Monday, July 24, 2017


I love it when I hear that someone has used one of these prayers and kavannot in their services, rituals or personal meditations. 

All my work is offered to you free with attribution, under the Creative Commons SA license.  I have posted my work up here and in other venues for years for anyone to read and use and will continue to do so.

BUT, like everyone else, I need money to live.  So I'm trying something new.  If you use anything here and it worked or meant something to you, and you can afford to do so, please, use this PayPal link help me out.

If you are able to, please make an offering.  Any amount is appreciated.  Thank You!!

B'Shalom, Trisha


I'm working on applying for fiscal sponsorship and if I get it you will be able to make your donations tax-deductible, but for now you'll just be making a direct payment to my PayPal account.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Praying, Blessing, Cursing: Balak

At the start of this parsha, the Hebrews are passing through Moab on the way to Canaan and the king of Moab, Balak, sees them and is afraid.  He sends messengers to the pagan priest, Balaam, and they say on behalf of Balak,

There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me.  Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.”

This parsha is unusual, it reads more like a self-contained story than a logical continuation of the story of the hebrews in the desert that we have been following thus far.   Balak commissions a curse, God tells Balaam to turn it down and he does, Balak insists, Balaam says yes and journeys to the capitol on a donkey, God sends an angel that only the talking donkey can see to block his way, the donkey stops, Balaam beats the donkey, long story short, Balaam gets to the city and prepares to make the big curse but God invades his heart and instead Balaam blesses the Hebrews,  Ma Tovu, how good are your tents, the basis for our morning blessing. 

It's a real full on story with an inciting incident, a recalcitrant hero,  an epic journey, a talking animal sidekick (it's a Disney movie!), an invisible but violent angel, an angry king and the fate of two great peoples at stake.  Great story, but sorry, I'm mostly interested this year in the curse and the blessing, or rather, the need for the curse and the blessing and the belief that a curse or a blessing will make a difference.

Balak believes in the importance and effect of public prayer utterly.  We're here, gathered on a Saturrday morning for services, so we must as well, right?  Well, maybe.  Sort of.  Not at all? But here we are, Shabbat morning, praising, blessing, asking for help, praying for the health of ourselves or others, praying for the dead and their survivors, praying for our country, our world, praying for light, praying for creation, praying in gratitude, praying in fear.

This congregation exists for many reasons:  to find friends and people with whom we share values, to take care of each other, to express the values that we call Jewish to work for social justice and, because we are a shul and not a social justice org, to celebrate life passages and to pray together. Together we curse our enemies and praise our friends.  We work our way through the siddur praying these prayers to a male heirarchical God in a language that we may or may not understand, for goals that May no longer mean anything to us in our modern regular lives or even, if we think about them, we May violently disagree with.  And yet here we are, praying, blessing, cursing.

And the rabbis of the Talmud?  The halakhic schedule of prayer, morning afternoon and evening, substitutes for the schedule of sacrifice in the temple, which was necessary to placate God and expiate the people's sins.  For many Jews, these prayers are, among other things, both an obligation and a constant reminder of who we are and our relationship to God and for them it really matters to us and to God if we do this specific liturgy in the correct way.

But do we, us Jews sitting her this morning, believe that our prayer has any effect?  If I curse you will you be cursed?  If I pray a mishebeirach for you, will you be healed? If I bless you will you flourish?  I don't know.  Rationally, I have to say no, of course not.   Balak's request of Balaam was just a morale booster, nothing more.  I feel better when I pray to heal the sick, it gives me the illusion that I matter.  But in the story, everybody takes this very seriously, as something that can really affect the outcome of the Hebrew people, and no one takes it more seriously than God, who bothers to send down an angel only a donkey can see.  So, are we the perceptive donkey or the stubborn Balaam?

I'm going to now use a word that I never use, don't believe in, disdain utterly...  Faith.   Why do I pray? I think it's faith.  Belief in something without any proof.  Faith. Creeps me out, faith.  So let me see if I can make it a little more palatable.  Faith is perhaps holding more than one thought in my head at the same time:   God doesn't exist and I am in God's presence.  Both true, Ta daa!  So when I pray, I am in conversation with the divine, or maybe just myself, or maybe with the act of praying itself.  It's not about dogma or antiquated ritual or halakhic laws for me. 

Maybe the word isn't even faith.  Maybe it's just something I know, a knowingness.  I have a knowingness sometimes that when I pray there is connection, that I am being listened to.  I fully accept that this is probably wishful thinking or neurological damage, or childhood indoctrination, but still, nevertheless, at the same time I feel a knowledge of being listened to.  Maybe I'm the only one doing the listening and hey if that's true, that's still pretty good, cause most of the time I'm on Facebook or Netflix or NPR  and I wouldn't know myself if I fell over me.  So it's good to take a few minutes out of my day to really listen to what there is to hear.

