Posted by (Velveteen Rabbi)

Justice-love-scalesEarlier this week, David and I studied a fabulous text from the Hasidic rabbi known as the Kedushat Levi (R' Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev), to whom I was first introduced by R' Elliot Ginsburg, my teacher of Hasidut in rabbinical school. It's a short commentary on this week's Torah portion, Korach, and it packs a powerful punch. (Read it in the original Hebrew at Sefaria.)

The text riffs off of a short phrase in Numbers 18:19, "It is an eternal covenant of salt." Levi Yitzchak explains that this was said after the deeds of Korach. (For a reminder of what those were, see my post at My Jewish Learning, A Failed Rebellion.) Korach wanted everyone, including himself, to be priests. He didn't want to be a Levite, which was his own ancestral tribe -- he wanted to be a Kohen (a higher-level priest), and he wanted everyone to be kohanim.

Here's where Levi Yitzchak makes an interpretive leap: he says the kohanim / priests represent the divine attribute of חסד / chesed (lovingkindness), whereas the levi'im / Levites represent the divine attribute of דין / din (justice) -- sometimes called gevurah, the quality of boundaries and strength. Here's the problem with the Korachite rebellion: in wanting everyone to represent chesed, Korach leaves no room for din. He wanted everyone to be pure chesed, but in truth (says Levi Yitzchak), the world needs judgment and justice too. The world needs gevurah: boundaries, strength, a strong container. 

Ramban (also known as Nachmanides) understands salt as a combination of fire and water, which is to say, justice and lovingkindness. He says it's the combination of those two, the appropriate balance of those two, which sustains all the worlds. 

Levi Yitzchak teaches that the covenant of salt (representing the balance of chesed and din) came as a response to Korach's actions, in order to remind us of what's wrong with Korach's imbalanced view that everyone should embody only chesed. What the world needs is the appropriate balance of chesed and din, lovingkindness and justice.

Reading this passage, I marvel at how contemporary and real it feels. I've been in contexts where people want everyone and everything to be all-chesed-all-the-time, and they are not healthy contexts by any stretch of the imagination.  Love that flows without boundaries is a flood, destructive and damaging. When we over-privilege chesed at the expense of gevurah, there are no appropriate roles or boundaries... and a community in which roles and boundaries are not honored, in which gevurah is not honored, is a community that will inevitably be rife with ethical violations and abuse. 

Levi Yitzchak skewers the Korachite perspective that says everyone should express only lovingkindness. John Lennon may have written a catchy tune with the refrain "all you need is love," but on a spiritual level, he was wrong. The world needs judgment, discernment, and justice every bit as much as it needs unbridled or unbounded love -- indeed, as Ramban notes, a world that has only one half of that critical binary cannot endure. 

This is true not only on a macro level but also a micro level. Every human being is a world. Every one of us contains both of these qualities and more. Maybe you recognize chesed and gevurah as the first two qualities we remind ourselves to cultivate as we count the Omer each year. Every human being needs a healthy balance of all of the qualities that we share with our Creator: lovingkindness and boundaried-strength and balance and endurance and all the rest. A person who seeks to be only chesed will inevitably be imbalanced, and will wind up doing damage not only to himself but to their whole community -- as Korach did. 

A person who insists that chesed is the goal in and of itself (rather than as part of a healthy and balanced palette of qualities) will be naturally inclined toward spiritual bypassing, using feel-good spiritual language to mask deep-rooted avoidance of life's complexities. The same will be true in a community that privileges chesed over a healthy balance of qualities. Such a community will inevitably be not ethical, not healthy, and not safe.

The wisdom offered this week by Levi Yitzchak and Ramban is still relevant in our day: what we need, as individuals and communities, is the right balance of chesed and gevurah. The right balance of love and boundaries, in which loving flow is guided and guarded by ethics and justice. The right balance of all of the sefirot, all of the qualities that we and God share. 

May it be so in all of our communities, and in all of our hearts, speedily and soon.


([syndicated profile] velveteenrabbi_feed Jun. 22nd, 2017 04:00 am)

Posted by (Velveteen Rabbi)

"Not all women, trees, or ovens are identical." -- Mishna Pesachim 3:4, in the name of R' Akiva


Some women like winter. Some incubate babies
and some have no uterus. Some wear eyeliner.

