New Life is Rising: A Prayer for Tu B’shvat

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Torah Retold: And Your Child Will Ask

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when you observe this seven day festival
you must explain to your children
it is because of what the lord did for us
when we were set free from the land of egypt

your child will ask
did the lord free us from the land of egypt
only that we might conquer a land inhabited by others
the canaanites the hittites the amorites
the hivites and the jebusites

and your child will ask further
did the lord free us from the land of egypt
only that we might lash out at the world
with a mighty hand
or rather to reach out with an outstretched arm
to all who seek liberation

your child will ask still further
did we mark our doorposts on that dark night
only to cower from the angel of death
or rather to announce to the world
that god stands with the oppressed and
that we have nothing to fear and nothing to hide
all who are hungry please
come and eat

(Parashat Bo, Exodus 12-13)


Torah Retold: Promise of True Liberation

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now i have heard the cry
of the israelites enslaved in egypt
you must go back and tell them
i have not forgotten my promise
i have been waiting
for precisely this moment
to liberate them
from their oppression

when you return
tell pharaoh i will strike him down
and lay waste to the land
soon all of egypt will know
who is the greater master
over heaven and earth

then you must tell the israelites
i will take them away from pharaoh
so that they may serve a new taskmaster
i will bring them into the wilderness
to possess as my very own

and as the titans clashed
and the rivers gushed with blood
the cries of the oppressed rose higher still
to the place where the promise
of true liberation
still patiently waited to unfold

(Parashat Vaera, Exodus 6:2-9)


Torah Retold: Which Voice Shall I Heed?

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venturing beyond the wilderness
he came to the mountain and
saw the sounds bursting from the flames
a blazing fire that burned insatiably
but was not consumed
voices calling to him over and
over again until he finally
opened his eyes and cried out
hineini here i am

one voice said i am the god of history
another said i am the one that is ever yet to be
another said i will keep you safe another said
i will teach you how to fear

another said i cannot bear the pain
of so many oppressed
will you free me from this suffering
another said go to them and tell them
they are mine all mine

another said won’t you bring
my message of liberation to all
who are oppressed another said
you will never be free until you destroy
the people of the land i am giving you
as your inheritance

he asked which voice shall i heed and
which voice shall i say has sent me
but now there was only silence
as the fire lept higher and higher
a myriad of sparks twisting endlessly
in the dark night

(Parashat Shemot, Exodus 3:1-13)


We Light These Lights: A New Hanerot Hallelu Prayer for Hanukkah

The Chicago Light Brigade (photo by Caroline Siede)

The Chicago Light Brigade (photo by Caroline Siede)

We light these lights
for the instigators and the refusers
the obstinate and unyielding
for the ones who kept marching
the ones who tended the fires
the ones would not bow down.

We light these lights
for the sparks that guide us on
through the gentle night
for the darkness that swaddles us
in its soft embrace until the moment
we inevitably emerge
into life renewed.

We light these lights
for the spirit of resilience that remains
after our strength has ebbed away
for the steadfast knowledge even as
the bullets echo repeatedly
off bodies lying in the streets
that the impunity of the powerful
cannot last forever.

These lights we light tonight
will never be used for any other purpose
but to proclaim the miracle
of this truth:
it is not by might nor by cruelty
but by a love that burns relentlessly
that this broken world
will be redeemed.


“Who Shall Live?” A New Prayer for Rosh Hashanah

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The U’netaneh Tokef prayer is one of the signature moments of the Rosh Hashanah service – the moment in which we invoke the image of a Book of Life for the coming year and ask a litany of versions of the question, “Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die?”

It often seems to me that this prayer is at its core a meditation on the randomness and precariousness of existence – a way of giving voice to our deepest fears over that which we cannot ultimately control in our lives and world.

However the kicker comes at the end: after all the uncertainty, we conclude by proclaiming “But repentance, worship and acts of justice can avert the harshness of the decree.” We do not – cannot – simply end on a note of fatalistic dis-empowerment. U’netaneh Tokef says, in essence, “yes, there is indeed harsh cruelness in our world – so what do we intend to do about it?”

After all, so much of what seems random in our world is in fact the blowback of our own actions, individual and collective. While it may be temping to simply throw up our hands and blame this cruelty on others – or the vicissitudes of a “random world” – the harder truth bids us to take a deeper look within, reckon with our own culpability, and think honestly about what we are prepared to do to make this new year one of peace, wholeness and justice for all.

Here’s a new version of the prayer that I’ve just written for the inaugural Rosh Hashanah service at my new congregation, Tzedek Chicago. Feel free to read and share:

U’netaneh Tokef

We say together:
We declare the terrifying power of this day,
this awesome, sacred day.
We hear the great shofar sounded once again.
We listen for the still, small voice in its wake.

We sing together:
בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן,
B’rosh hashanah yikateyvun, uve’yom tzom kippur yeychatemun.

(On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.)

We say responsively:
This is the season we dare to ask out loud:
who will live and who will die?

Who by famine and who by war;
who through oppression and who through neglect;

Who by weapons and who by dehumanization;
who through hatred and who through ignorance.

Who in the dark and who in the bright light of day;
who by passion and who by design.

We sing together:
בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן,
B’rosh hashanah yikateyvun, uve’yom tzom kippur yeychatemun.

(On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.)

We say responsively:
Who will benefit from power and who will be victimized by it;
who will dwell in safety and who will be uprooted.

Who will be targeted and who will be collateral damage;
who will escape and who will fall.

Who will be beaten down and who will rise above;
who will find peace and who will dwell in darkness.

Who will be protected and who will be vulnerable;
who will be counted and who will fall through the cracks.

We sing together:
בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן,
B’rosh hashanah yikateyvun, uve’yom tzom kippur yeychatemun.

(On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.)

We say responsively:
Who will be privileged and whose chances will be slim;
who will brought in and who will be cast out.

Who will be healed and who will not have access to healing;
who will be fed and who will go hungry.

Who will be loved and who will be despised;
who will reach out and who will turn away.

Who will written in and who will be erased;
who will succumb and who will fight back.

We sing together:
בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן,
B’rosh hashanah yikateyvun, uve’yom tzom kippur yeychatemun.

(On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.)

Together:
וּתְשׁוּבָה, וּתְפִילָה, וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.
U’teshuvah, u’tefillah u’tzedakah ma’avirin et roah hagezeyrah.

(But repentance, worship and acts of justice can overturn the harshness of the decree.)


psalm 88: one of these nights

just like they say:
it’s always worse at night.
the shadows lengthen
and once again the dread slowly starts
its nighttime creep.

it’s really quite the routine,
this nocturnal dance of mine
go ahead, enjoy the show –
i’m sure it must amuse you
the way I thrash through the night,
sheets coiling tighter and tighter
around my throat like
some demented night serpent
faithfully returning every night
to feed on my fears.

one of these nights though
when you least expect it,
the joke will be on you
that’s right i know you’re there
do you really think i can’t see you
lurking offstage in the shadows,
enjoying the nightly entertainment?

oh yes, my latest act
is opening soon and
i just can’t wait to see
the startled confusion on your face
when i finally stop struggling,
spread open my hands,
and sing psalms of praise to you:

the one who hides
in the darkness.


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