dead of New England winter, I’ve been doing one of two things: I’ll wear a short-sleeved or sleeveless shirt (with, say, a cardigan). Or I’ll wear a camisole under a more form-fitting sweater or turtleneck and wriggle halfway out of it during davenning. Both of these options make me feel considerably less modest than I’d like, especially during prayer. (Thank goodness for tallit!) And both mean that every morning I have to think, “Can I lay tefillin in what I’m wearing?” I know mitzvot aren’t supposed to be effortless — but I’m pretty sure that the men at my school aren’t thinking about this.

I’ve written this post from my perspective as a cis-gendered, female-identified student (and have admittedly used a gender binary throughout): I am also interested in the experiences of others with this practice.

What would tefillin look like if a pluralistic community, of Jews of all types, were designing them today? How would we understand words of Torah “for a sign for you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes” (Exodus 13:9)?

the wrath of the whatever from high atop the thing

Seven days ago this happened.tempting fate
And one day ago this happened.fate tempted

I know the two are not connected. I know this. <Pause.> Mostly. My rationalist husband, who is not at all conflicted as I am, has derived great pleasure from repeating my taunt above and then watching my face as it crumbles in guilt. Lots of other people who I know for sure don’t believe there is a connection are also teasing me.

I’m a baseball fan. I know that you don’t talk to a pitcher on the way to a no-hitter. You don’t declare a game over until it’s actually over. You don’t step on baselines to and from the field. You grow a beard during playoffs. You don’t change anything during a winning streak. Simply put, I’m superstitious.

And it’s hard to put aside completely the thought — laughable as I know it is — that as a rabbinical student I might have a connection to The Powers that Be.

So I actually debated with myself whether to write what I did on Facebook. And I remember concluding, “Ah, do it. What could possibly happen?” This was my first mistake: If you’re asking yourself that question, you shouldn’t do whatever it is that you’re contemplating the consequences of.

Putting aside the absurdity of naming a historic blizzard (so far the fifth worst in Boston history) after a cartoon fish, I am still excited about this big snow (even as I am not looking forward to shoveling out the car). I got a day off from school on Friday, and the snow is absolutely beautiful. We still have power, heat, and, most importantly, internet. But my friend Stacey lost power — along with another quarter of a million people. And as of Saturday evening it was still snowing in Maine, where our friend Jackie lives; the snow drifts there are taller than her 18-month-old daughter. And one day of Ta Sh’ma, the school’s prospective student open house, has been cancelled.

The rabbis lived by the truism that words have power. In a section of the Mishnah about when fasting is prescribed, drought is cited; in desperation, the rabbis once went further.

They said said to Choni the Circle-maker, “Pray that rain may fall.” . . . He prayed, but the rain did not fall. What did he do? He drew a circle and stood within it and said before G-d, “O Lord of the world, your children have turned their faces to me, for that I am like a son of the house before you. I swear by your great name that I will not stir hence until you have pity on your children.” Rain began falling drop by drop. He said, “Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain that will fill the cisterns, pits, and caverns.” It began to rain with violence. He said, “Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain of goodwill, blessing, and graciousness.” Then it rained in moderation . . . – Masechet Ta’anit

The rabbis were horrified by what they and Choni had done, but they didn’t respond because they recognized the special nature of Choni’s relationship with G-d, “like a son that importunes his father, and the father performs his will.” Obviously I didn’t do exactly what Choni did. But is prayer other than articulation of desire?

Really, though, I should have been looking not to Jewish tradition but to the West Wing, the source of all wisdom, to make my decision:

“You want to tempt the wrath of the whatever from high atop the thing?”

the sound of silence

“Truth is one. Paths are many.”

So says Sri Swami Satchidananda (known as Sri Gurudev to his followers), the guru who founded Integral Yoga in New York in 1966 and became the spiritual leader of the worldwide community (and global business) that arose from it.

I just spent four days at the Satchidananda Ashram at Yogaville, south of Charlotteseville, Va., at a silent New Year’s retreat with about 75 other respite seekers. There were probably another 50 non-retreat visitors, and what seemed like a cast of thousands of ashramites (staff, teachers, residents). The staff wears all-white, which is one of the features that occasionally provokes the twinge, “This is a cult.”

