Commit: Double Portion This Week

O holy Shabbes Inspiration Mattot-Masei

Double portion this week
both long poems
the necessity to read Devarim on the Shabbes before Tisha B’Av
a double measure of wisdom to prepare for the vision
— this week Mattot and Masei

It begins with oaths and vows
oaths – shevuot – related to sheva
the full cycle
according to the Rambam
when he takes up the subject of vows, nedarim, in Mishneh Torah

Vow the neder
weighty to take a vow
to stay away from something that is permitted
I take a vow to stay away from meat
from saturated fats
potato chips how I love potato chips
or to take on something I think is right
but is not required of me
elevating the act to mitzvah status
I vow to drive every single person who asks me
to the airport anytime they want

Vows are a fence around separation [Avot 3:17]
I take a vow in order to help separate from a problem
distance or in our lingo

You love those Little Debbie treats?
can’t eat just one?
you’re hiding vodka around the house?
cruising the dark streets for white powder?
special problems require special strategies
willing to go to any lengths with the vow
in order to make a fence around the problem
separate from it

It’s serious this vow-taking
Maimonides recommends we don’t do it at all
let your yes be true and your no be true
this from the Talmud [Baba Metzia 49a]
we are expected to do what we promise
if we have to resort to vows
something is wrong

In conversation we say
bli neder
without a vow used in the sense of without a doubt
if I have to take a vow
I’m not good on my intention
I need a vow to get something done?
do it

Something else:
Mattot and Masei
Mattot in the opening verse [Numbers 30:2]
rashei ha-mattot the heads of the tribes
two words for tribes in our poem
this mattei (singular) mattot (plural)
and shevet
both words signify a branch
a staff
part of a tree
how a branch becomes a tribe
I am thinking about as I stoop
to kiss the ground

A staff a stick an emblem a totem
the tribal stick remote but —

Tree consulted by its branches
branch separated from the tree
as in exile
separation and exile in the notion of tribe

All branches separated from the tree of life
the staff the branch the tribe
what does it owe to the tree?

Soft moist the shevet
dried out inflexible the mattei
the soul’s journey out from God
the exile of the partial from the whole
Israel among the nations
me from myself
the soul soft moist to its divine origins
or inflexible and brittle soul
souls dried out and far away from divine moistness

So too in exile
a connection with the Source
or a sense of far-away
inflexible to our origins
dried out
tribes either softening to the tree
or broken off and brittle from the tree of life

Turn all mattot into shevatim
turn all brittleness to moistness
turn the hard inflexibility of separation
into moistness and relation with the Source
draw down the definitions
bring us into relation
make us moist
turn us all into shevatim
moist particulars of the whole
divine remnants

return always assured

Hazak hazak v’nitchazek
be strong be strong
we are stronger
when we are moist


jsg, usa

Rashi’s Plan

In honor of Rashi’s 902nd yahrzeit [anniversary of passing]
29th ofTammuz

Rashi’s Plan for Peace [see Rashi on Genesis 45:24]

Rashi, Bible scholar, (1040-1105 CE), Troyes, France

I was visiting with Rashi the poet on a hillside in eastern France,
it was winter. Snow on the ground. We were sitting on bales in a circle as the sun began to set. During our discussion, Rashi’s daughter I think her name was Miriam, was speaking in quiet tones from behind a screen to her father.

My daughter reminds me, Rashi used a word in medieval French for reminds,
there is a plan for peace concealed in the text. Rashi then told us three ideas, his plan for peace.

It was getting dark so Rashi lit some candles. He also gave us grapes about then, they were translucent dark, blue black, almost lapis, I had never seen such grapes. Rashi opened with this: don’t get theoretical. Stay away from general principles. Make peace person to person, not theory to theory. We were all eating grapes.

The second thing he said was to take small steps, one at a time, make peace manageable. Peace will take time. Start with an agreement, a treaty.

Here’s the third thing: Peace starts now.
Stay out of the past, out of guilt, recriminations, who did what to whom, stay away from blame and shame. Let the peace begin.

By this time it was dark. The candles had burned down. There were no candles left. Rashi asked me to get some icicles from across the field. I brought back four or five icicles, Rashi put them in the candle holders, lit them, and we continued learning.

