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Tag: days of awe

an old maple table and the command to build a “little sanctuary”: a holiness story

our mikdash m’at

“over 2,000 years ago,” our rabbi began last night, “our people mourned the destruction of the temple.” the temple, of course, had been the place of worship, of prayer and sacrifice. it was the holy place of the jews. and in the year 70 of the common era, it was sacked by the romans. destroyed to dust and ashes.

but “our people” are resilient people. they are the people of the diaspora. they know what it is to wander, homeless, in the desert. to be strangers in a strange land. they know — deep in the marrow of their bones — the history of exile, the history of holocaust. of nations turning their backs on a holy people.

our rabbi went on: she taught that in the wake of mourning their holy temple’s loss, the rabbis of the time urged the people to build mikdash m’at — little sanctuaries — in their homes, to bring their prayers into where they lived and ate and drank and bathed and slept. and so, all these millennia later, when once again we have been banished — by an invisible virus — from our temples — and our churches, and our mosques, and all our holy shrines — my rabbi was urging us, on the cusp of the holy days of awe, to build mikdash m’at in our circa 2020 houses.


mikdash m’at
From the Talmud, Megillah 29a: The verse states: “Yet I have been to them as a little sanctuary in the countries where they have come” (Ezekiel 11:16). Rabbi Yitzḥak said: This is referring to the synagogues and study halls in Babylonia. And Rabbi Elazar said: This is referring to the house of our master, i.e., Rav, in Babylonia, from which Torah issues forth to the entire world.

מְעַט (n-m) heb

  1. littleness, few, a little, fewness
    1. little, small, littleness, fewness, too little, yet a little
    2. like a little, within a little, almost, just, hardly, shortly, little worth


i’d signed up for our synagogue’s workshop on creating a sanctuary in our homes for the high holidays because i am always up for carving out a sacred space. and i listened closely to the instruction: pick your prayer space, a place where you might feel elevated, outside the ordinary, at one with the sacred. a sanctuary, our rabbi explained, is a “space that’s holy or set apart.” she went on to define the ways we might fulfill God’s command, “make for me a sanctuary that I can dwell in.”

and so, once i’d sauntered back to the kitchen, as i was chopping eggplant and leaves of basil, dousing grilled peppers in balsamic glaze, i began to babble about this holy assignment. i recounted the instruction to the tall, bespectacled one with whom i share this creaky old house. i told him — in that way an eager student does — that we must pick a holy space. because, of course, the rabbi said so. and then i asked him where that might be. where would be our sanctuary for the holy days of awe? where might be the place where God — and we — could dwell?

and in that knowing way of his, in that quiet, certain, deeply-rooted-without-a-drop-of-drama-ever way of his, he lifted his finger toward the old maple kitchen table tucked in the corner, and he nodded. case closed.

there was no holier place in our house, of course, than the nearly century-old, hand-me-down maple table, the table etched with imprints of penmanship from ages-ago schoolwork, the table scrubbed bare in patches of whatever stain was long ago applied by some long-ago carpenter. the table where, since moving here almost 18 years ago, umpteen thousand prayers have been unspooled, night after night, morning after morning, midday after midday. countless stories — funny ones, hold-your-breath ones, rip-your-heart-out ones — have let rip here; tears, too. deliberations have been parsed here; life courses, corrected. midnight bowls of cereal have been gobbled down, and blazing birthday cakes presented on pedestals. books have been written here, and law school papers, too. we have mourned and rejoiced here. laughed and sometimes stormed away.

as poet laureate joy harjo so gloriously put it in her kitchen-table poem, “perhaps the world ends here,” “this table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.”

and it will be for us, in the unbroken days of awe ahead — the blessed new year, rosh hashanah, and the holiest of holy, the day of atonement, yom kippur — my bespectacled beloved and i will wrap ourselves in our prayer shawls and our prayers, we will lift ourselves out of the ordinary, and reach for the star-stitched heavens, we will hunker down at the years-worn, scruffed-up slab of old maple tree, and we will aim to dwell with the Almighty.

as it is commanded.

where would be your holy place, where would you build your little sanctuary, your mikdash m’at?

improbably, the prayer shawl

will BK AZk bar mitzvah photo

a triptych of prayer shawls: three generations wrapped in sacred thread

it’s as if the voice calls to me from an ancient canyon, a hallowed space carved through time and history. the history of this perpetually-spinning planet and its holy peoples, and, now, the history that is mine, carved across the years.

