The Big Ask

a poetry collection
by Rich Orloff

The poems in this collection have been presented in synagogues and churches, read at meditation and yoga groups, printed in magazines and anthologies, and spoken at events both lofty and intimate.  Many of them were initially commissioned by Rabbi Michael Dolgin of Temple Sinai in Toronto.

In the spring of 2023, I began sharing one poem each week via email.  Below are the ones I’ve shared so far.  If you’d like to be added to the list to receive my poems each week, email me via the Contact button on my website. 

Feel free to share these poems, and if you’re part of a spiritual organization, to use them in any way that benefits your community.  (Please acknowledge me as author.)  I want these poems to reach anyone who will find value in them.

The Big Ask

To God
To my ancestors
To anyone who will listen
I ask and pray for this:

Bless me with a peace
That’s deeper than happiness
That makes room for profound sorrow
That accepts pain and loss
That’s not dependent on good news

Bless me with a peace
That comforts me when I feel anguish
That steadies me when I feel uncertain
That expands me when I think small
That finds a way through my fiercest resistance

Bless me with a peace
That stretches beyond my horizons
That heals even if I can’t explain why
That offers delight as an everyday gift
That allows me to see blessings

Bless me with a peace
That is a refuge from torment
That is an oasis from yearning
That is a sanctuary from trauma
That transcends all else
But never denies all else

Bless me with a peace
That renews my gratitude for life
And that I can access
Every time I let you in

What I Can Offer You

I cannot fix your pain
I cannot solve your problem
I can’t prevent the sorrow you’re feeling
Or even guarantee I’ll make you smile

However, because I’ve known
Joy embracing me and disappearing in the middle of the night
Feeling safe and despairing if I’ll ever feel safe again
Lowering my guard and being ambushed by camouflaged demons

And because I’ve also known
The miracle of healing when pain seemed inescapable
The joy of connection when isolation had me surrounded
Love returning and apologizing for its absence

Because I have experienced enough No in my life
To understand tragedy

Because I have been surprised by enough Yes in my life
To maintain hope

Because I’ve known
All these things
And more

I will gladly hold your hand
So you don’t have to face the pains of life alone
And I will wait with you patiently
Until the next miracle arrives

A Psalm of Smiles

Imagine every blade of grass smiling at you
Imagine the leaves on the trees smiling at you
Imagine the clouds smiling at you
Imagine what’s behind the clouds smiling at you, too

Imagine people smiling at you
Some smiling with uninhibited joy
Some smiling with bashful grins
Some no longer on earth but whose souls still smile

Imagine that even those who have blockaded their hearts
Who live in the relentless chill of self-protection
Even they have a place inside of them
That yearns to smile at you

Imagine the Invisible smiling at you
A smile that cannot be contained
A smile that is everlasting
A smile infinite in depth

Imagine all of these smiles
And if you’re uncertain or even terrified how to respond
Just take a breath
And smile back

A Prayer Under a Tree

I lay under a tree the other day
A big tree
And I looked at a single leaf

I imagined I was the leaf
And I imagined the leaf saying:
I’m not like the leaves on those branches far from me
I am my own leaf

Then I looked at the whole tree
And the thousands of leaves on the tree
And I looked at myself again
and thought:

Forgive me for the sin of believing
in the illusion of independence
Forgive me for pretending I’m not attached
to something larger than just me
Forgive me for confusing uniqueness
with separation
Forgive me for resenting all the reminders
I can’t do this by myself

Bless my tree, even if I can’t control it
Thank you for the majesty of its branches
And the strength of its roots
And the good fortune
That I was born as part of something so beautiful

A Psalm of Pizza

While waiting with great anticipation
For the cheese pizza I ordered
Because I am consumed with hunger
And I really need this pizza

God knocks on my door

I open the door
And God says
I offer you the universe and all of its wonders
And I offer you life’s greatest gift, love

That’s nice, I reply
But I was really expecting a cheese pizza
And I’m very hungry
Where’s my cheese pizza, God?