What also does so is the cult of personality around Sri Gurudev. His picture is everywhere, often on altars, and at the two ceremonies I attended, there was a chair ostensibly “for” him, but in which sat a large portrait of him, festooned with flowery drape and complete with a pillow for his feet. Most of Judaism does not revere teachers in this way, so I found it a little odd. Certainly unsettling was the fact that a picture of him hung over one of the beds in my room. (I chose the other bed.) Plus, I was forced given the opportunity to view recordings of his talks; he had interesting things to say and wisdom to share, but I can’t say that I’m ready to move to the ashram and become a devotee. Everyone who studied with him (he passed away in 2002) testified to his magnetic presence, so I spent some of my silent time thinking about the nature of leadership.

super detailed ashram schedule

super detailed ashram schedule

But if the ashram is a cult, it is one super-organized, Type-A cult. (Then again, what do I know? Probably all cults are well organized. You can’t brainwash people in a haphazard fashion.) So it’s my kind of cult. The schedule I received at check-in was filled with down-to-the-minute activities (e.g., “12:35: Vans leave Lotus for SH” – and they did). All programs started and ended on time (so not Jewish!), and in the location advertised — and changes were posted promptly and in all necessary places. Admonitory signs abound: “Remove shoes,” “Juice for fasters ONLY,” “No early meals,” “Keep this area tidy!” “Sign and date prayer requests.” Adding Hari OM before and OM Shanti after doesn’t make the commands less didactic. Certainly the organization made it easy on us silent types; I never had to write down a clarifying question.

I started feeling the need for silence earlier this year, as the semester intensified. Jews are generally not a silent or a still people; indeed, many times in our history our survival has depended on our not being so. I spend my days in prayer – which requires a minyan (group of 10 people), and much of which is said aloud – and in chevruta (partnered learning), and then in participatory classes (not lectures). I talk and argue and debate and present ideas and listen to ideas all day. As an introvert, this is draining.

There was a good mixture of programming at the retreat: guided and regular meditation, different levels and types of yoga, lectures, workshops, music, ceremonies. The daily schedule, which began at 6:00 a.m., went like so: meditation, yoga, breakfast, program, meditation, lunch, free time, program, yoga, meditation, dinner, program. That makes for a long day, so I didn’t go to every offering and squeezed in some naps instead. I was catching up on a semester’s worth of sleep.

The vegetarian food was great, and at every meal there was something warm, which was so welcome in the weather. The first day it snowed, and then it was overcast and windy the rest of the time. The Blue Ridge Mountains are – besides beautiful – cold. I fasted one day – evening to evening, Jew-style – and discovered that fasting ashram-style, with its yummy fasting juice and regular juices, is a lot easier than Yom Kippur. (Plus, I didn’t have to atone for my sins.) And! I wore comfy clothes the whole time – which, what, because I’m a student: I should wear yoga clothes all the time. Maybe I will.

I could have done without the indoctrination hour, when recordings of Sri Gurudev were broadcast during lunch. One day in extolling the virtues of a vegan diet – and thus the evils of dairy and other animal products – he kept characterizing meat eaters as consumers of “dead corpses.” He’s not wrong, but it was quite unappetizing – and in addition he was preaching to the choir, since we were all right then eating vegetarian food. We were the ultimate captive audience – in silence, and with only one place to eat.

The flip side of that unfortunate aspect of silence is the fact that no one could say anything after the programs and speakers, as I generally think that the follow-up questions people ask are not great. (I saw Tina Fey speak at Sixth & I on her book tour for Bossypants, the much hyped anecdote in which was Fey’s disdain, during publicity junkets for the movie Date Night, for the sexist question that she was constantly asked, and that her co-star Steve Carrell, also a working parent, was never asked: “How do you do it all?” After she spoke, some fool got up and basically asked Tina Fey how she did it all. Tina was much nicer than she had to be in her response.) And indeed, during our closing program, during the hour I finally heard the voices of all of the participants, there was more than one of that person. While most people, as instructed, just shared one meaningful moment or important learning, there were several who apparently decided to use all the words that they hadn’t said in the past four days. It certainly tested my new resolve to see the divine in everyone.

yantra (essentially, the visual representation) of the teachings of sri swami satchidananda

yantra (essentially, the visual representation) of the teachings of sri swami satchidananda

Overall, the experience was exactly what I wanted: silence. I found not talking for the better part of a week extraordinarily easy, especially among strangers. It was a downright relief not to have to make small talk or compare notes. In fact, we were encouraged not to even engage in non-verbal communication, which meant I spent almost the whole time without making eye contact with anyone. It was a little frightening how much I enjoyed that freedom. I was alone with my thoughts, except I didn’t feel alone. I am almost always happy as a clam to be by myself, but the feeling of being in my own world, but uplifted by the energy of others – in meditation, for example – was extraordinary.