Rashi said, the first light, created day one, was specially created, the light that sustains but was hidden away for the future.

As he spoke I saw him gather the light with his hands, like he was moving the air around above the flames, like he was gathering light into his arms.

james stone goodman
united states of america

Healing Prayer

A Prayer for Her Healing

All the accompanying angels appeared for her because it takes a squad
a platoon of angels, a division,
moroccan prayer beads pinned to the surgery bed,
and the general
to make a complete healing.

Later in the night when everyone sleeps
they parachute in from the east and west,
angels ascending, descending
they wander in from the coasts.
Some have satchels slung over their shoulders filled with amulets
others are entirely dreams.
All the energies converge for her
who lies silent in the dark with her mantra.

Her mantra.

It was not:
help me help me help me help me,

But it could have been.
Or it could have been another prayer for healing,
a specially created voice howling in the square
the words suspended between thought and deed,
not wishes but why not,
why not a wish,
with her hands clutched to her chest
right hand buried in the left.

Why not a wish or a prayer or a whisper,
she sneaks away for a chat with God.
Come on God, take a card
just this once

and God said

Nachman ben Tzvi


For the miracles who sit around the tables
Thursday nights

Master of the Universe,
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps — [Step 12]
We are about to have lunch. [Ex. 24:10-11]
Muse of rooted serenity and integration*
Let peace rise from the kitchen
Let us repair the world from our seats at the lunch counter.
Shall we save ourselves and not help others?
We want peace and we want it now
We are starving for it
For it and the living God
For everything that issues from Your mouth. [Deut.8:3]

We will receive each of us to our own capacity [Ex.16:21]
Along this journey of secret destinations
We who have sat long and alone
On deserts of our own and other’s making
Instruments of the working out of all things partial becoming whole
Schooled by nothing loftier than the poetry of our own lives
Our hearts unlocked because God entered through our wounds

The last place we expected.


james stone Goodman
united states of America

* Wholeness, she-lei-mut, comes through the vehicle of blessing.
The power of the upper root descends. — Sefat Emet on Noach

R. Ishmael

Thirteen Principles of Rabbi Ishmael

Rabbi Ishmael’s mother purified herself in the ritual bath, as did his father, before joining each other in bed. On one occasion she immersed herself forty times, said God to the angel Metatron, go stand before that holy woman and tell her this night she will become pregnant with a son and his name will be Ishmael.

Ishmael’s form was beautiful like the form of Metatron and every time Rabbi Ishmael wished to ascend to heaven he would pronounce the name of God.

Three of the thirteen principles open onto universals from particulars. Logic really. We wanted a way to parse our lives, from the individual to the universal. We knew that every experience, each thought might ascend to consequence, even the trivial.

We students of Rabbi Ishmael delighted in the details, the deeds, the book speaks in the language of human beings we were told.

None of us believed we had to make a case for the particular while we were living it. Still we would tell the stories of our yearnings and our waitings until many years later we saw the protecting angel standing at the doorway scribbling away or the angel of death at the foot of the bed.

The angel Michael (Who is like God?) standing to the right, the angel Gavriel (God is my strength) to the left, the angel Uriel (God is my light) in front, the angel Raphael (God is my healer) in back and above our heads –the Shekhinah.

Rabbi Ishmael returned to us with his insistence: all particulars open onto universals.

By then we knew it.

jsg, usa

The Thirty Six Are Hidden

I pulled out this story for my man Jeff, the master blaster, who just returned from Jerusalem. I dispatched him on an adventure: oud picks and mystical books from Lichtenstein’s. He brought me two oud picks, one he can’t find, and a very tasty Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer.

Master of Tales and Tunes

or The Kabbalah of Repair

Oud: eleven or twelve stringed instrument
ancestor to the lute

I turned it over in my mind for months. What was the safest way to carry my oud to Israel? I knew that if I packed it into the hard shell case, the airlines would have the option of checking it through, which they prefer to do. On the other hand, if I carried it by hand I would have to pack it into the soft case, and the soft case has no protection, but when you are carrying the instrument and laying it in the luggage bin above your head, what sort of protection do you need? This is how I figured and that is what I decided to do: carry my beloved oud in my arms, in the soft case, so that there was no chance of the airlines spiriting it away and abandoning it to the handling of the baggage druids, about whom I have heard a hundred cautionary tales from other musicians.

At Kennedy airport, we checked all our luggage and I had my hands free to clutch my instrument to my heart as I stood in the line waiting to board the TWA flight from New York to Tel Aviv. They called for boarding, allowed us to pass into the “people who need assistance boarding and small children” line, and as we were waiting to enter the plane, someone pushed me and my oud was pinned for a split second between myself and the wall of the terminal. It happened so quickly and innocently that I had to recreate the scene later to understand what had come about, but by the time I entered the airplane, I was holding my beautiful oud in my hands like a duck prepared for a Chinese feast, dead in my arms, limp neck, the headstock snapped, its carved rosette popped out of the sound hole and crashing about the bowels of the instrument. As I laid my oud to rest in its compartment over my seat, I felt the folly of all my planning, to have arrived before the trip began with the very eventuality I tried most to avoid. We hadn’t even left the United States and my instrument was broken.

By the time we arrived in Jerusalem, I had decided to pack up the pieces and ship it home to myself, and when I returned six or eight months later, I would take it to my instrument repair man who I was quite sure could fix it. I had no confidence in the ability of Israeli technicians to fix my instrument, so I didn’t bother to inquire. They hadn’t as yet created instruments as fine as mine in the Middle East, how could they repair them? One day, as I went to visit a friend in a quiet neighborhood in Jerusalem, I passed a violin repair person whose shop was just a short block away from my friend’s office. I stopped in out of curiosity and told the man about my instrument. What kind of instrument is it? he asked. I told him it was a big lute. What kind of lute? An oud, I said. Do you play it? he asked. He had heard of my teacher, and he assured me that he could fix my instrument. I brought it to him.

Two weeks later, I picked up my oud from the violin repair man. I was sad to see it, because it looked like it had been broken. It was not fixed the way my repair man would have fixed it at home. At home, I would not have seen the break, the finish would have matched perfectly, the filler undetectable. The finish the Israeli violin repair man applied was glossy while the rest of the oud was rubbed with a dull finish. I saw the separation of woods and some discoloration. He was trained in the former Soviet Union, and I wondered if he had the products available to him that we had in the United States, but I didn’t ask.

When the instrument was broken, I felt all the notes fly out of it like the letters that flew off the tablets when Moses broke them on the way down the mountain. I told this to the violin repair man, who was formal in conversation. He called me Mar Goodman (Mr. Goodman) and I called him Adon, which is a little more formal. He bowed slightly from the waist when I came into his studio. When I told him the story of the notes flying out of the oud, he smiled and said (in Hebrew), there is always that danger. Then he asked me to play for him, so I sat down in the middle of dozens of broken violins, I tuned it (he admonished me to always put pressure on both sides of the headstock equally, a technical as well as a metaphysical critique), and I began to play, slowly, tentatively.

Maybe it was the place, a single large room that opened up to the street through an opaque metal curtain that was drawn across the entire front of the studio. Perhaps it was Jerusalem, and this the first time I heard my instrument played there. Maybe it was the repair, there is a notion in the Kabbalah that a weakness when repaired is stronger than if there had never been a weakness at all. Perhaps it was the proximity to the source of sound, there is a teaching that when the rope that connects us all to the Source is cut and knotted up again, the distance is diminished.

I started to play, he closed his eyes and listened, then he asked me to play louder, turn it up please he said in Hebrew, and I played a little louder. I heard a sound I had never heard before emerge from my instrument. Do you hear? he said. Yes, it’s beautiful, I said, in Hebrew. Thank you, he said, in English. He was smiling an impish smile, as if the secret of the broken oud and its music was something familiar to him, something that we had now shared. He had gathered the notes back into the instrument after fluttering around his studio. His name, by the way, was a Russian name that means heart of the strings. Heart of the strings had returned the notes to my oud. Ahhhhh, he said.

I left heart of the strings, and I walked out into the darkening Jerusalem evening clutching my oud to my chest. It was almost night, the sun making its way home in the west. I walked slowly up Palmach Street, past the Islamic Museum, past the President’s House, that’s where I saw him, just on the other side of the President’s house, before I came to Wingate Square.

He was walking in front of me, it was now dark dark, he took advantage of the deep breath that the city exhales at nightfall and appeared without anyone noticing. But I am sure that I saw him. He walked like an old man but he may have been young, bound up with muscles. He was carrying a notebook with the stories and songs of Jerusalem under his arm, a hat on his head, he walked slowly and methodically ahead of me. In his notebook were not only the stories, but the interpretations, the obvious and the non-obvious, the known stories and the unknown, and the notes that had returned to my instrument in a way I had never imagined them.

james stone goodman
united states of america

Commit: Shabbes Inspiration Pinchas

O Holy Shabbes Inspiration Pinchas

You know we are dreaming peace all the time now
the evidence of that broken vav
in the word shalom of brit shalom [Numbers 25:12]
that may be what’s holding it up

Let’s fix the vav in the brit shalom
the covenant of peace
this reward that is given to you Pinchas

You were rewarded the priesthood
for that unseemly act [Numbers 25:7 ff.]
so what is it — this covenant of peace
the near peace and the far peace [Isaiah 57:19]
with the far peace you have confidence in the future
the near peace is more elusive
but HEY –

The near peace the inward peace
also elusive
the far peace
they’re negotiating a world away
here we are praying
working our gardens and our abs

I have to ask you Pinchas
son of Eleazar son of Aaron
what kind of peace maker might you be
priest-man you ran them through
— that guy and his girlfriend —
killed them both
you love an argument
your reward the priesthood
what about that diminished yud in your name [Numbers 25:11]
something unfinished in you Pinchas
we need you but we need you

Hey Pinchas
that darn vav in shalom seems so broken right now
K’TIA! I holler [K’tia = broken]
remember the perfect vav before its brokenness
the sign of connection
sometimes I feel so hollow and broken too
K’tia! on me
when I feel this way
restore me when I am broken
use your language to integrate
the power of blessing
use your words to make peace out of the pieces
lift up the lower union to join the upper union
that’s vav in its complete form
the connector

It connects in form
up and down the straight line vav
heavens to earth
the vertical link
It connects in context
the horizontal, the holy and
vav ha-chibur
the vav meaning and
Pinchas – fix that vav
restore the brokenness between us
within us
the and
the vertical

Oh priest-man fix it all
if you can’t I will
I’m working on it
me and all my pals
we are whole even when broken
and ready
we’re working it

I’m trying to end this prayer
but I can’t
I’m waiting for new language
something horizontal
[vertical too]
the repair of the near and the repair of the far
suggesting something
entirely new
out of the old might rise
something like –

And And And


*I am no Pinchas
maybe the son of a Pinchas

Gigs: The Oldest Synagogue in the World

Dear Marian showed up to learn and told a story about a synagogue she visited in NYC.
Hey I’ve been there, but lately only from the third floor. I wrote a story about it.
It turned out to be a different place.

Gig Tonight

Linda showed up at the end of the gig and asked if I wanted to go on an adventure.

Where to?

The oldest synagogue in New York City, someone bought it and turned it into a foundation and an artist’s studio. [she exaggerates but who cares]

Sounds great.

It’s way downtown, way down on the lower East Side, she said, below the letters [Avenues A,B, C]. We took cabs. Jake the bass player came too, and Judah from Brooklyn, and Daniel the artist.

We found the street, carrying all our instruments, in the middle of the block, dark, set back behind a black metal gate. It certainly looks like a synagogue but it reads The Orensanz Foundation. What the heck is Orensanz. . . I mumbled.

The name of the two brothers who bought it, Linda said.

Standing out in front of its dark exterior on Norfolk street, waiting for someone to answer the buzzer, I was as cold as I have ever been in my entire life. No gloves, I hate it when my hands get cold. I felt as if I were standing naked on an ice flow. It was February, New York City, but it felt like February, Rejkavik. The temperature had plummeted forty degrees from afternoon to night that particular day, and my bones froze standing out in front of the Orensanz Foundation, midnight, after the gig on Fourteenth Street. We stood waiting on the street, in the dark, for someone to come from somewhere within the labyrinth of the dark edifice looming above us. Open the door.

