Saturday, October 31, 2015


The parsha Vayera has a lot of different stories:
The annunciation of Isaac's eventual birth and Sarah's laughter, Lot offering up his daughters for rape in the hopes of saving two visitors to Sodom, the destruction of Sodom, Abraham arguing with God about the destruction of Sodom, Lot fleeing Sodom and his wife turning into a pillar of salt, Lot having drunken sex with two of his daughters, Abraham saving his hide by once again pretending that Sarah is his sister rather than his wife and offering her up to Avimelech who gets punished by God, The birth of Isaac, the exile of Hagar and Ishmael,  and then finally, the Akedah, when God asks Avraham to sacrifice his most beloved son which he quietly takes on although stopped at the last minute, then Rebecca gets born.

Phew.   Too much.

I think i'll just stick with the opening three verses, (here they are, in Everett Fox's translation):

And YHWH was seen by him (Avraham) by the oaks of Mamre as he was sitting at the entrance to his tent at the heat of the day.  He lifted up his eyes and saw: here, three men standing over against him.  When he saw them, he ran to meet them from the entrnace to his tent and bowed to the eart and said, My Lords, pray if I have found favor in your eyes, pray do not pass by your servant. 

And Avraham gets them water and and food and has them rest.  And it turns out these three men are angels who tell him and Sarah that they are going to have a child.  Which is nice, in and of itself, but let's dwell with this moment a bit, because this scenario is directly preceded by God's announcement of God's covenant with Avraham and Sarah and all their descendents, when Avraham has sealed this covenant by humbly having himself and all the men of his tribe circumcised, which, besides being rather drastic and painful, is, I assume, incapacitating making all these men incredibly weak and vulnerable, exposed to physical and emotional attack as well as God,  connection with the the One-ness, and it is such an expression of trust, huge honking glorious trust.   There will be  time for thinking about God later but now it's time to do God. Yowza.

Rabbi Yehudah Leith Alter, in the Hasidic text, Sefat Emet, The Language of Truth, writes:

"Soul and spirit long for their root, but they are bound to the body.  By means of circumcision, the removal of the sheath, this desire of soul and spirit wins the day.  The body really has the same form as the soul."

And it is is in that moment that YHWH, the One-ness, is seen by Avraham by the Oaks of Mamre as he was sitting by the entrance to his tent.  Imagine that moment, the ecstatic combination of pain and pleasure, exposure and communion, humility and achievement, and then—

Three strangers appear, looming over him, bam, there they are, out of nowhere, completely stealing the story, hungry and tired and dusty.  I've sat on the subway many times, deep in my own profound and tremendously important thoughts and meanwhile hungry and tired and dirty people are lurching past me begging for money, begging to be seen., and I give them nothing, I don't even look up, I let my earplugs enable me to pretend I haven't noticed them, because hey you can't give money to everyone, and these guys are probably going to drink it all up, and I just want to get home, I'm not getting any younger.  Or, or, I hear from the Rabbi, there's a demo for the 15 dollar minimum wage, at 6:30 AM.  6:30 AM?  Hell no. I turn over and go back to sleep.

But unlike me, Avrahm doesn't close his eyes or complain about his pain, Avraham runs to meet these men and bows to them and helps them wash up and feeds them and has them sit in the shade.  And YHWH was seen by him (Avraham) by the oaks of Mamre as he was sitting at the entrance to his tent at the heat of the day. 

Nehama Liebowitz writes,

"...practical good deeds take precedence over any abstract spiritual "enjoyment....he did not linger for a moment in the toils of mystic communion with his Creator, but ran to attend to the practical task of making welcome some tired and weary wanderers..."

I'm in my early old age, and I find as I age that i have morphed into a seeker and a meditator and a writer of kavannot and prayers.  This is a very internal journey and I get mad and depressed when the practicalities of life intrude on my communion with God, whatever God means to me on any particular day.  I most feel that connection when I write and when I write I am Avrahm, sunning myself in front of the tent, in a personal Shabbat, there is no past or present, only the now, an the ecstatic combination of pain and pleasure, exposure and communion, humility and achievement and then the phone rings or my back hurts and the bills arrive I freak out because I don't have a job or a partner and I'm so scared about my old age.  Or because the Republicans won't admit that global warming exists.  Or because the workers in the B&H warehouse are being mistreated, or fast food workers aren't getting enough money to live on,  or Palestinians are murdering random Jews on the street or Jewish extremists are burning families in their homes, or, you know, Donald Trump. 

In the  Pirke De Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Eliezer writes about the people of Sodom,

"They were dwelling in security without care and at ease, without the fear of war from all their surroundings, as it is said, 'Their houses are safe from fear '(Job xx1 9).  They were sated with all the produce of the earth, but they did not strengthen with the loaf of bread either the hand of the needy or of the poor."

