“Though Broken Inside, I Am Grateful”

A Reading for the Days of Awe

A few years ago, I started corresponding with a man named Maurice, who for several years has been incarcerated at different federal facilities, most recently in Massachusetts. Maurice is in his early fifties, grew up in a Jewish family, knew he was gay at an early age, and assumed, as many did in his generation, that the Jewish world had no place for him. So he left, drifted, and eventually got into trouble. Several years into his sentence, he came across one of our rabbis’ teachings on GLBT inclusion and reached out to our community.

As a minimum-security inmate, Maurice has privileges that others don’t, including opportunities for community service. Maurice wrote to me earlier this year about the day, April 15th, that he found himself wearing orange prison garb and handing out bottles of water to runners completing the Boston Marathon.

Maurice wrote that he was close to the first explosion but was uninjured. He made sure the people immediately around him were okay and together they ran, not knowing if they were running away from danger or towards new danger. They just ran. Then the second bomb exploded, and again, Maurice and the people around him were not among the many injured.

He shared very powerful reflections on the event and gave me permission, and the privilege, to offer them here:

“Though broken inside, I am grateful. I have no frame of reference in which to place such evil. The only way I can deal with the emotions is acceptance. In the face of inexplicable acts, we are confronted with the possibility that rhyme and reason may not be on G-d’s agenda, yet there is peace in the words of Job, which remind us how little reason avails us when we try to understand the unexplainable. Job answered his wife, “Shall we receive good at the hands of G-d and not receive the bad?” Surrender moves us towards a wholeness and connectedness in which all things, good and evil, are divine, all part of the sacred gifts of life from our loving Creator.”

“I weep, I pray, I gasp for breath at times. Yet I know that all suffering belongs to some higher dispensation of mercy and justice and that G-d, the power that creates and sustains all things, including our very lives, doesn’t owe us reasons. It is the very dwelling in the wilderness of mystery that, moved by love and faith, we venture all to enter the sacred, to cross the threshold of the invisible and draw closer to G-d.”

“We do not have a say in all that befalls us, but we do have a say in our response. I do not know what my response should be. I am broken and sad, yet very grateful. My heart aches for those who died, those who grieve for them, for those injured and for all who are crying along with me. There is a connectivity in sorrow, and to open our hearts and our arms to those in pain enlarges not only the moment but it enlarges us, to the extent we are not dwelling just in the moment but within the whole of life.”

“In closing, I want you to know I love you; you matter to me. I am grateful for you. I urge you to take a minute today to give someone a hug, a kind word, a loving affirmation. May we all transform our world with love.” 

If any of my readers would like to send words back to Maurice, he would love that. Just leave them in the comments, and I will include them in my next letter!



Avot v’Imahot

These days, I am a channel for loose, chatty, non-dualistic English-language riffs on traditional liturgy, responding line by line to ancient impulses. Here is #1 of 19.

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו ואמותינ, אלהי אברהם, אלהי יצחק, ואלהי יעקב, אלהי שרה, אלהי רבקה, אלהי רחל, ואלהי לאה

We are humble and open before You, our God and God of our fathers and God of our mothers.

The call, the itch, the impulse hasn’t left a single generation unaffected, not since Abraham first heard a Voice, since Sarah laughed at God’s own Chutzpah. God of flawed, self-doubting leaders.

האל הגדול הגבור והנורא, אל עליון, גומל חסדים טובים וקונה הצל

The Omnipresent Point of Origin, Source of that nagging feeling that we are part of something bigger, more majestic and more wondrous than all of us and everything put together. Underneath, within, above, behind, beyond our senses and our silly tools.

Not some faraway unmoved Prime Mover. Not a chance. More like a cosmic Santa with a bulging bag of toys and burning need to give each kid the perfect one. Overflowing longing, love for everything that is, that was, that will be. 

וזוכר חסדי אבות ואמהות ומביא גואל לבני בניהם, למען שמו באהבה

The Omega Point,  ultimate repository of memory, all memories, all the ripple lines of all the rocks our mothers and our fathers tossed from the shore. And somewhere, somehow, someone will come along and help us make sense of it all. Maybe tomorrow, maybe a thousand, maybe a million years from now.

It will all fit together in some gorgeous cosmic puzzle. The love behind it all will be as plain as day. 

מלך עוזר ומושיע ומגן. ברוך אתה יי, מגן אברהם ועזרת שרה

Sovereign Spark of the Universe, Impulse that pulls all life towards entwinement. Source of birth and growth and restoration, source of shelter, shielding happenstance.

I am humble before You, oh God, Who looked out and looked ahead for our ancestors in their doubt and fear and fumbling. 

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Happy are those who dwell in Your House. Continually, they praise You. Selah.

The Ashrei (“Happy”) is a heart|mind opener built into every traditional Jewish service. It’s an acrostic — each line starts with a sequential letter of the Hebrew aleph-bet, except for nun (no one is sure why).