And I learned a lot about meditation. I’ve been meditating irregularly, for 5-10 minutes at a time, mostly as a way to calm myself when I’m feeling stressed out. I think it’s been helpful. At the retreat I meditated three times a day, for between ½ hour and an hour. I don’t plan to maintain that kind of schedule, but I do want to have a daily meditation practice, and at a mediation workshop that was offered, I got guidance to help with this goal.

When I called her on my way back to D.C., my mom, after laughing when I told her what a piece of cake four days of silence was for me, asked me what was challenging about the retreat. I had to think, because I am so happy with how it went, all the funny stuff notwithstanding. I did wrestle with how much of the ashram’s worship practices to adopt while in residence; I felt distinctly uncomfortable with some (bowing to altars, saying chants) but I also wanted to respect its customs. It was absolutely clear to me that all faiths are respected (witness the yantra above, the visual representation of Sri Gurudev’s teachings). What was less clear to me was how I, especially as a rabbinical student, could practice both Judaism and Integral Yoga. They’re both pretty intense, time-consuming, all-encompassing ways of life. I don’t know what Sri Gurudev’s answer would be, but I plan to find ways to incorporate the silence and stillness of Integral Yoga into the cacophony that is often my beloved Judaism.

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.

elohai neshama

אלהי נשמה collage; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

אֱלֹהַי, נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַֽתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא

אַתָּה בְרָאתָהּ, אַתָּה יְצַרְתָּהּ, אַתָּה נְפַחְתָּהּ בִּי,

וְאַתָּה מְשַׁמְּרָהּ בְּקִרְבִּי, וְאַתָּה עָתִיד לִטְּלָהּ מִמֶּֽנִּי

וּלְהַחֲזִירָהּ בִּי לֶעָתִיד לָבוֹא. כָּל זְמַן שֶׁהַנְּשָׁמָה

בְקִרְבִּי, מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ, יְיָ אֱלֹהַי וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתַי

רִבּוֹן כָּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים, אֲדוֹן כָּל הַנְּשָׁמוֹת

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, הַמַּחֲזִיר נְשָׁמוֹת לִפְגָרִים מֵתִים

My G-d, the soul that you put in me, it is pure: You created it, you formed it, you breathed it in me, and you tend it in my core. But you will take it from me and put it back in me in the world to come. For all the time that the soul is in my core, grateful am I before you, Adonai my G-d, and G-d of my ancestors, master of all works, lord of all souls. Blessed are you, Lord, the one who restores souls to lifeless bodies.

Earlier this week, a classmate led our tefila group in a guided meditation through the prayer elohai neshama (so called for the first words of the prayer). As we sat or stood in stillness and silence, listening to the meditation, experiencing this prayer in this way felt exactly right to me. Elohai neshama is an intensely personal prayer, beginning by addressing the divine with the words, “my G-d” and continuing throughout the prayer to speak directly to G-d. Many Jewish prayers are said collectively, in the first person plural (“we”), and talk about — not to — G-d. So having what was in many ways a private experience was a great choice for this prayer.

I love the progression of “you created it, you formed it, you breathed it in me.” In my meditation, I was struck by the image of a soul made for me alone: G-d was thinking of me when G-d gave me my pure soul.

On top of that, G-d is guarding (a tense shift from the previous verbs) — as in, G-d continues to guard, to tend — my soul. G-d created my soul for me, and G-d will also make sure that my soul stays in me, that it stays pure, and that I stay true to my soul and do not lose it. While my soul is in me, the prayer continues, I am grateful lifanecha, “before you,” emphasizing that personal relationship with G-d that is the birthright of my soul.

Lastly, I was really struck by my classmate’s interpretation of ribon, usually translated as “master.” He suggested that this word could denote less of a controlling G-d — and more of an expert (as in “the great masters of the Renaissance”). It resonated with me as an acknowledgement that G-d is really good at creation, and G-d gave me the soul that was right for me.

I don’t think that I want to address here the issue of taking and restoring of soul, as I find it problematic and incongruous to my understanding of the rest of the prayer. (I should definitely work it out at some point, but I’m okay leaving it for now.)

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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.

the arc of prayer

The rabbinical school curriculum requires that students join what are called “tefila groups,” with a new focus this year: tefila (“prayer”) as a spiritual practice. The idea is for everyone to “practice tefila with a spiritual practice group that shares goals and develops a consistent set of forms for its tefila.”