There were handwritten notes attached to the gate: ring loud, I am within, but deep within. Ring ring, no response, climbing he was through a series of ascending palaces of subterranean mist to reach land-level.

Ring ring. A light from within, a door opened and silhouetted in the doorway a man with a natty thin-brim hat. Cardigan sweater. Scarf.

He opened the front door, come into my office, he said. His office was to the right as we entered. I peeped to the left into the large empty room, the synagogue I guessed, it was dark but I could see a shadowy presence and its three story ascent in the darkness. On top a luminescent dome that glowed blue in the dark.

His accent was a combination of Latino, eastern European, Pee Wee’s Funhouse, I thought it was completely contrived and someone’s private joke. It sounded like one of my accents. In his office, large industrial space heaters hanging from the ceiling. Pictures on the walls of Sarah Jessica Somebody’s wedding, who Mr. Orensanz referred to several times as one of his finest moments as landlord. I gathered he rented the space out to parties for New York’s hip elite. Poof Daddy was here last night. Poof Daddy was here last night, he said twice, great party. MTV loves it here.

Joke? I looked at Linda. No joke, Linda looked back at me. Joke? I looked at Judah. I have no idea, Judah looked back at me, shrugging his shoulders. Joke? I looked at Jake the bass player. Good joke, Jake looked back at me, great joke, fabulous joke.

Orensanz was describing his brother’s sculpture, for which the synagogue was purchased in order to house his studio. Where is your brother now?

Paris. He went back to naming the celebrities who were having parties in his synagogue.

I snuck out of the office and into the dark synagogue to the left. The floors were wood and not refinished, as were the columns that ran the length of the room in two parallel rows. The columns were carved out of small facets in shapes that looked like fine tile-work, but it was not tile, it was wood, small carved facets of color carved out of the wood pillars. I realized that the entire ceiling and upper walls were formed out of these colorful miniaturized facets. The colors – magenta, scarlet, purple, yellow, and the dome a shimmering blue like God’s holy eyes.

There was no heat at all in the synagogue space. I unpacked my guitar and sat down on the steps that led up to the bimah. I began to play. First I played a couple of serpentine Ladino melodies, I switched to some oud-inspired improvisations, the notes of my instrument ascending slowly up into the dome space and raising a holy sweet savor to God’s nose, ears, eyes. For the second time that night, I began the love songs that make up the slow-hand Havdalah ceremony that I had recently learned for just these occasions, and by now the group who had been huddling in the office had followed the sound and wandered into the synagogue.

Mr. Orensanz the brother switched on a bank of what looked like make-up lights that ran in a row above the columns along two side walls and the rear wall of the synagogue. Not too much light, but enough to note the floors, the walls, the columns, the facets were original and not reconditioned, original structures, the empty floor a rough parquet unfinished, whose footprints?

Daniel the artist was examining the columns and the collusion of colors in the facets around the room. Everyone was walking slowly examining the shadowy recesses. Jake the bass player unpacked his instrument, sat down next to me, and began to accompany my playing.

I started to sing in Ladino again, a medieval Spanish garnished with Hebrew, Turkish, Greek, Arabic. I sang love songs, sad songs of longing, songs of exile, and I noticed that Mr. Orensanz was standing near one of the columns to my right, weeping at the sound of his ancestral language and the music of the post-exilic longing of his predecessors.

Soon everyone stopped wandering around the room and stood stationary, each in place, like players on a big game board, lit not-lit by the light casting shadows, faces dark.

I sang and they listened this way for forty five minutes. No longer did I notice the temperature, it was cold but we raised a fire in our rooted souls, the sound rose through the dome and into the space where the music rested. We sang and played into the shadows for forty five minutes.

When we finished, we quietly filed out into the New York City night, a hush having fallen over all of us, including Mr. Orensanz, who asked if I would like to record in his synagogue. Poof Daddy.

On the street, I began to freeze up again. I had no idea where we were, but several blocks later we came to the celebrated Katz’s delicatessen. We took a ticket and went and sat in the cavernous dining room, next to a table of young musicians recently come in no doubt from their own show, in black leather, studs, chains, tattoos and piercings.

