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
so 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.


psalm 87: the spaces above

IS457-7-21
lifting my eyes skyward,
squinting into the sun,
i almost catch a glimpse of you
dancing across the mountains peaks,
gliding like a flock of birds
winging impossibly high
above the valley.

now i lower my gaze
and the air around me grows leaden;
the sky darkens,
i can almost feel you crashing
back down to earth.

that’s the thing about these
so-called sacred mountains:
they have this way
of drawing our souls
down to the ground
even as they secretly yearn
to soar.

can you show me
how to see beyond?
can you help me to loosen my
idolatrous grip upon your land
that i make truly see
your dwelling place?

can you teach me once and for all
that these peaks point upward
so I might somehow be guided
into the spaces above?


psalm 86: heart of my longing

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i’m not calling out to you any more.
no more simplistic, needy prayers.
no more pleading to you for rescue
on my day of trouble.

they say there’s none like you
but i’m starting to realize
that you’re all created
more or less the same:
jealous, imperious, possessive
and come to think of it,
pretty needy in your own right.

for so long i’ve sent out my yearning,
for too long i’ve fixated on you
and your boundless largesse,
never stopping to consider
you might really just be
a reflection of my own
inner impoverishment.

so as of now you’re off the hook.
i’m going over your head.
i’m daring to imagine
a boundless source of beneficence
yes, even beyond your own.

no expectations, no desire to fill
this bottomless well of need.
i’m sending my prayer straight into
the heart of my longing,
beyond hope, beyond desire,
for isn’t this the place
where all prayers are truly
and finally answered?