i yearn to wrap myself in the folds of the prayer shawl. to cloak my shoulders, burrow my arms, to bend my knees and bow down in the way i have long watched my prayerful beloved. a part of me, yes, aches to be enfolded, to feel the soft threads against my bare skin, but more against my heart. to be swept into the incantations of long ago and forever. to confess and call out to the God who is Avinu Malkeinu, “loving parent, Sovereign of our souls,” in the translation of our synagogue’s new prayer book.

i immerse myself in this span of holy time — the days of awe, rosh hashanah, the jewish new year, through to yom kippur, the day of deepest atonement — as if a tide pool that washes over and through me. it’s at once a cleanse and elevation, a surrender to another key, a frequency and melody and language that carries me to another plane. an otherworldly plane.

and yet, it’s one that comes on and through the worldliest of channels: the trip to the butcher shop, the spice jars pulled from the shelves. the chopping and stirring at the kitchen counter. the strolling through the garden, cutting stems to tuck in wide-mouthed jars and pitchers strewn across the table. the gathering of pomegranates, apples, acorns — sweet fruits of the new year, blessed offerings of the season of sacred bounty.

i have always loved the whole-body immersion of judaism, the ancient call to prayerfulness, the stories set in desert and dry land, the image of the sacred quenching that comes through the oasis, the raining down of sustenance from heaven, the voice that calls out, unseen but deeply heard.

these days i seem to be wrapping myself in all sorts of unfamiliar sacred threads, in threads finer-grained in their unfamiliarity, because their language is new to me, the constructions of sentences, the word choice, the tales they choose to tell. i’ve been going all summer to a just-past-dawn service in an episcopal chapel, one presided over and preached by women. wise women. soulful women. women priests.

it is a soul-stirring thing in the landscape of religion to walk into an unfamiliar place, to listen to the unfolding of an unfamiliar script, to feel each word and gesture as if new (because to me it is new). and thus to feel it so deeply fully.

it’s the element of exposure. the eyes-open willingness to surrender. to submit to that which by definition is foreign, uncharted, able to come up and grasp you, unsuspecting. nothing’s dulled; it’s all bristling, and stands at full alert. you never know what might be around the next bend. and thus you enter wide-eyed, scanning. catching every shift and nuance, passing through the sieve of your soul as if the first rinse.

so it’s always been for me in the folds of judaism, the religion i’ve stepped into because my heart and soul pulled me toward this man who is my beloved, my much-tested companion on this long journey called our married life. i feel it wholly because it’s new to me in so many ways, and now, 30 years after i first stepped — quaking — into my then-beau’s synagogue, its refrains come washing over me with decades of resonance. i find my place, i pull familiar threads round my shoulders, taut against my heart. i am cloaked and covered, kept safe, and free to burrow deep inside, to pore over the holy text, to consider prayers and, most of all, the image of the God who puts pause to the mad dash of the everyday. who awaits our urge to surrender. to bow down and pay attention. to hold high the sanctified blessing of the gifts that abound at the cusp of this new and holy year.

in the cry of the shofar, the coiled ram’s horn that calls out the new year. in the minor chords that rise up from our soul’s deepest depths. in the warm notes of spices saved for now. and in the prayers unfurled in each day of the days to come…..

i find my shelter and my refuge, my call to courage, and the certain whisper of the Most Holy. here, in the soft folds and sacred threads, i pull the prayer shawl round my shoulders. improbably, i tumble toward my heart’s deepest resonance.

l’shanah tovah u’metukah — may it be a good and sweet new year…

have you ventured into a sacred landscape that at first was unfamiliar, and did it sharpen all your senses, and draw you deeper into some universal understanding, some fine-grained sense of holy truths? 

p.s. my friday mornings these days include a drive to the far side of this little town to drop my sweet boy off at the faraway high school campus where he is shepherding the new freshmen into their high school adventures. this puts a bit of a pause in my morning writing, and thus delays its arrival in your mailbox, if you’re one who receives this by e-post. apologies for the delay, but this is my last chance, my last year, of dropping my sweet boy at the schoolhouse door, and i am relishing every drop of it. (even the days when we are running late and i am not quite as “chill” as he wishes me to be….)



