The Spirituality of Dyeing Yarn

I have recently taken up yarn dyeing. I dye with color-safe food dyes because I feel that while I live in a small space, avoiding toxic powders helps keep me and my family safe. As I have learned and explored this new hobby, I have found it to be deeply satisfying, not only artistically, but surprisingly, spiritually. I find a mystical joy in the discovery of the colors as they develop that reminds me of how I feel when I sing. It is as though I am, through this art, connecting to a deeper spiritual plane that few other things reach.

As I was preparing to teach a workshop at the synagogue on yarn dyeing, I wanted to make it Jewish, and wondered how I could help others find this spiritual connection as I had. I reviewed the symbolic meanings of the colors. I pondered the fact that yarn dyeing, like knitting is an act of creation, perhaps helping us to connect to the Divine Creator. But I think my connection goes beyond these things.

G-d created the world with two simple words, “Y’hi Or” – let there be light. What is light? Light is a collection of colors. Pure white light is a combination of every color. When you dye yarn, particularly with food coloring, which is a mixture of colors which bind to the yarn at different rates, the resulting colors are somewhat unpredictable. The resulting skeins are a surprise of color and that surprise connects us to our art, to the wonder of creation, and to the beauty inherent in both the purposeful act and the surprising result. It is an act of revelation – an unexpected beauty.


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This is a picture of the first yarn I ever dyed.  The color is created by “breaking violet.”  It uses only one color of food coloring.  I learned this technique from Rebecca Brown of chemknits.  You can find her videos here: https://www.youtube.com/user/ChemKnitsBlog

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These are the yarns that are synagogue yarn dyeing class created together.

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Four Jewish New Years

Time has always been a sacred Jewish concept. In the first moments of creation, G-d began to distinguish times – “there was evening and there was morning, day one.” There was no sun, moon, or stars, but already there was a separation in time – evening to morning, one day from the next. By the end of the week, time had been divided, not only into days, but into sacred and profane – Shabbat, and every other time. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that Shabbat is holy partially because it is an island in time. Whereas sacred space can be destroyed, sacred time exists always, whether we observe it or not. “Judaism,” he wrote, “teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” Further, he said:

The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.

So the Sabbath creates a weekly holy island in time, but Judaism also sanctifies its years. We think of the Jewish New Year as Rosh Hashanah, but actually according to the Mishnah, there are four Jewish New Years. This was to ensure that certain commandments were completed at their appointed times. For example, the Israelites were required to contribute a tenth of the current year’s produce, so therefore they needed to know exactly when the current agricultural year began and ended.

The first of Tishrei is Rosh Hashanah. This is the holiday that we think of when we think of the Jewish New Year. It aligns approximately with one of the secular New Years too – the beginning of the school year. Rosh Hashanah is the new year for seasons. The Talmud associates it with the anniversary of the creation. It is also considered the beginning of the civil calendar, and thus the new year’s for measuring the reigns of foreign kings, for setting the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, and figuring the yearly tithe.

Rosh Hashanah is also a spiritual New Year. This is when we consider our lives and how we wish to change and become better people. For most Jews, the only two “New Years” we observe are Rosh Hashanah and January 1st.

But for those who remember their days in Hebrew school, they might also remember that Tu B’shvat is the New Year for trees. This is when the sap has begun to rise and fruit has started to ripen (in Israel.) It is customary on this date to eat the fruit of the new season. Ashkenazi Jews eat 15 different kinds of fruit. In the 16th century, the Sephardic mystics of Sfat expanded the Tu Bishvat observance with a seder that uses the symbolism of fruits with and without shells to enact the process of opening up to G-d’s holiness. In modern times, we also associate this holiday with environmentalism and the planting of trees in Israel.

Rosh Hashanah and Tu B’shvat are the two most well known Jewish new year’s. But there are two more. 1 Nissan corresponds to the season of the redemption from Egypt and the birth of the Jewish people. It says in the Torah, “this month [Nisan] is for you the beginning of the months, it shall be the first month of the year to you.” We observe Passover on the 15th of the month of Nisan. The first of Nisan is also the New Year for the reigns of Jewish kings (as opposed to secular ones), the renting of houses, and the counting of festivals between making and fulfilling a vow.

The last of the four new years is 1 Elul – the new year for tithing cattle. This one seems irrelevant today. The Temple no longer stands and how many of us keep cows? Still, many environmentalists are arguing for bringing this one back into prominence. The holiday can be about seeing the sacredness of all living beings and considering our place in our food system. It is a day on which to, as Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg put it, “abjure cruelty and affirm our kinship with creation.” Of course Elul is also the month of selichot recitations in preparation for Rosh Hashanah. Can there be a connection between our consideration of the treatment of animals and our own cheshbon hanefesh – the examining of our souls? The psalmist looks at a deer’s yearning for water and sees reflected an image of our own yearning for G-d. On Rosh Hashanah we will face our animal instincts – as we begin that inner accounting, an examination of our treatment of animals can connect.