Ashrei stands out at the beginning of the late afternoon service, which is where I had occasion to engage with it at the Davennen Leadership Training Institute, a four-week, two-year retreat on communal prayer leadership led by amazing teachers aligned with the Jewish Renewal movement.

One powerful tool in the DLTI kit is the practice of taking traditional liturgy and putting it into a kind of high-resolution spiritual x-ray scanner. You blast through the patriarchy and particularism and illuminate the universally accessible, redemptive minerals in the bones. Then you use this new understanding to wrap the whole thing back together with music, breath, and movement — in whatever language the now irradiated piece calls out for.

And so it was that I sat down with the Ashrei. I looked at it through the lens of non-dualism, which is how I look at pretty much everything in liturgy and scripture. This idea is of ancient, diffuse origins; I learned everything I think I know from Jay Michaelson’s Everything is God

God does not exist, the thinking goes. God is existence itself. Ein od mil’vado, as Deuteronomy 4:35 tells us. Nothing exists separately from God.

So this is what happened. DLTIers learn to lead services collaboratively, and my co-leader helped me refine these lines and pick out a few to focus on, alternating with chant and breathing. If it moves you, I hope you’ll use it in your own practice.

א ALEPH. I raise my consciousness to You, my True North. Sovereign Reality of the Universe.

ב BET. At my stopping points, my comings and my goings, I will make a sacred space of moments when I felt You near me.

ג GIMEL.  Grandeur of All Existence, Source of Mercy as big and wide as all the Universe, unmeasurable, unmistakable.

ד DALET I feel the chain of past and present flowing into You, that there will always be someone, somewhere who keeps the great and open knowledge.

ה HEH. I want to stop people in the streets. I want to buy them coffee and ask them — “You realize it’s all God, right? The sky and stars, the coffee and the cup, you and me, and everything and nothing and both and neither?”

ו VAV. Somewhere, somehow, they know already. Still, transcendent moments, planted deep and wide. A child is born, a sunset in the mountains. Oneness made transparent.

ז ZAYIN. We tell stories — we all have them — of when joy and mercy filled the air. We sing old hymns and spirituals and protest songs. We sing defiance in the face of injustice. It is all You.

ח HET. Source of Wonder, Source of Lovingkindness, Source of Patience deep as all Creation.

ט TET. Your goodness soaks deep the blueprint of life. Every heart pumps Your red, radiant compassion.

י YUD. We see it when we clear our minds, unfold to gratitude, align ourselves to You. How can we help but love You back?

כ KAF. And – look! – there it is. The shimmering light of all Reality. The one great, unending moment of clarity. It is all You.

ל LAMED. Take out billboards, megaphones! Do podcasts, YouTube videos! A hashtag, maybe! Anything it takes to get the word out!

מ MEM. All time and space. A multitude of mercy, Big Bangs of Blessings. Life and death. Creation and destruction. Over and over, and it all fits together. It is all You.

ס SAMECH. A cut repairs itself like magic. Flowers opens to the sun. We walk away from hurt we thought would flatten us for good.

ע AYIN. You are the hope that pulsates in our vision. And maybe, just maybe, it all makes sense. It is all You.

פ PEH. You are the great unfolding of the Universe. Contentment, balance, ebb and flow.

צ TZADI. When we are still and open, we understand. You coded righteousness and mercy right into our DNA.

ק QUF. We call You close. You are the called, the caller, and the truth inside the call itself.

ר RESH. Somewhere, in You, it all works out. Somewhere, in You, is balance.

שׁ SHIN. You are reward and punishment, the ebb and flow, the either, both and neither, all and nothing. Source and object, channel, vessel, and the outcome of it all.

ת TAV. The awareness of You, of Your eternity and immanence, Immensity of Love, fills my every cell.


Ki Tissa

Exodus 32:3-8

And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. This he took from them and fashioned it and made it into a molten calf.

And they exclaimed, THIS IS YOUR GOD.

The people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being.

They sat down to eat and drink and then rose to dance.

God spoke to Moses, “They have been quick to turn aside from the path I commanded.

They have made themselves a molten calf and bowed low to it, and sacrificed to it, saying:


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2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 6,300 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 11 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Food Stamp Challenge Day 1

The Backstory

This year, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs launched the Food Stamp Challenge, an experiential event to draw hearts and minds to the millions of people in the United States who live on what used to be called “food stamps.” The benefit is exactly $31.50 per person per week, or about $1.50 per meal. The challenge is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to live on this budget when you don’t have to, to donate the money you don’t spend to hunger relief and awareness building.

Each of us sets up a page for individual donations. Here’s mine — I hope you can spare at least a few dollars!

Approaching Day 1

The circle gathered outside the entrance to an Aldi store in University City. It was time to go shopping — on a budget of $31.50 per person for a week. Our guide on this excursion, a staff member from a nonprofit serving the food-insecure, couldn’t make it, so it was just a dozen or so of us with Rabbi Susan.

I haven’t shopped at an Aldi since the early nineties when I was studying in Germany, where the chain originated. It has the same reputation over there — dirt cheap, low quality. It was where homeless people would go after a decent haul from panhandling.