We were asked to come up with ideas for these spiritual practice groups, and the groups that ultimately formed, after a few weeks of discussion and proposals, included those committed to experience prayer as catharsis, as struggle with the divine (however conceived), as liberation theology, and as obligation. The groups daven together at least once a week and then meet on Thursdays to process the prayer experience as well as the group’s continued goals.

new tallit for rabbinical school; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

The group I joined is planning to explore the liturgy of shacharit, the morning service, unit by unit, seeking to make a personal connection to each part. As my classmate who proposed the idea explained, he was inspired by a story he heard on NPR about a musician who had digitally remastered Beethoven’s 9th Symphony to make it last 24-hours. His vision for the tefila group was to essentially daven shacharit over an academic year.

We’re working on the selection of liturgical units (unsurprisingly, there are more of them than there are weeks) and schedule for davenning. On the day we pray together, we’re planning to just daven the prayer that we’re focusing on that week (with perhaps the prayer before and after it, so we can look at transitions, too). On Thursday, we’ll be sharing how that experience was for each of us, as well as any creative expression of the personal connection that we’ve made to that prayer.

It’s hard to overstate how excited I am by this prospect. I need to learn the service better (for myself, and as a professional skill), and although technical goals aren’t the point of these groups, I know I won’t but get to know the prayers better.

I can think of so many things that I’d like to do for each weekly unit; knowing that my time is limited, and that I want to push myself in this project, I’d like to commit to making a visual representation — probably a collage — for each prayer. I don’t think of myself as a creative person, so I’m nervous about the prospect, mostly that I won’t be able to achieve something that is meaningful and, more importantly, not cheesy. I’m hoping that a trip to the craft store a) won’t kill me and b) will provide some inspiration. I would also like to write here about my experience each week, hopefully with a picture of my finished product.

We’re starting tomorrow with elohai neshama, a short prayer at the very beginning of shacharit that praises G-d for creating humanity and for helping each person maintain his or her spirit and spirituality. More to come!

living waters

Before the holidays, I visited the mikveh, as I usually do in the early fall, when I officially became Jewish three years ago, completing my conversion with a beit din and a visit to the mikveh.

mikveh at mayyim hayyim; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

The community mikveh in Boston is called Mayyim Hayyim (“living waters”). It’s egalitarian, which means that both men and women can use it “at the same time.” Most traditional mikvehs are used almost exclusively by women, with prescribed, separate times for men on those rare occasions when they might visit, and the pool is drained and refilled between the times for women and those for men. At Mayyim Hayyim, there are co-ed times, when men and women could both be immersing, though obviously in separate pools. It’s an unusual arrangement.

Every time I go to the mikveh, I think that I should do it more often. It is a truly relaxing and refreshing experience. It’s also a wonderfully solitary experience, which this introvert especially appreciates from among the majority of Jewish rituals that are communal experiences. (There are some immersions which are halachically required to be witnessed, but mine was not, and so I declined the presence of the mikveh attendant.)

The ritual of the mikveh requires complete cleanliness and removal of all clothes and accessories, “[i]n order to remove all physical barriers between you and the water of the mikveh,” as the preparation instruction sheet notes. You shower and clean every part of your body, scrubbing underneath nails and sloughing off dead skin on knees and elbows. You remove all makeup and nail polish. You brush and floss your teeth. Mayyim Hayyim has a beautiful set of meditations for this process.

I actually got a little stuck on the removing of nail polish this time; I’d just gotten a pedicure the week before (I should have timed that a little better). It is so silly that it was so hard for me, and I tried to reason that it was just because I hate to waste money. But I finally decided the polish was emblematic of something that I was trying to hang on to but also needed to let go for the new year. (I’m actually not sure I’ve identified that specific thing is. At least I’ve symbolically let something go?) Off it went.

mayyim hayyim gate: “go in peace”; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

A mikveh visit typically consists of three complete immersions, with head underneath the water and feet off of the ground, and with blessings said after each one. Mayyim Hayyim has a selection of blessings for various rituals, from conversion to marriage, from coming out to healing. There’s not an existing ritual, as far as I know, for commemorating a conversion (more on that below), so I chose blessings for the new year.
The meditation after the last immersion follows:

May I return to my true self and be strengthened as I continue my journey of tikkun halev—repairing the heart, tikkun hanefesh—repairing the soul and tikkun olam—repairing the world.

As part of the commemoration of my conversion, I also asked for an aliyah at the morning Torah service that week. I told a classmate when he asked that I don’t usually mark the anniversary publicly. As he noted, Jewish tradition holds that once a person converts, it is as if s/he has always been Jewish. Indeed, there is a sense in which I have been Jewish my whole life. But there’s also a part of me that likes to remember that day, which felt like the first day of the rest of my life.

The classmate who was leading shacharit that morning offered the kavanah of gratitude for the service, and she asked me to connect the occasion to gratitude when I came to the Torah.

I am grateful, every day, to be Jewish.