God smiles, in that inscrutable way God does
And leaves
Continuing a lonely mission to go door to door
Offering the universe and love to all who will receive it

While over and over
People respond with disappointment to God’s offering
Because they were expecting a cheese pizza
And God didn’t deliver their prayer

A Place at the Table
(also published as A Prayer About the Meeting)

When it’s time to hold the meeting
Give fear a place at the table
When fear feels estranged from your gatherings
It only works harder to be let in

When it’s time to hold the meeting
Give grief a place at the table
Grief is only passing through
It has healing powers like no other

When it’s time to hold the meeting
Give anger a place at the table
Let it shout till it loses its voice
Only then can it give up and listen

When it’s time to hold the meeting
Give joy a place at the table
Do not ask it to justify its presence
Or it will quickly run away

When it’s time to hold the meeting
Give ego a place at the table
But for God’s sake, don’t hand it the gavel
Treat it with respect; it’s a warrior for your wounds

And whatever you do
When it’s time to hold the meeting
Make sure you keep one seat empty
A stranger may appear
Bringing gifts of wisdom, mercy and grace
Only then
Will the meeting be ready to begin

As I Approach You with Wonder

We are gifts we give each other,
You and I
Fragile even if appearing sturdy
But stronger than we have convinced ourselves we are

I have been with others
Who are reluctant to reveal more than a sliver
Even in intimate situations

I have also been the person
Reluctant to reveal myself
Or to delve into the mystery
Of who I might be
Beyond the identity I cling to

So I do not take your gift for granted
I know it is unique
Beautiful to behold
And somewhat damaged by time

And if at times I vanish behind a wall
This is not disrespect
Just caution
I’ve had my gift exchanged for rhinestones
Or treated as if it had an expiration date

As we work up the courage
To unveil the beauty of our weirdness
As we mix our majesty with our vulnerability
Let us release ourselves from the known
So we can embrace each other’s soul

The Snake’s New Skin

The snake
Having shed its skin
May for a moment
Feel liberated and free

But I think it’s just as likely
The snake may think
I’m so vulnerable
What the hell did I do that for?

The snake may even mourn its old skin
The comfort and security it provided
But there is no going back
Neither for the snake nor for I

Which is why I’m shuddering
Desperate to quickly grow a new skin

The new skin will be large enough
To protect all that I have become
But if I’m lucky
One day that skin will become uncomfortable
And the process will begin again

A Message from Your Biggest Fan

God whispers in my soul:

I’m rooting for you
Delighting when you succeed
Understanding when you fail
Appreciating each effort
Loving your desire to heal

When I created you
I placed in you both Animal and the Divine
A potent mix that can be
A challenge to access
And too overwhelming to reveal

I watch you struggle
In the wilderness of your mind
Hiding from parts of yourself
That you don’t understand
Or were taught to disown

I see the agony you cause yourself
By unreasonable demands
I see the pain caused
By what others claimed were gifts
But which were Trojan horses of sorrow

I also see the wonder of your soul
The fierceness of your strength
The tenderness of your wounds
The brilliance of your imagination
The majesty embedded in each cell

I want nothing less for you
Than for you to find a way
To reunite with all of you
So that you can sit in wonder
At the miracle of your creation

A Psalm about the Gift

Looking out the window
Feeling grateful
I wonder
What have I done to deserve life

Nothing, I hear
It’s a gift
Gifts are not earned
They’re gifts, not rewards

I confess I am so afraid that this gift will be taken from me
I often forget how to make full use of it

All gifts are temporary
Even if they last a lifetime
The only way to appreciate such a gift
Is to enjoy it

A Psalm of Stumbling

As I lay on the ground
My knee lightly skinned
My ego deeply bruised
I hear:

Do not beat yourself up
For making a wrong turn
When you trip and fall
On your way to where you wish to go

Know the destination will not vanish
Know that the path wasn’t meant to be smooth
Rejoice in every step you’ve taken so far
Learn how life looks when close to the ground

Welcome other travelers you meet
Notice how full of bruises they are
Bruises are inevitable
If you leave the box you came in

As you get up to continue your journey
Leave a note for the next stumbler
In print large enough
For anyone to read:

I’ve been here, too

A Prayer for Choosing a Shepherd
(a response to Psalm 23)

Unlike sheep
Each of us gets to choose our shepherd

I have sampled many shepherds
And haven’t always chosen wisely

I have chosen ego as my shepherd
And confined myself to a path no wider than I am

I have chosen tribalism as my shepherd
And refused to look beyond borders of my own making

I have chosen comfort as my shepherd
And convinced myself to be satisfied with meager grazing

I have chosen obligation as my shepherd
And filled my path with resentment

I have chosen distrust as my shepherd
And viewed every other sheep as a possible threat

I have chosen fear of rejection as my shepherd
And convinced myself I am still a fragile little lamb

I have chosen fear of death as my shepherd
And prevented myself from seeing how beautiful the land is

If I allow the Divine to become my shepherd
This choice stems not from wisdom
But from the simple admission
Of how poor my choices have been so far

Still, as I consider choosing the Divine as my shepherd
I fear the Divine will turn me into a sheep
Or one day banish me from the flock
Or even lead me to slaughter

As I wonder who to choose
I see that God has already chosen me
I stand before the Divine
Praying for the courage to trust my shepherd

A Psalm about Grappling

Grapple with me, says God
I do not ask you to believe in me
Or extol me
Or worship me
These are orders humans have decreed

But grapple with me
Not for my sake
But for yours

Would you feel you lived if you had never seen the color blue
(and you had a chance)
Would you feel you lived if you had never heard music
(and you had a chance)
I offer you this opportunity
To grapple with me

And if you don’t know how to start
Ask questions
What are my dimensions?
Where do I reside?
What are my office hours?

Ask patiently
Then ask again
Ask a third time, just for fun
Ask a fourth time, just in case
And a fifth time, so asking can become a habit

Grapple with me
I may not provide the answers you wish for
But if you let me
I will show you the colors and sounds you’ve missed

A Prayer for the Damaged Soul

If I had a damaged foot
I wouldn’t tell myself
Just ignore it
Or pretend that it’s fine
I would take care of it as best I could
Not letting it define my life
But knowing that it needs tending and love

Perhaps this is the attitude I need
To cultivate towards my damaged soul
Which I’ve tried to ignore
Which I’ve hid in shame
Which I’ve tried to bandage over
Which I’ve vehemently disowned

Although I can forgive myself for wishing
That my soul was pristine
There are dents in my soul
There are scars over wounds
There is soft throbbing pain
Intractably woven into my soul’s beauty

I apologize to my soul for my neglect
I apologize for refusing to accept it as it is
I apologize for comparing it to a myth
Of what my soul should look like

I am the caretaker of my soul
This is nobody’s job but mine
I ask my soul for forgiveness
And pray my soul will respond with mercy

A Psalm Admitting Reluctance

Sometimes I think that my reluctance to believe in God
Is nothing more than adolescent spite
A scoop of “You can’t make me believe in you”
In a cup of “I’m in control here”
With a dollop of “If you’re so divine, why aren’t I happier?”

It’s as if I’m saying
“I’ll believe in you if…”
As if God might say,
“I gave you the heavens and the earth and the miracle of life
But if that’s not enough
Here’s another fifty bucks
Now are you satisfied?”