These four ancient observances give us a gift of renewing ourselves and our communities in different ways over the course of the year. It’s really quite brilliant. Rabbi Ismar Schorch wrote of Rosh Hashanah and 1 Nissan (with its approach of Pesach):

…both sacred seasons express the fullness of human need. In the spring, we join with family and friends to celebrate the rebirth of our people. Nature and history converge in a burst of new vigor, hope and creativity. We have a need to belong, to attach our lives to something greater and more lasting than ourselves, to find meaning beyond the self.

But the self is not to be denied. It must find some sacred solitude within the totality of community and peoplehood. And so we gather again in the fall against the backdrop of a natural world that is beginning to wither in order to contemplate what the passage of time means in our own lives.

Rosh Hashanah is a deeply personal, inner examination of our lives. Tu B’shvat connects us to nature and food, celebrates the rebirth of spring after a dark and cold winter, 1 Nissan connects us to our people – to our extended families and our shared Jewish story, 1 Elul begins the process of personal repentance and connects us to all life and its sacredness. Through the marking and celebrations of all four new years, we have the chance to explore our lives from many different facets and with greater depth. And the secular new year gives us a moment of sparkle and joy that makes us glad to exist in a world where sacred and secular can shine together.

Becoming Worthy… Becoming Moses

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shemot, G-d called to Moses from out of a burning bush. “Moses! Moses!” and he answered, “Hineini – Here I am.” G-d gave Moses the sacred task of saving an enslaved nation. It is a job that Moses did not feel up to. Moses argued, “Who am I that I should go to Pharoah and free the Israelites from Egypt.” Later he argued, “What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me?” and beyond that he said, “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

Moses is Moses, but he is not yet MOSES. He will become MOSES in due time. Like G-d, Who reveals G-d’s name in this moment of Torah as “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh – I am what I am” or also translated as “I Will be What I Will Be,” Moses’s identity will be shaped by this pivotal moment in our historic narrative. Moses will find a way to approach Pharoah, to be believed and listened to, and he will find his ability to speak for himself, eventually speaking the entire book of Deuteronomy as a farewell sermon to his people.

How often are we faced with an important task that seems too great for us, too important, and for which we do not feel capable? This moment in Torah teaches us that it is the tasks themselves that make us capable of completing them – all we really need to do is show up and say, “hineini – here I am.” If the task is worthy of us, we can BECOME worthy of the task. The only question to ask is whether the task is truly worth doing.

On this Shabbat before the secular New Year, many of us are considering our new year’s resolutions – all the ways that we hope to better ourselves in 2019. I would suggest that this is a great moment to seek out remarkable tasks, things that seem beyond our reach, things that will help to make the world better than how we found it. This is a great moment to say, “Hineini.” I am here. I am worthy. I am ready.

And You Shall Be a Blessing

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vay’chi, Jacob prepares to die. He asks Joseph to bring him his two sons so that he can bless them as his own. Jacob blessed these two grandsons and added the words, “With you, Israel will bless, saying, ‘May G-d make you like Ephraim and like Menasheh.’” And so this has become the traditional formula for parents’ blessing their sons throughout the generations.

Why, you might ask, would we bless our sons by these names, rather than by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Ephraim and Menasheh were born and raised outside of the land of Israel. They were fully immersed into the highest echelons of Egyptian society. Deeply entrenched, they were in grave danger of losing their sense of their Jewish identity and their moral foundation. Tradition teaches that, despite the temptations of Egypt, they remained true to Jacob’s Judaism as transmitted through Joseph.

Perhaps we bless our children in the name of Ephraim and Menasheh because we wish them to have the inner strength to hold on to their Judaism in the midst of a secular society. There are times in everyone’s lives where faith is challenged, but we wish for our children to be able to hold on to the faith and traditions of their ancestors.

In my family of origin, we did not do a blessing every Friday night, but rather only once a year on the High Holy Days. I remember the strange and wonderful feeling of my father taking my head in his hands and offering a blessing that I no longer remember. I don’t remember the words to the blessing, but I remember the feeling of being blessed. It is not the words that matter, but the tradition, the sentiment, the holy moment passing between parent and child.

With what words would you wish to bless your children?

With what words would you wish to bless yourself?