One of them glanced at me carrying my instruments. Gig tonight? he asked.

Yeah, I said, great gig. You?

Me too, he said, nodding his head up and down. We smiled at each other. Later, I watched him walk out the front door and disappear into the night like a raven.

James Stone Goodman
United States of America

The Inevitable Return of Nests

Someone asked me to post the eulogy I spoke for Le’ad.
I don’t feel right doing that just now
but need to put some other work
here inspired by him.


God of Nests

To Le’ad 1988-2007

O God of the inevitable return of nests
Resting places on the ground
Drawings on rocks
Twigs stacked in a field

The forest fronting a nest
Arms holding the upper worlds
A circle of limbs

Holy God of stacked rocks
O God Smacked up against place
Stones marking release
Sticks returning

jsg, usa
April 27, 2007

and this

What to do with our hands
When our souls are in motion
The candle of multiple wicks
Bound up together

The souls over the divide
When we die
God like a river flowing

How to track the heroic stories
Water through a rock

What to do when
The nests return to the trees
Where to meet the fragile God of nests

April 27, 2007

Commit: Came to Curse — Come to Bless

O holy Shabbes Inspiration Balak
in which Balak King of Moab brings the prophet Bilaam
from the north to curse and he blesses

I think he was a real prophet [Sifre on Deut. 357]
though I don’t think he spoke God
that is — he didn’t bless
he didn’t curse
he didn’t have the power of either [Meam Loez]
words do not curse
there is no such power
we will defeat ourselves
if left alone

Nor did he have the power to bless
because we were already blessed [Meam Loez]

Something missing in his vision don’t you know
he was blind in one eye [Numbers 24:3 and Sanh. 15a]
he was missing the eye that sees his own smallness
with his good eye he saw the greatness of God
he was that kind of prophet [Hacohen al HaTorah, v.4, p.115]

The text doesn’t say outright
that the donkey made human sounds
surely the presence of God communicated to Bilaam
through the donkey
as if the animal had spoken
or maybe it was all a vision [Guide II:42]

The mouth on that donkey
another of the ten miracles
created in the in-between time [Avot 5:9]
not the six days not the Sabbath either
between the suns the between-time
part day knowledge part night knowledge
built into Creation at the mystery time
miracles to appear when necessary
like stem cells
like transplants
like the cures we are waiting for
like the peace we are praying for
when we howl WHEN
we want a hurry-up
something wonderful we are waiting for
created but not-present
like the mouth of Bilaam’s donkey speaking
when it came time for the animal to speak
it spoke

I don’t think he was a magician or a sorceror either
though Joshua did [Joshua 13:22]
not magic we are yearning for
we are waiting for science
we are yearning for discovery
my daughter told this to the guys in the legislature
but they do not think that far
they do not see the future
and they have false certainty about the past
when it’s time when it’s time
they will never get that
it’s always God’s time don’t they know
aha – God says – here it comes
we built it in at the beginning
it was created so to speak to appear in its time
and you will not interfere with that
I have made miracles already

Bilaam was like Job
a prophet among the nations [Tanna debei Eliahu 28]
the world can never accuse us
of monopolizing prophecy
would that they were all prophets
there are so few of them nowadays
within and without the camp

In the hospital the old rebbe said
is that we are doing?
just giving language to what we know?
take the just out of that sentence, I said.
we are giving language
to what we know
a vocabulary

I really loved the tents of those people
said Bilaam in his most famous passage
we quote him first thing in the prayers
you know how the tents were [Baba Batra 87a]
not one tent opening looking into any other tent opening
community and individuality
we worked it out as a people

As a person —
ma tovu oholekha Yaakov
how good are your tents O Jacob
the singular
respect the individual
mishkenotekha the places where you dwell O Israel
— the peoplehood the community
we worked out the confluence of the two

That’s what Bilaam saw and that’s what he blessed
here is your blessing, Bilaam said
now you have words for it
first, you are already blessed

Secondly, you are bound to each other
none of your tents open onto one another
you are never alone when you are alone

I can’t see into your tent
but I know you’re there