And when I'm listening, to myself or God or the sound of the lovely people of my community praying,  and when I feel heard and connected I feel loved, and I love.  And  that is powerful and then I think that a prayer might really be able to heal or to ask, with true sincereity and expectation, for good things to happen.  Because why not?  Really, why not?

My brother-in-law, Zdenek, died last September of cancer.  He and my sister fought it off a long time, and in the first year or so of that, the two of them came over to my house for dinner.  I waited until my sister went off to the bathroom and I told Zdenek, an atheist brought up in Communist Czechoslovakia, that I prayed for him at shul every week and that my congregation prayed with me and that we all prayed for his healing together.  I was embarrassed, but I wanted him to know even though I thought he'd sneer or smirk.  But he didn't.  He cried.  And thanked me deeply.  Do I think I helped his health with those prayers?  I don't know.   Probably not.  But I loved him with my prayer. We all did.  And I loved him when I said Kaddish for him. 

And in my best self, as much as I would love to curse our enemies, my prayers are not curses, God won't let me. In this parsha, Balak and Balaam and the donkey and God believe that prayer works.  He who you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.
And in that spirit, I want to read you a selection from something beautifully written by Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon Hadar that he posted on Facebook:
Religious thinkers and leaders worth their salt live their lives in constant cognizance of the yawning chasm between what religion could be and what it all too often is.  This awareness is always painful and often excruciating…. Religious thinkers also know that if *they* are disillusioned by religion, it is hard to fathom what God must feel.  But resentment is not the way.  Here is how lives can become truly holy: you take the energy generated by frustration and disappointment and you turn it to a deeper form of Avodat Hashem, service of God.  You see that religion is just as broken as the world in which it finds itself in, and you commit to loving more, not less.   This is hard, the task of a lifetime. ...Give your heart and your mind, give your soul and your life to building something different.   And remember: without love-- passionate, defiant, compassionate, justice-seeking love-- nothing is possible.  With it?  Well, that's what our lives ought to be about finding out.

Ma Tovu, how good. 

Shabbat Shalom


Friday, July 7, 2017

Yishtabach: Praise

Praise the morning blessings of the Birchat HaShachar,
Praise the songs of the Pzeuki Zimra,
Praise  the Names of the Hatzi Kadish,
Praise the Infinite Eternal of the Barchu,
Praise the light and the darkness of the Yotzer.
And between and within them, Yishtabach.  Praise

Praise the sounds of praising
And praise the ones who praise.
Praise that which is being praised.
Praise the praise.

What is this?
What am I doing?
Does God need praise or do I need to praise God?
What does that even mean?  

What kind of ominpotent God needs praise?
I don't believe in such a frivolous God 
I don't believe in anything that needs to b e worshipped
What an insecure God to need such flattery.
Nevertheless, Yishtabach

Is it a pathetic petition to a King?
Is it placation of the jealous Torah God?
Is it worship of a tribal god? 
I hate kings and autocrats and tribes.
So really, Yishtabach?

Is it the praise or my saying of it that makes it holy? 
Does it change me for the better?
Does it make a difference to anyone at all?
Or is it empty dead ritual?
I feel a little ridiculous.
And still I say it, Yishtabach.

Yishtabach Shimkha la'ad malkeinu
These are not my words, but they belong to me.
Yishtabach Shimkha la'ad malkeinu
Praise that which is bigger than us.
Yishtabach Shimkha la'ad malkeinu
Praise the need to praise.


Monday, June 12, 2017

Fringes: Kavannah Before the Sh'ma

A tallit is just a piece of cloth
But when you put fringes on the four corners
It becomes a fulfillment of a Jewish mitzvah.

The fringes are just strings
But when you knot them together and attach them to the tallit
They are all of our complicated questions for the Torah and Talmud.

And when you cover yourself with that fringed cloth
And you become separate and holy, kadosh,
It becomes a safe and private place for your spiritual longing as a Jew.

And when you hold those fringes from all four corners in one hand
It becomes your connection to Jews 
  from all four directions:  North, South, East, West,
  from all four worlds:  Assiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, Atzilut
  from all four elements: Earth, Water, Air, Fire
  from all four states of being:  Physical, Feeling, Intellectual, Spiritual.

And when you cover your eyes with that fringed hand,
And when you are deep in the holy and all four corners become one,

This is the One-ness.
This is us.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Ready And Prepared: A Drash on Emor

By Trisha Arlin

This week's parsha is Emor, Speak, a command to Moses from God, Eh-mor el haCohanim, Speak to the priests.  What follows is a series of rules that Moses must pass on. In chapter 21, God has Moses lay down the rules for the priests, the cohanim, on how not to defile themselves, lo yee tama,  to remain ritually pure, tahor.