I could be wrong, but I think there was a widespread sense of awkwardness. I think most of us haven’t had to live on a food budget since college. I’d even wager that a lot of us spend $31.50 a week just on high-end coffee and artisan bread. It’s uncomfortable to admit this, but most of my thoughts in the days leading up to today have focused on how much I’m going to miss my favorite, way-out-of-budget condiments and spices.

In the meantime, tips have been coming in from friends who have lived or are living on a budget close to that of the Food Stamp Challenge.

One night’s menu: pinto beans, cornbread, fried potatoes, spinach (either in a can or a frozen block). I’m pretty sure that will come in at under $3. Breakfast menus are easier … eggs and toast, oatmeal, pancakes, waffles .. all those are going to be well under $1.50 per person

I feel like such a clod, even more when I remember that to this day, my father won’t touch beans or peanut butter, because when he was growing up, that’s all his family could afford.

In the circle, Rabbi Susan tells us about the film, Food Stamped, we’ll be watching together at the end of our weeklong exploration. After a while, a middle-aged security guard approaches and asks us to disperse. If he lets us gather in a big group, he says to Jen, then he’d have to let everyone gather in a big group. The racial overtone is hard to miss. We disperse and go in.

It’s a small store, but the products don’t look half bad. Some of us have lists and menus, but Brian and I are doing it all on the fly, with just a calculator and some scrap paper. I’m thinking low-budget vegetarian staples — rice, dried beans, root vegetables, peanut butter. You can get a lot of prepared, boxed foods — Including macaroni and cheese for 45 cents a box, a 20-pack of ramen noodles for $2.19. Hard to pass up a bargain like that.

The produce selection is pretty good — broccoli crowns and a nice acorn squash for 99 cents each. Altogether, we ended up spending $31.40 at Aldi. Later, we hit an international market in our neighborhood, a food hub for many immigrant communities, and pick up a mess of dried beans, lentils, brown rice, and a big bag of carrots. I splurge on some nicer low-budget coffee.

As we unpacked the groceries, I felt like we did pretty well, but there’s no telling how soon we’ll start running out of things.

Day 1

Breakfast: 2 eggs each, two pieces of toast, and coffee
Lunch: Lentil soup and grilled cheese
Dinner: Elbow macaroni in marinara sauce, 3 carrots each

We bought two loaves of bread, and we’re already halfway through the first one. Plenty of leftover lentil soup and pasta for lunch on Day 2. We figured out we left our one jar of peanut butter at Aldi’s, and it will take about a third of our remaining budget to replace it.

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The Illusion of Control and the Food Stamp Challenge

Jewish liturgy returns to one aspect of G-d’s nature over and over: G-d doesn’t care about human power structures and is usually itching to upend them. The Exodus story smashes the illusion of human control, laying bare the truth that for all his outward might, Pharaoh was never really in charge. Just last week, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah thought their wealth and power meant they could take vulnerable outsiders and do whatever they wanted to them. But in the story, they were destroyed with a single thought.

In Psalm 113, part of the Hallel prayers that are added on major holidays, G-d is envisioned as flipping human hierarchies:

M’qimi mei’afar dal
mei’ashpot yarim ‘evion
l’hoshivi ‘im-n’divim
‘im n’divei amo

G-d stations a pauper
From an ash heap G-d elevates a beggar
To place them with nobles
With the nobles of G-d’s people

When you hold it up to the light in a certain way, our High Holidays liturgy, with all its confessions and chest pounding and pleading for Divine mercy, is really a grand allegory with a simple message. We are not in control. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or even an hour from now. We can never be sure what the consequences of our actions will be. We don’t really have any of the things we think we have — security, comfort, prosperity. It can all be taken away in an instant.

Enter the Food Stamp Challenge

This year, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs launched the Food Stamp Challenge, an experiential event to draw hearts and minds to the millions of people in the United States who live on what used to be called “food stamps.” The benefit is exactly $31.50 per person per week, or about $1.50 per meal. The challenge is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to live on this budget when you don’t have to, to donate the money you don’t spend to hunger relief and awareness building.

Each of us sets up a page for individual donations. Here’s mine — I hope you can spare at least a few dollars!

We got lucky this year. Many of the political candidates who had vowed to gut this lifeline — including our own Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin  — were defeated at the ballot box. But the threat hovers above a landscape of bottomless need, especially among the millions of long-term unemployed.

Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue!

I am taking the Food Stamp Challenge in the hope of plugging in to the radical core of tzedek, tzedek, tirdof (Deut 16:20). We’re not supposed to just work for social justice, we’re supposed to chase after it with everything we’ve got. But the great irony is that most of the time, I’m too anaesthetized by food and drink to engage at that level. Just in preparing for this experience, I’ve learned of friends and family members are now or have recently been reliant on public assistance. If that’s how close food insecurity has gotten to me without my learning first-hand what it feels like, day in and day out, what kind of justice-chaser can I really be?

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