…it is written.

those were the words onto which my eyes locked, as i turned to page 108 in the morning prayer service of the new union prayer book for the days of awe:

“on rosh hashanah it is written..” 

those words burrowed deeper than they might otherwise have burrowed, those words that inform us that God is on high, is etching our fates into the great book of life, of destiny; a refrain of the jewish new year that is ancient and every year new. it is the beginning somber note of a two-part doxology: on rosh hashanah, it is written; on yom kippur it is sealed.

weighty enough. but even weightier this year for me.

for far beyond the walls of the synagogue, where i bent in prayer yesterday, i knew that cardboard boxes were plopping on door stoops, sliding into the hungry maws of mail boxes. i knew because blessed friends had been sending me pictures. a book landing here, landing there. each one a birth.

indeed, it was written.

and that’s when suddenly the image popped into my mind: the wafting seeds, airborne puffs roto-coptering across the landscape, over farmer fields, over desert mountaintops, from sea to shining sea.

there’s a word that’s gone out of vogue, but i am on a one-woman campaign to revive it, breathe life back into it. it’s mullipuff, a delightful collection of syllables and spill-from-your-mouth cotton-ball consonants, and it is the word for the seed head of the dandelion, when its yellow fronds are spent, but its deepest job is just beginning: it’s about to take flight, and in that breathtaking way, transformation has occurred. it has seed dropping to do. holy act of faith, indeed. flinging itself to the winds and the rains. counting on calm blanket of air, of breeze, to carry it to where it might plop, sink in, begin the birth and rebirth.


…it is written.

and so i find myself this morning, twirling and spinning the thought of all those books, of those pages being turned, and i know this is where i need to pray most mightily. this is where the holy act begins. the book is landing, and with it the words, the prayers burrowed deep down inside. lying in half-sleep this morning, i prayed that those words — like seedlets in motion — would begin their journey, their voyage, their sacred beginning….i imagined each word propelled, each one decked out with little flagella, those microbiological wings — propellers — that scurry amoeba along. if you’ve ever put your eye to the microscope lens, you know what i mean, the little flippers that make the droplets of pond water swim across the microscope slide.

so, i imagine, the words. so i pray for the words. now that they’re unloosed on the world, now, i pray, “please do your job.”

it’s what happens, i suppose, when you don’t set out to write literature, don’t sink your heart into plot twist or narrative arc. but when all you do is set out to unfurl your heart, to write a plainspoken book of common prayer. the prayer from one harried mama who is looking so hard for the holy. who, after practice and practice, is beginning to gather it, to fill her heart with it. to find the holy bliss she’s been looking for. looking for so very long.

and so, this morning, i hold my breath, i pray my prayers, i ask the heavens to take over where i can’t go. the words that i typed are dandelion seeds. they are wafting now. landing, burrowing down.

dear God, let the seedlings take root. let something begin deep in the hearts and the souls. a scratching the surface, and quietly quietly sinking deep down where wonder takes root. where eyes are widened, and ears are perked. let the holy begin to rustle. let it quiet the noise, and peel back the hard dull edge, make known the unnoticed. let the hours be mined for all that they hold — magnificence, mystery, luminescence and shadow. let us see the beauty, behold the beautiful. let the books that land on the doorsteps, let them be the field guide to what lies deep within. the wonder, the wisdom, the Sacred.

so now you’ve read along as i prayed out loud. saying your prayers aloud gives them a bit more heft, adds ballast. i’ve been blanketed in that prayer all week, as i knew that little book, the one called Slowing Time, was miraculously being boxed and shipped and delivered. it’s as if a hundred thousand prayers of my heart, the seeds of the mullipuff, are finally released, finally getting to work. and all i can do is pray that they land where they’re likely to burrow and bloom.

what constitutes the mullipuff you choose to blow into the world?

p.s. because i was enchanted by the noun, mullipuff, i turned it into a verb (up above), as in a weightless something blown upon the whisper of breath out across the landscape. mullipuffed. may what matters to your heart, be mullipuffed….

because i was wholly entranced, as i always am, by the prayers i find in the jewish prayer books, and because i was struck by how deeply i’ve been informed by the lens through which ancient jews marveled at the world, i carried home the prayer book, so i could share this prayer with you. it’s called, Your Endless Blessing, and it begins on page 82.

Great and holy Maker of all the living, 

You create the world, Your child, anew at every moment.

An instant’s pause in Your creative love, and all things would turn to naught.

But Your blessing glows in every spark of time.

Again and again the morning stars unite to hymn Your love.

Again the sun comes forth to sing Your light. 

Again the angels sing their sacred chant to You.

Again the souls intone their need for You.

Again the grasses sing their thirst for You.

Again the birds chirp their joy before You.

Again abandoned chicks voice their orphan-song to You.

Again springs softly bubble their prayer to You.

And still the afflicted pour out their complaint to You.

And still their souls’ prayer splits Your heavens. 