The idea of ritual purity for priests or women usually has very negative connotations for me, since I, like most people, tend to think of purity as good and impurity as bad.  Clean is good, and dirty is bad, right?  But often what the Torah calls impure is to me the normal stuff of life, the normal goopy viscous liquids we encounter, that every human being must engage in or with...I leave the specific goop to your imagination...and I just can't see that as bad.  But that's my modern English speaking interpretation because that's not what Jewish ritual purity is about.  I think it's about readiness, about preparation, about being ready for holiness.

Remember that, readiness and preparation.

For the cohanim, the priests, that would have meant becoming ready to do the sacrifices and rituals of the temple.  For the High Priest, that would have also meant readiness to enter the Holy of Holies,  Kadosh HaKodashim, the small building that only he entered and then only entered once a year, on Yom Kippur, to meet God in the most sacred and separate place and beg forgiveness for himself, his family, and his community.  I say sacred and separate place because though we often translate the word Kadosh to mean holy it actually means, separate.  We make something holy by separating it from the everyday, the khol.    Another name for God is HaMavdil, the One who seperates.

And that's how I think of ritual purity, as a holy separation, a readiness for sacrifice in the Torah and today, a readiness to prepare us for tefillah, prayer, gemilut chasidim, acts of loving kindness and tikkun olam, repair of the world. 

In this parsha, in chapter 21, there are a series of acts and rituals that a priest must perform to maintain his, and it's always HIS, holy separation.    How he relates to the dead, how he shaves, what kind of women he can be with , what he wears on his body, what shape his body is in....these are restrictions of their time and I don't feel a need to list them, or obsess and be angry about how they are sexist and elitist.  We can stipulate that about half the Torah if not more.    I'm interested in now.

One way we can purify ourselves in modern times is with water, like washing your hands before a meal.  To really purify yourself you  to go to the mikveh.   You do a full immersion in water, your entire body, and say a prayer.  Traditionally observant men and women go to the mikveh for many reasons, for women once a month, or after a birth, or for a wedding or for conversion, but liberal Jews often go for other reasons , to ritually acknowledge life changes and events  like a B'nai Mitzvah, a graduation, menopause, a divorce, a gender transition, all sorts of things. 

What else is there to be ritually pure for?  I'm a Kohen.  Or, to traditionally observant Jews, a Bat Cohen, a daughter of a Kohen.    In the Conservative synagogue I grew up in, that meant my father, certainly never me, got called up to the Torah first, because a Kohen is supposed to always have the first of the traditional seven aliyot.

My father also would get called up to do the special blessing of the priests during the High Holidays, something we have done and not done at Kolot.  Perhaps it makes us a bit uncomfortable, to think that somebody, simply because of his or her genes,  might be able to somehow channel God and holiness and facilitate redemption and teshuvah.  It makes me uncomfortable, but I have to admit, when I have done it it's been very cool,very mystical and special.   You cover your face with your tallit, put you hands up in a mystical sign, and it's like you become a conduit for holiness.  It's profound.  Now I know, as a good leftie progressive, that I'm not supposed to feel this or to like it, but i do.  I feel the responsibility, I feel separate and holy and somehow even a little tahor, ritually pure.  It is good.  And why should I keep all that good feeling to myself?  Especially in this time that calls for some much action from us, wouldn't it be great if you each could  imagine yourself as the Cohen Gadol in your own Kadosh HaKodashim, the High Priest in your own Holy of Holies, immersing in your own mikveh, to imagine yourself as a holy vessel, pure and ready for inspiration and holy action.

(This next paragraph is a short version of a guided meditation)  So I invite you to cover yourself with your tallit and imagine that everything outside your tallit is mundane and everything inside it, especially you, is kadosh, holy and separate.  Today we are all kohanim.   Close your eyes, breathe regulary, imagine that every breath is a prayer to and for life.  Think of yourself as stepping out the door of this room and finding yourself in a meadow, where you see a small house in the distance, a house of one room, with a door but no windows.  You walk towards it and realize, this is your Holy of Holies, where you are the Kohen Gadol.   You go inside, there is a small pool of running water there, this is your mikvah.   You are completely yourself here, and you step into this mikveh and go under the water. Baruch atah adonai elohainu ruach ha olam, asher kidishanu bemitzvoav, eetivanu al hatevvilah.  Bless the One-ness, God, Breath of the Universe, sanctifying us with God's commandments and commanding us on immersion.  Dunk yourself again, and make up your own blessing, one for your family and friends.   Dunk yourself again, and make up another blessing, one for your community and your world.  Come out of the water.  There's a lovely fluffy towel.  Dry yourself off.  Imagine that now you are ready for holiness, for action, for change.   When you are ready, stand, come out of the Holy of Holies, walk out the door through the meadow, back to yourself with the tallit covering your head.

Blessed One-ness
We give thanks for the cleansing water
That makes us ready and prepared for prayer and action.
We are all holy vessels
Made in the image of God.
We give thanks for the ones who offer prayers.
We give thanks for the ones who take action.
We cannot heal the world without both,

Shabbat Shalom