Some are happiest in Israeli sandals
flaunting our pedicured toes.

Some are stronger than the steel cables
that hold up a suspension bridge.

Some of us are notorious.
Some of us write love poems.

Some of us have roots that go deep
into the earth and will not be shaken.

Some give our fruit and branches
and trunk until we are nothing but stumps.

Some grow thorns to protect ourselves
even if we're vilified for it.

Some women are more like trees
than like ovens: constantly changing.

Some women are nourishing and warm.
Some women burn with holy fire.

Some of us are irreducible, incomparable
like the Holy One of Blessing Herself.

Some women balance justice and mercy.
Some are mirrors: we'll give kindness

as we receive, but injustice causes
our eyes to blaze the world into ash.


This poem arose out of a wonderful line from mishna that I encountered in Heschel's book Torah from Heaven, which I've been slowly reading on Wednesday mornings with my coffee shop hevruta group for well over a year.

Some give our fruit and branches / and trunk until we are nothing but stumps. See Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree. (Wow, is that one messed-up parable about the damage of boundary-less love.)

[I]njustice causes / our eyes to blaze the world into ash. See the Talmudic story of R' Shimon bar Yochai, who spent twelve years in a cave, and when he emerged, was so outraged by what he saw as people's poor priorities and choices that his very gaze set the world on fire.

([syndicated profile] velveteenrabbi_feed Jun. 16th, 2017 09:55 am)

Posted by (Velveteen Rabbi)

Dear One, you love me so much
you give me your Torah
for argument and play
waltzing and conversation
from one life to the next.

Your Torah nourishes me,
familiar as the womb.
Wrap me tight in your Torah
like a newborn. Laugh in delight
when I learn to break free.

Your Torah lights up my eyes,
fuses my heart with my choices.
Give me just one letter
to suck like candy, like manna
changing flavor on my tongue.

Tell me a true story again
about who I used to be
or who I might yet be
-- like you, always becoming
who you are becoming.

Beloved, draw me close.
I've been scattered:
melt me until we mingle.
I want to come home in you.
Choose me again. Don't stop.


This poem arises out of the Ahavah Rabbah prayer that is part of the traditional morning liturgy. Those who are familiar with that prayer (especially in its original Hebrew) will see many riffs on and references to its language here.

Like the poem Good (Yotzer Or), which I posted recently, this is intended to be daven-able alongside or instead of the classical prayer. 

(There are also some poems in the forthcoming Texts to the Holy that I've used at services as a stand-in for Ahavat Olam, the evening version of this prayer -- most notably the title poem of that collection. But none of those poems is specifically rooted in the language of this prayer the way that this one is.)


([syndicated profile] lois_mcmaster_bujold_feed Jun. 16th, 2017 09:13 am)
See, among other links:

You know, I've been around dehumidifiers for decades, but never once thought of this. And then it's so obvious.

(Not that this uses quite that tech, but, the principle of the thing.)

Straight-line extrapolations into the future -- that trick never works.

Ta, L.

posted by Lois McMaster Bujold on June, 16
([syndicated profile] velveteenrabbi_feed Jun. 16th, 2017 05:55 am)

Posted by (Velveteen Rabbi)

Beloved, You are good
and you wield goodness
in shaping creation

and every single day
in Your goodness
and with Your goodness

You make us new
with all created things.
You make me new.

I cling to yesterday
(who would I be
without the sorrows

that have worn grooves
into my back?) but
that's my own smallness.

You've made me new
formed me for this new day
a sapling unbowed.

The knot in my stomach
the knot in my throat --
You untie them.

Can I sit with You
for even a few minutes
before I tangle myself again?


In the yotzer or prayer, the blessing for God Who creates light that is part of our daily liturgy, we find the line "המחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית/ ha'm'chadesh b'tuvo b'chol yom ma'aseh bereshit," which describes God as the One Who daily renews, with God's goodness, the work of creation. This poem arose out of that line, and could be read or davened as part of shacharit (morning prayer), perhaps with the first and last lines of the Hebrew prayer as bookends. If you use this poem in this way, let me know if it works for you!

([syndicated profile] velveteenrabbi_feed Jun. 14th, 2017 04:27 am)

Posted by (Velveteen Rabbi)


The CSA's first distribution week:
the flower gardent nascent, not yet formed.
The fields are all potential. No one knows
what plagues or pleasures yet will come to pass.
Who can say which plants will thrive this year?
This week the share's all leaves in shades of green:
tatsoi, arugula, yokatta na.
Atop my bag I nestle precious roots:
French radishes, like fingers, long and pink.
Pick up a pen to mark that I was here
on this first week in June, the season's cusp.
My name's listed alone, while his is paired.
The tears that come I blink away, and blame
upon the radishes' surprising bite.



Clouds of pearly fluff float through the air
revealing hidden currents. Poplar seeds,
each with a silken parachute: they twirl,
make visible the breeze that strokes my neck.
I'm floating too, buoyed sometimes by forces
I can't see. Other times I feel
discarded by the tree that once was home.
Every breath I take's an act of trust
that in time I'll land, and root myself
in unfamiliar soil I can't yet know.
Can I learn to love being so light
I no longer insist I'm in control?
"God was not in the cloud: the still small voice..."
I wait, and drift, and listen for its sound.



Skills that I've begun to learn this year:
How not to shrink. How not to defer.
How to claim the whole bed as my own.
How to shop and cook for every meal.
How to pull over and cry by the side of the road.
How to be triggered by Facebook. How to dress
to kill -- on New Year's Eve, in low-cut silk
chiffon bought secondhand -- without a date.
How to be alone, night after night
(after I put the kid to bed), and wake
likewise alone, and if not celebrate
my solitude, at least no longer mind.
When will I earn my merit badge in grief?
This course is long, and there's no syllabus.



And then one day I wake and nothing hurts.
No ache behind my throat. Modah ani!
It isn't "closure," quite; that's just a myth.
Some things are linear, but never this:
growth doesn't come in measurable steps.
The music changes. So, too, does the dance.
I'll weep again, maybe by afternoon
but now hope rises in me like the tide.
I have no map: so what? I turn the dial
on my kaleidoscope. New pieces fall.
Each day a new blank page waits to be filled
and I can't skip ahead to see what comes.
I let my fingers hover on the keys.
Only one way to find out what I'll write.



When Moses saw the bush that burned, he gaped.
The glowing heat did not consume the wood.
The branches sang with tongues of vibrant flame.
God said, "This place is holy ground: now go.
The One Who Is Becoming sends you forth."
How did it feel to be the sign, afire?
As Frankl said, "Those who give light must burn."
And in my burning, can I mark the way
for others on this labyrinthine path?
I'm unsure where I'm going, but I know
each character in Torah lives in us.
If I'm the bush, then I'm the prophet, too:
released from habit, tender and exposed.
Take off my shoes, and let myself be changed.


I haven't written sonnets in a while. There's something about the constraint of the form that matches well, for me, with writing about these emotionally complicated realities. 

"God was not in the cloud: the still small voice..." See I Kings, 1:19

Modah ani. The morning prayer for gratitude, about which I've written many times before.

It isn't "closure," quite; that's just a myth. See On divorce and ambiguous loss.

"Those who give light must burn." I massaged the quote a bit to make it fit the iambic pentameter; the original is "What is to give light must endure burning."

"This place is holy ground: now go. The One Who Is Becoming sends you forth." See Exodus 3, the story of the bush that burned but was not consumed.

Take off my shoes, and let myself be changed. That's a reference to a Hasidic commentary on Exodus 3:5; read more.


The audio version of the Penric & Desdemona novella "Mira's Last Dance", sequel to "Penric's Mission", releases on audio from Blackstone/Downpour today.

At all the usual audio e-vendor suspects. Also available in physical media, although almost no one seems to buy audio that way these days.

I see they decided to do their own cover again, keeping their own series look.

(It will be coming later this year in a collector's hardcover from Subterranean Press, as well; just saw the first batch of proposed cover sketches yesterday.)

Ta, L.

posted by Lois McMaster Bujold on June, 16

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