And still they tremble in awe of Your glory.

And still in hope they lift up their eyes to You.

One ray of Your light, and we are bathed in light!

One word from You, and we are reborn!

One hint of Your eternal presence, and we are refreshed with the dew of youth!

Author of life, as You renew all things, take us, Your children, and make us new.

Breathe Your spirit into us, that we may start life afresh, with childhood’s unbounded promise.

what if…

what if

i was lurching to a stop, at a light leaping toward red, and that’s when the thought was birthed in my head. oh, it had been pulling at me all morning. i felt the weight of it from the moment my eyes opened, let in the light.

i was having trouble letting go of the great sacred hours of saturday. it had been a day of pure oxygen. i had nowhere to be other than prayer. i did nothing worldly.

i only drove at the end of the day, when the dark came. all day i walked to the place where the prayer was in pews. i walked with my boys; we weren’t in a hurry. the little one filled his pockets with acorns, sat off in a corner when we got there, played games with the corns and their caps. the other boy, wrapped in his prayer shawl, stood beside me, sat beside me, prayed beside me. their papa, this year, was far far away.

we spent enough hours in the place where the prayer was–coming and going all day–that we followed the arc of the sun.

the morning light, white, filtered through glass the color of cafe au lait, poured in from the east, lit my pages of prayers from the top, spilled toward the bottom.

by late afternoon, the light streaming in from the west was golden. some in the pews wore sunglasses. i let the sun in without filter, practically blind me.

when the sun fell, when the light fell, the rabbi lit a bright candle. for a few minutes, it was the only light in the great-ceilinged chamber.

then, it was over and we stepped out into the twilight. walked home one last time.

it was the light and the words, and the pushing away of the everyday, that drew me into a place where i want to return. the rabbi kept saying yom kippur is the one day, the one 25 hours of the year, when we brush up closest to God; we taste paradise, he told us. i believed him. i felt the stirring inside me.

i felt the touch of the fingers of God, up near my temples, up where the prayers settle and launch back into orbit. up where my thoughts rustle like grasses.

i felt time itself transform. it was not a staccato of chock-a-block minutes. but, rather a plane with no beginning or end. it was a mist that carried me. took me deep into a place where the world could not enter. it was sacred and slow and without measure. i had no hunger. other than that of wanting the day to last forever.

and then came the next day. and everything about it, it seemed, was hard. there was breakfast to make and errands to run. and a whole week ahead. i felt the wallop of monday galloping towards me.

i was on my way home from the mall where i’d gone to buy knobs for a door that resisted the ones i’d already bothered to try. that’s when the words came.

what if?

what if we let go, just for a spell, of all the constraints and let time return to its essence? what if we put out our hands and cupped as much as we could? what if these were our very last hours? what if we allowed each minute to sink deep into our soul?

would we be racing to malls? or would we be breathing? filling our lungs with the warmth of a sun that hasn’t gone out yet.

would we know if a monday followed a sunday? would we care? we have lassoed the moments of time, coerced them into ill-fitting forms.

oh, i know, i know. we have lives to lead, jobs to fulfill, mouths to feed.

but might we maybe have gone overboard? gotten so locked into clocks and calendars that we never, only maybe once a year, and only if we must, tell time we’re not paying attention.

we are, instead, wholly indulging in the gift of the light and the breeze. we are sinking our hands and our heart and our soul into the timeless. we are digging holes for a bulb, kneading bread dough, rocking our children. we are watching the waves, holding a butterfly, listening to air flutter the leaves of the trees.

the gift of shabbat and the sabbath offer that very reality. one day of each week. from sundown to sundown. for years now, i’ve said i wanted to follow the laws of the sabbath: not drive, not do any labor. pull into a place that knows no end or beginning. knows only the light of the sun and the stars and the moon.

what if each day we honor one blessed hour, or one blessed chunk of an hour? what if we give time its due? not lock it, and chain it, and wrap it around us.

but rather, allow it to flow through our hands, each sacred drop tasted for all that it is: the closest element in the world to paradise itself.

if we give it a chance.

if we let it sink into our skin, in through our eyes and our ears. if we taste it. if we suck on the marrow of time. if we stop and we marvel. the difference between any one moment and the next might be the difference between life, and life no longer.

each moment is sacred.

if only we notice.

if only we live as if we grasp the whole of that truth…

it’s my job to go out on a limb. it’s my blessing to have a place to do so. to say so. i netted this thought before it floated away. here it is now, you too can enter the thought. it’s ours now to share. to look at, consider. to release or let flap for awhile. do any of you make a practice of releasing time from its trappings? how do you do so? do you long to do it more often? what ways do you strip the world from the worldly? seek just a taste of the divine, the everlasting?