Shabbat shalom.

What’s In a Name?

In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob wrestles with G-d and in the end, G-d blesses him saying, “Your name shall no more be Jacob, but Yisrael.”  Yisrael means one who struggles with G-d and, as I wrote in a previous D’var Torah, it is our struggle with and engagement in faith that truly makes us a part of Yisrael.  But I want to focus on something different and that is on the concepts of naming and renaming.
A name defines something, gives it a role.  Those who choose to be Jewish have the opportunity to select a Hebrew name for themselves.  Some choose to honor a deceased relative as their parents might have done.  Others honor a Biblical personality or a character trait that they admire.  In the Torah, adults often receive additional names.  But today, we change our names only through three mechanisms – marriage, the addition of nicknames (often given by family or friends with humor), or through the bestowing of titles or honorifics earned through schooling.  In changing Jacob’s name to Yisrael, G-d attaches Jacob’s struggle to his identity.  Our additional names are given to us by others, but they rarely say something truly deep about our own inner lives
If you could choose a new name, Hebrew or otherwise, what would you choose?  Who would you honor or remember?  What character traits would you want as a part of your name?  Are there other ways that you can express that identity, honor those loved ones, bring those names forward in your life?
The great Israeli poet, Zelda (1914-1984) wrote:
Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents
Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear
Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls
Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors
Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing
Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love
Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work
Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness
Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.
What will be your name?

When you are just… DONE

In Genesis 25:29, we read: “One day, when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the hunting field. He was famished, and he said to Jacob, ‘I’m famished: let me gulp some of that red stuff!… Jacob said, ‘Sell me your birthright here and now.’ And Esau said, ‘Here I am going to die; what good is the birthright to me?’”

The Hebrew word that gets translated as “famished,” is ayeif – which also means exhausted. We see Esau coming in from the field at his wits end – exhausted, hungry, or just, as we would say today, “DONE.” His exhaustion is such that he doesn’t even care if he gives up everything. I think we can all relate to this at some level. The exhaustion of our family lives, our efforts at tikkun olam (repairing the world), keeping up with social media, making a living, and so much more. The exhaustion at hearing what is happening in the world and how so much of it just keeps happening, with no lessons learned. It is so easy to feel overwhelmed, to want to throw up our hands in feeling ayeif and just be DONE.

Ah, but you see, we cannot be done, because if we give up, or give in, we risk giving away our birthright for a bowl of stew. So, what do we do when we are as done as Esau was?

If Esau had taken just a moment to stop, to relax, he surely would have known the folly of selling his birthright. But he didn’t stop. Shabbat is our birthright as Jews – it is the gift of stopping, of refilling our personal, spiritual, and emotional buckets. On Shabbat we can have family time, alone time, friend time. We can take a moment for the art and music that feeds our souls. Whatever it is that helps you to face another week, relieved and ready. When you, too, are ayeif, I hope you will take that moment and take care of you.

We Shall Not Die, But Live

In this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, our matriarch, Sarah dies. “…and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. I imagine that the entire community must have mourned for Sarah, yet that mourning would have been different in color and weight than Abraham’s and Isaac’s.

I have been thinking a lot about communal mourning in the wake of the Pittsburgh attack. When eleven Jews are shot in cold blood as they gather to worship on Shabbat, the worst anti-Semitic attack in US history, we all mourn. Those who lost loved ones mourn the deepest. Their loss is fresh, unfathomable, and personal. But we all mourn too. We mourn sympathetically for their loss and we mourn for the hatred and antisemitism that have increased so alarmingly in the last few years. I have been so sad to see the looks on the faces of my fellow Jews, so many appearing lost and broken as we grapple together with this tragedy.

After Sarah passed, Abraham’s first task was to procure a burial place for her. He honored her memory by staking a claim in the ground that was hers, and that was his in perpetuity. We too must stake a claim in the ground, a claim to our right to be Jewish in this country. The gunman went after this particular congregation, not just because they were Jews, but because they supported HIAS, fighting for the rights of immigrants. We must respond by putting our feet to the ground – we will not be moved. We will continue to fight for the rights of others because that is what we do as Jews. We will continue to show up at our synagogues to worship, to do mitzvot, and to perform acts of loving-kindness. This is our claim in the ground. We will respond to this tragedy, by grieving and then by acting, by fighting against gun violence and against intimidation and fear. Our matriarch, Sarah welcomed all into her tent. We will honor her legacy and that of all those who died in Pittsburgh by doing the same.

We shall not die, but live, we shall not cower in fear, but show up to worship, sing, and support one another and to continue to make the world a better place.

Shabbat shalom.