Without balance and priorities, we get lost.  And alas, much as I would love to spend my days in meditation retreats and writing binges, or living a life without care and at ease, dusty strangers appear at my door, at our door.  At Rosh Hashanah we learn that Teshuvah, repentence and humility, and Tefillah, prayer and ecstatic communion, and Tzedukah, charity and social justice, fulfill and complete us and I believe that it's is in the balance of all three of these that we find our true selves as Jews, as humans, as members of this community.  And that starts right here, in this parsha, in Vayera, as Avraham rises from his ecstasy and pain and feeds the stranger.    It is time to be and to do.

God is a gerund, a verb ending in 'ing', 
a verb that has become a noun.
Always doing, always being.  
And Being.
Never starting, never ending.  
But real and solid, 
an idea made of action.

You want always to be in the image of that Noun, 
A believer and doer and caretaker,
As your true self
In prayer and social action and conscious living,
You want to be in full connection with that Verb, 
Believing and doing and caring, 
In the truth, whether you call it God or not,
And regardless of the payoff.   
So you construct descriptions and meanings
Or attach yourself to rituals and history.
Then your weakness becomes your strength
Your solitude becomes  your community.
This helps us all get through our lives
And we are comforted
And we are able to comfort others.

The universe is vast and incomprehensible.
We need to find joy in our lack of understanding,
We yearn for God’s presence to pass over us,
As we rise from our tents to strengthen the hand of the needy.
Making the intangible, tangible.
Imagining the unimaginable.

God appeared and Avraham saw three strangers,
God is a gerund: a verb and a noun.

Friday, September 11, 2015

BEHOLD, WHERE ARE YOU, HERE I AM: A Rosh Hashanah Invocation

© 2015 Trisha Arlin


In the Talmud, Rebbe Hannina says, 
Human versions of God’s vast intent are as unripened fruit,
Filled with potential,
Perceived completely only by God.
Hanina says that the unripened fruit of prophecy is a dream.
Which is kind of cool.
So I speculate,
The unripened fruit of truth is the story.
While we sleep our brains show us random pictures of what we had seen that day or what we can imagine, based on what our brains already knew even if we didn’t know we knew them.
And our brain imposes order on the random and constructs a story. 
Thus we gain access to the things we know but don’t know we know,
And we call that a dream.
Chalom is the Hebrew word for dream, which sounds like chalon, which is the word for window.
So a dream can be prophecy or neurology or a window to one’s soul.
And the story is how we make sense of it.

Hinei, Behold.


The story began in the Garden of Eden

With Adam and Eve, newborn and without shame.

Until one day the snake appears and asks the first question in the entire Torah,

Casting doubt on assumed truth,

A reptile after my own heart.

Did God really say, the snake asked, to you and Adam that you were not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge?

Huh, says Eve, and she eats that apple

And it is good.

Adam eats, too and suddenly, bam!  

Doubt and questions and fear and helplessness and despair and shame, and self-awareness. 

It is scary and they hide away.

Then God asks the first question God ever asks in the whole entire Torah,

Ayeka, God asks.  Where are you?  

They don’t answer. 

Where are you?

But poor Adam and Eve, it's before rituals, there’s no prayers, there’s no cantor singing and rabbi preaching.

Where are you?  God asks, and they haven’t a clue so they don’t say a thing.  They don’t have an  answer.

Do you? 

Ayeka. Where are you?


So here today, we answer God’s question.  

Not Hinei, behold, but Hineni,  Here I am.

Hineni, said Abraham as he prepared to kill his son;

Hineni, said Moses at the burning bush as he prepared to free a people;

Hineni, sings the cantor, as she walks to the bima and prepares us for the Days of Awe.

It’s Rosh Hashanah and where are you? 

The place we stand is holy ground.

We listen for the presence of God in the cantor’s prayers and the rabbi's sermon

And the ancient rituals of the High Holydays,

Trying to hear truth amongst all the voices of our lives

Trying to interpret the noise properly so that redemption will come to us, if it should, 

And we can be part of the truth a much larger story.

Hineni.  Here I am

We dream together
And we make Teshuvah, when we return to our true selves and forgive and are forgiven;

We dream together
And we say Tefillah, when we pray and stop time in holy conversation;

We dream together 
And we do Tzedakah, when we transcend self by taking responsibility for our beautiful world. 

We dream together 
Because as Grace Paley once said, 
“Without action, hope is wasted.”

Behold Blessed One-ness, Infinite and eternal,
Here we are.

Where are you?


Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Forgive You?

You say to me, 
"If I have hurt you in any way this past year, I apologize and hope that you can pardon me, forgive me, let me atone for my sins against you."
If?  If you have hurt me?
Of course you have hurt me!  
Remember that time in the car, in the living room, on the road, in the back yard, on the stoop?
In that email, on the phone, to my parents, with my friends, next to my spouse, in front of my kids, when we were alone?
Overtly, covertly, passive-aggressively, inadvertantly, officially, slowly, abruptly, shockingly, repeatedly, mistakenly, knowingly?
Oh my God yes, you have hurt me!
"I know," you say, "I know.
Pardon me, forgive me, let me atone for my sins against you."
Forgive you?  Should I forgive you? when should I forgive you?
Immediately, before you even know what you did?
Now, as soon as you ask for forgiveness?
Eventually, but only after making you feel bad for years?
What about never?