a word of deep sadness: a boy who filled a room with his strength and his sunshine died on saturday afternoon. in his mother’s arms. his name was nick. he had just turned 16. he and i shared tuesdays in a small room where we tried to get our bones stronger. he’d been fighting the ravages of cancer since he was four. but he never let on. my little one loved him. so did i. you couldn’t know nick and not love him. maybe nick is part of why each moment feels sacred today. be at peace, sweet friend. be at peace. your mama, and papa and all those who love you, peace to you too.

and finally, that photo up there. it’s from my will. the boy who’s a manchild these days. i usually don’t tell you his name. but the photo is his. and you should know where it came from. i asked him to go out with his lens, and catch a moment that felt timeless. full of light. inspired. up there is what he brought home. i could stare at that moment all day…thank you, sweet will.

molasses light

molasses light

i caught a lick of it just the week before last. seeped through a late afternoon window. oozed in between branches of honeysuckle.

there it was pooled on the dining room table. scattered like seeds on the wall just beyond. it is the light that i live for. it is the light of the autumn, when the globe starts to tilt and the slant of the sun shines more purely, i’m certain.

now, i’m no monet. i know not a thing, not a sciencey thing–or even an art one–about light. how it falls. how it bounces through bits in the air. how our eye knows.

but i do know a thing of the soul. and light, i am certain, unlocks some deep-inside chamber. lets it out. lets it flap like the monarchs that fill the air now. that busy the garden.

and when the fall comes, the light comes right with it. comes before it. knocks on the door, says, excuse me, it’s time for the summer to go. that was the warm-up. far as some of us think.

the real golden days, they are coming. they are autumn. and the light through the window, it tells you. it hints. it gets the pot bubblin’.

it gets me bubblin’, for sure. as long as i’ve lived, as long as i can remember, the fall is the time when my body starts humming. my heart sings along.

the light through the window, the light through the crack in the door, it’s pure gasoline. probably high-octane. i could go round-the-clock when the light turns to autumn.

is it blue light, or white light? or is it molasses?

i can’t quite decide.

i know, though, i’m not alone having noticed. i’ve heard here and there, the snippets of something, the talk of the light. it’s changed. have you seen it? i’ve heard people whisper.

i’m sure deep inside, maybe back of our eyes, there’s a meter. a little widget with dials and buttons. it takes in the light, into a beaker. it measures it. weighs it. marks it as “autumn.” tells the brain. signals the heart. sends a message: dig out the sweaters. start thinking apples. and maybe a simmering stew.

oh, am i jumping the gun? geez, it’s not even september, and here i am woozy for fall. for the “er” months: september, october, november, december. i love them all. some get quite busy, but that’s not here yet. and maybe by then we’ll come up with a plan to avoid the confusion.

right now, we’re just on the brink of what i might call the molasses days. the days when it’s golden. when the light is so straight from the heavens. straight from the heart of what is.

these are the days that make you want to stick out your tongue and just lick it, the light through the window.

these are the days you can taste it. it’s golden and sweet. you could pour it on flapjacks. melt butter.

the light now’s delicious.

it is a most blessed thing to pause for a moment and let it soak in. consider the source.

this here is sacred time, far as i know. far as the jews do too. not too long now, the days they call the days of awe will be here. the highest of high holidays, rosh hashanah, yom kippur.

even though i didn’t grow up knowing those prayers, i do know them now. and now, as i chant them, the light through the windows, i can picture it now, will fall on the pages of prayer books. it will be golden.

it makes me think, long ago, a wise soul or two must have noticed the light. noticed the glow. felt awe drape the days, like some sort of cloak. woven of shimmery threads. told a story that fit the occasion. declared it was blessed.

which it is. the light through the windows, the light in the leaves, it is the light of a God who saved, i am certain, the best for the last.

here it comes now. go out and pluck some. catch it, pour it into a jar. turn the lid tight now. it won’t last. but it’s here now. and it’s ours for the licking.

raise your hand if you’ve noticed. if the change of the light poured through your panes, and hit you right in the heart.

if you happen to know a bit of the science, know what it is that softens and shifts the way it comes in, please do tell. if you, like me, have a light meter, please tell what it does to your engine, this pure filtered light of the fall.

and a molasses-y birthday wish to sweet sandra, who is off in the country, up by the lake, savoring pies and second-hand stores. happy most blessed birthday…..