I’d love to scapegoat God
And bring God down to size
Beneath it all
I yearn for God to say “I’m sorry”

(Although I suspect that if God ever did apologize to me
I’d be awestruck
Or possibly just embarrassed
That God called my bluff)

Perhaps I’m simply afraid
To leave the solitary confinement of my ego
And allow myself be released into the vastness of the unknown

It’s like I want a pre-nup
Before I’m willing to have a relationship with the Divine
And say
Yes, I will give you my love

A Confession about How I Spent My Day

Some days, I confess,
My thinking goes like this:

Life is this beautiful thing
That I really hope to get around to
When I have the time

But first I need to check my email
See what’s happening on Facebook
And take a glance at the news
(I would hate to get behind in keeping up)

I have work to do
So many chores I’ve been putting off
A few texts I want to send
And something important to share with my Facebook friends

After a while I feel exhausted
From all the energy I’ve expended
Not to mention deciding which emails to respond to today
And which I’ll put off till later

So I need to watch a little TV
Or perhaps a YouTube video
And of course, taking a moment
To find out how many people have responded to my Facebook post

At the end of the day I feel so pleased
With all I’ve accomplished
I look at Life
Waiting patiently in the corner
And I resolve that I really hope to get around to it tomorrow…
If I can find the time

A Prayer to Make Space for the Divine
(a response to Psalm 16)

As it is possible to walk through a field
Without seeing the grass
So it is possible to walk through life
Without seeing the Divine

I do not wish to believe in you
What I desire is to experience you
Not an idea in a prayer book
But a presence I can touch

Not above me
But beside me
Opposite me
Facing me
Surrounding me
Inside me
Not me
But available to me

Even if you are beyond definition
You are always within reach
Let me make a place for you
Let me be open to your voice

As I venture into scary places
Let me sense you alongside me
My prayer is simple:
Let your breath become my strength

Why We Gather

On a Saturday morning in April 2021
A member of my synagogue
Opened the ark containing the Torah
And a rabbinic intern took it out and held it in her arms

Jews have been opening the ark and taking out the Torah
For thousands upon thousands of Saturday mornings
But this was the first time it happened at my synagogue
Since the pandemic began over a year earlier

The cantor looked at the rabbinic intern and said
“You’ve been with us ten months now,
and I just realized this is the first time we’ve met in person.”
The intern began to weep

Since both of her hands were holding the Torah
The rabbi took out a handkerchief and wiped her tears
This only made the intern cry more
So the rabbi wiped her tears again

Still gripped by the pandemic
Most of the congregation watched the service on Zoom
A few of us, sitting six feet apart from each other
In a space that had been chilled from lack of human warmth
Were not just witnesses
But the first of many returning from exile

Which is what people have done
Whenever they can
In one way or another
For thousands upon thousands of Sabbaths and holidays
In search of sanctuary

A Prayer for the New Year

As the New Year approaches, I pray:
May I be more open to love
Recognizing it in its myriad of disguises
Letting it sneak through guarded borders to soothe my wounded soul

May I be more open to life
Not comparing it to my unreasonable fantasy
Of what life should be
But embracing life as one would a tender child doing their best

May I be more open to myself
Admitting my foibles and respecting their place in the constellation
May I deepen trust in my friends
And notice every time I meet a trustworthy stranger

May I let go of grievances that have become relics of history
Accepting that the past can never be changed
May I lose my attraction to suffering
And resist its seductive lure

May I nurture and encourage others
May I enjoy forgiveness
May I embrace grace
May I allow love to inspire action

May I be inscribed in the Book of Life
But as importantly
In each day and with each breath
May the Book of Life be inscribed inside me

A Prayer for Diving into the Muck

As the Days of Awe approach,
A voice inside me tells me:
Don’t rush over the muck!

The muck is where the juicy stuff is
Here you can unearth treasures
Hidden under the cover of mud

Here you will find a large set of keys
Most won’t help you at all
But one will unlock doors to brighter days

Here you will find an old packet of seeds
That if planted in your soil
Can still blossom into beautiful flowers

Here you find remnants of old loves
Pressed in books that have been discarded
But which can still teach and inspire

Here you will find the missing part of your heart
Waiting like a piece of luggage
Whose claim tag you threw away years ago

Here you will also find your shadow
And your shadow’s shadow
Hard coarse rocks that can be buffed into beautiful gems

I pray for the courage to dive into the muck
And to know that anything I discover
Can be washed with my tears until it glistens

(More poems related to the Jewish High Holy Days can be found here.)

A Prayer for the Glass of Love

Years ago a voice inside told me:
When you are offered a glass of love
Don’t spit it out

I confess I can’t count how many times
I’ve been offered a glass of love
I notice a little gunk on the rim
I don’t like the look of the glass
I’d rather to be thirsty
What I was really hoping for
Was a glass of ego

Sometimes I don’t even notice when
A glass of love is offered me
Sometimes I ask
Does it come another flavor
Before I even taste the flavor being offered

Forgive me for desiring love
While rejecting it
Forgive me for demanding love
While refusing it

Forgive me for each time I forget to say
Thank for you for this glass of love
Let me bless this glass and its contents
And the divinity of the person offering me
This exquisite gift

Forgive me for being so afraid
I’ll never be offered another glass of love again
That I may not notice
It’s being offered to me at this very moment

Morning Prayer

I awaken
Open my eyes
And a divine voice
Says to me:

Look at the clouds
Look at the sky
Look at the horizon
I give you these

Look at a stranger’s smile
Hear a friend’s warm words
Feel a loved one’s embrace
I give you these

And if you’re thinking
Yeah, but what about…
And what about…
I admit these are fair questions

Your questioning mind
Yearning for answers
Hoping for a better world
I give you that, too

Daily Prayer

Thank you for this day
May I be aware of all of its blessings
May I notice each moment of love
May I appreciate each breath
May I see beyond my fears
May I recognize beauty
May I receive each molecule of joy offered
May I absorb kindness
May I not sabotage the happiness of myself or others

For the blessings of this day
I give thanks in advance
Today is an opportunity to experience
The miracle of every moment

Evening Prayer

May I recognize the blessings of this day
And of my life

May I absorb the blessings of this day
And of my life

May I always have access to the wisdom gained today
And use these blessings tomorrow

As I share my blessings with others
One love at a time
Till love blossoms into a field of joy
Covering the earth

The Call

Sometimes when I’m called on a mission
I pretend I’m not in
And let my voicemail take a message

I listen to the voicemail over and over
Trying my best to come up with excuses
That can be disguised as valid reasons
Not to answer the call

I look at my schedule and convince myself
I don’t have time for a mission
Besides, I can’t believe the Divine has really called me
This must be a crank call

The call comes again
And again I don’t pick up the phone
Caller ID claims the call is coming from
I Am Who I Am
What a clever disguise, I think

Behind all of my defenses
Is fear
Behind the fear
Is disbelief
That I could ever accomplish the mission well

Once again the phone rings
Once again after that
I finally pick up the phone and ask
Are you sure you have the right number?
And I hear
You’ll find out

An Existential Request

I know you have a great deal to tell me
I’m sure you have a lot of thoughts running through your brain
But if you can take a moment
Let’s just exist

I know that sounds challenging
There are so many places your mind wants to go
But if you can summon the courage
Let’s just exist

I know there’s much pain in your past
And yearnings for your future
But if you can spare a moment between what was and what might be
Let’s just exist

I know there are things you want to do
And you want to make the most of each second
But if you’re willing to transcend the fear of missing out
Let’s just exist

I’m not sure you see me fully
Or want me to see the full you
I’m willing to risk it if you are
Let’s just exist

The Replica                           

I believe in the Commandment
Not to worship false idols
But some of them are so shiny and famous
They obstruct my view of the Divine

I think the god I was raised to worship
Was only a replica of God
So popular in my neighborhood
That my parents felt obligated to believe

Rooted in their identity
Not in their experience
Their God was a concept
Backed up by stories with plot holes I was supposed to ignore

I hesitate opening the door to God
Because I fear the replica will enter
And my disappointment will be so deep
That I’d prefer atheism to this second-rate deity

I open the door just a crack
Praying to connect
Not with a replica
But with the tantalizing incomprehensibility
Of the Divine

Reflections from a Bed of Leaves

On a crisp autumn day
A friend and I walk into the woods
We enjoy the crunch of leaves beneath our feet
And suddenly we enter an unknown place
Where the leaves don’t seem taller
But the ground is further below than we thought

With each step we sink further into the leaves
Until, with big smiles on our faces
We decide to lean back and let the leaves catch us

Lying in a thick bed of leaves
Swaddled by their embrace
We look up at the naked trees around us
And see not only limbs and branches
But also little capillary branches
Looking so fragile but having the strength
To endure wind and cold

I wonder how much people are like trees
We see how they appear covered with leaves
Do we see their roots
Do we understand how much of them is beneath the surface
Intertwined with the roots of others
Nourished by soil thousands of years old

As I relax into this bed of leaves
My body comfortable and warm
I wonder
Is this what it would feel like
If I let my soul relax into God

Eden Revisited

I realized today that
Perhaps I have been interpreting the Garden of Eden story wrong
Perhaps it is not about human failing
But about entrapment

Yes, Adam and Eve were instructed not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge
But their Creator must have known how they would act
So the Eternal was either quite a tease
Or at least a manipulative teacher

Perhaps God was saying
Yes, I know paradise is attractive
But let’s face it
You don’t belong here

After all,
If the Army Corps of Engineers were stationed in paradise
They’d want to reroute rivers and add dams

If real estate moguls lived in paradise
They’d want to build skyscrapers
And charge extra for apartments with good views

If many religious leaders were in charge of paradise
They’d install a turnstile
Designed to keep most people out

And if I ruled paradise (not that I’m asking)
I don’t know exactly how I’d screw up
But I’d become so stressed with the responsibility
That I wouldn’t enjoy it one bit

By putting the Tree of Knowledge in paradise
The Eternal had to know the consequences
Which is more than can usually be said
When human beings are put in charge

A Blessing for Impermanent Structures

On the occasion of my friends’ first sukkah together:

Even though this structure isn’t built to last forever
I’m grateful for the shelter it gives
I’m in awe of how little pieces of wood and hinges
combine to become something much stronger
I rejoice in its existence

Even though my body isn’t built to last forever
I’m grateful for how magnificently it houses my soul
I’m in awe of its amazingly sophisticated engineering
I rejoice in its existence

Even though our planet wasn’t created to last forever
And even if it’s not destroyed by human malfeasance
It’s predicted to be consumed by the sun in 7.5 billion years
(Which is why I haven’t made plans for the year 7.5 billion and 23)
I’m still grateful for how brilliantly it supports life
I’m in awe of how delicately woven all of its parts are
I rejoice in its existence

A toast to my friends as they mark
A new step in their building relationship
And even if it’s unlikely to last until the year 7.5 billion and 23
I’m grateful for how the efforts of two people working together
become something much stronger
I’m in awe of the human desire to connect and bond
And I rejoice in their love

And let us say Amen

18 Seconds

I wonder how our lives would be different
If each time we were thanked or complimented
We spent the next 18 seconds in silence
Taking in what we just heard

Instead of replying “thank you”
Or saying something self-deprecatory
Or saying something nice about the person who just spoke
Or changing the subject…

We just absorbed what we heard
We thought about the impact we have on others
We acknowledged that in some way, large or small
We’ve made a contribution to the world

Thanks for receiving this poem
Thanks for all you’ve done to expand my life
Thanks for your wonderful contribution
Whether intentional or accidental

I ask for nothing back except
If you can spare the next 18 seconds
Do nothing except
Know how much I appreciate you


All poems copyright © 2023, 2024 Rich Orloff