How should I forgive you?
Miraculously, without you having to ask?
Simply, by just saying, apology accepted?
Grudgingly, and only after you've groveled for a really long time?
Or what about, not at all?

Why should I forgive you?
Because you are really truly sorry and you will never do it again?
Becasue it cleanses us both and helps me move on?
Because it's Elul and the Rabbi says I have to?
Because nothing, screw this, you're evil and I hate you.
"Yes," you say,  "you're right.
All true.
Pardon me, forgive me, let me atone for my sins against you."

Forgive you?
I imagine saying, No.
Forgive you?
I imagine saying, Maybe.
Forgive you?
I imagine saying, Yes.


Friday, August 14, 2015

Blessing For the Bugs on Rosh Chodesh Elul, on Rosh Hashana HaBehamot

Blessed One-ness!
On this beautiful summer day
Under this large and welcoming tree,
Our green tallit,
We gather together to give thanks
To the animals who make all life possible:
The bugs.
Big and small
Beautiful and hideous
Helpful and hurtful
They build
They pollinate
They are the food of our food.

Most of the time we can't even see them
And for that I am deeply and profoundly grateful.
Frightened by a giant spider movie in my childhood,
When I was little I wanted nothing more than to see all bugs dead.

But I was wrong.
I have come to see
That we are not the only creatures who are B'tzelem Elohim,
We are all in God's image.
So today, on Rosh Chodesh Elul,
On the New Year of the Domesticated Beasts,
Let's give thanks to the bugs
Like the four questioning children
Wise and snarky and simple and oblivious,
Like the four worlds of the kabbala
The Earth, the sky, the heart and the spirit
We give thanks and acknowledge:
The bugs we have domesticated 
The bugs who serve us in their wild state
The bugs that hurt us or gross us out
And the bugs who live only for themselves, without any reference to us.

First, in the world of Assiyah,
(Touch the earth)
Let us touch this earth.
the world of Doing, of the dirt, 
the world of the body, of physical pleasure and need
And know that in every square inch of this dirt there are bugs.
Segmented, slithering, multiple legs,
Whether we walk or sit or lie down on this earth,
there are the bugs.
We give thanks for the domesticated bugs, such as the earthworms,
Who make our compost
And who make agriculture possible;
And lets us give thanks for the bugs of the earth that we have not domesticated
Who feed the birds and each other;
And let us acknowledge the creepy crawlies of the earth living under rocks and the spiders that make children scream;
And pray with the bugs of the earth who exist only for themselves.

Second, in the world of Briah,
(reach into the air)
Let us reach into the air
The world of Thinking,
the world of the mind, the intellect
And give thanks for the domesticated bugs of the air, the bees
Who pollinate our flowers
And make the sweet sweet honey;
And let us give thanks for the undomesticated bugs of the air who give us pleasure with their beauty, the butterflies and the dragonflies and the ladybugs;
And let us acknowledge the bugs of the air who annoy us, the mosquitoes and the moths;
And pray with the bugs of the air who fly all around without any reference to us whatsover.

Third, in the world ofYetzirah,
(Touch the heart and the gut)
The world of Feeling, heart, the emotions.
Touch your own body, touch your heart and your gut
And give thanks for the domesticated bugs that we eat, the bacteria that give us yogurt and yeast,
That we may live and feel and react;
And give thanks for the bugs and the bacteria that live in or on our bodies
In symbiosis, helping our digestion and our immunity,
That we may love and be loved;
Let us acknowledge the bugs, the ticks and the bedbugs and the bacteria, 
That make us sick and sometimes kill us, so that we are sometimes angry or sad;
And the bugs in and on our bodies that, thank God, most of us don’t even know about because, yuck, right?

And last, in the world Atzilut, of Being/Soul SPIRIT,
I invite you to turn you face to the sun and close your eyes.
This is the world of the spirit, of spirituality, of God, however you approach God and even if you don't.  
And let’s imagine another kind of bug--
What are the creepy crawly things, the ear worms and the brain bugs
The spiritual insights and the annoying doubts and fears that we cannot let go, both good and bad?
And let us give thanks for the ideas that make us so creative in our holy conversations;
And thanks for the doubts and fears and sensitivities that come to us whether we want them or not, that make us empathetic and compassionate;
And let us acknowledge the obsessions with no basis in reality and the nagging regrets about things long past that keep us up at night and away from our true selves;
And pray for ourselves, amidst all the buzzing distractions of technology and entertainment that go on without any reference to ourselves whatsoever.

Blessed One-ness
Bless all these bugs and all the creatures:
The ones we have domesticated, 
The ones who serve us in their wild state,
The ones that hurt us or gross us out,
And the animals who live only for themselves, without any reference to us,


*With thanks to Aharon Varady and for background info: