Elevating Voices: Creative High Holiday Offerings

A Shofar OfferingShofar’s Cry: Sarah and Hagar Speak
This is an interpretive Torah experience for Rosh Hashanah, incorporating Hagar’s story from the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and the Akedah, which we read on the second day. This is designed to be read aloud by two people, each taking one of the parts. It would work well on Zoom as well as in person. Please feel free to use it with attribution.

A Haftarah Offering – Hearing in our Hearts: Hannah’s Story
Some prayers are spoken and some are silent. Our Amidah, our private prayer to God, is distinctive. It is whispered because it is based on the prayers of Hannah, who was infertile. Hannah ached so desperately for a child that she couldn’t voice her pleas to God. In Tosefta Brachot, the rabbis said, “Hannah spoke in her heart,” meaning that her lips moved, but sound did not escape them.

We read Hannah’s story on Rosh Hashanah. There are times when it hurts too much for me to hear it, and there are times when hearing it makes me feel less alone, and reminds me that this suffering links me to generations of ancestors who dealt with the same thing.

I was thinking about how the words of her prayers aren’t written in the text and I realized it’s because we know them by heart too. Every person who has struggled with infertility, who has miscarried, who has yearned that deeply: we know.

If you want to use this in your shul for the holidays, you’re welcome to, with attribution. The quoted pieces are from 1 Samuel. If you’re in the same place as me this year – praying with Hannah – please know that your prayers are mine as well. May the Womb of the World hear our longing this year, and may the new year bring new life to us all.

“You Can Close Your Eyes”

Thanks to Bury Me in New Jersey for interviewing me about Virtual Memory Circles, the “What Have We Lost?” video, and grief in a virtual world. Check out the podcast episode below by scrolling down to “You Can Close Your Eyes.”

St. Thomas Bury Me In NJ

This week’s episode features hospice nurse and clinical manager at Hospice of the Chesapeake, Monica Hastings. During our conversation, Monica explains the services that hospice offers patients and families towards the end of life, the misconceptions/fear surrounding this field, and how working in death work has totally changed her outlook on life.Produced by Nick Rumaczyk. Theme music: “P to the A” by Anonymous Novels.
  1. St. Thomas
  2. The Long & Winding Road
  3. Paper Roses
  4. Canon in D
  5. You Can Close Your Eyes

What Have We Lost?

On July 30, 2020, I invited people to share up to five things they’ve lost since COVID-19, in just a few words each, in observance of Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning on the Jewish calendar. Over 25 hours, 95 people shared their losses anonymously in a Google Form. These are some of the results.

Thank you to everyone who contributed. May we swiftly return to a time of life, a time of touch, and a time of healing. If the video moves you, please share.

Holding the Shattered Pieces

“Suffering breaks our hearts. But there are two quite different ways for the heart to break. There’s the brittle heart that breaks apart into a thousand shards, a heart that takes us down as it explodes and is sometimes thrown like a grenade at the source of its pain. Then there’s the supple heart, the one that breaks open, not apart, growing into greater capacity for the many forms of love. Only the supple heart can hold suffering in a way that opens to new life.” 

I’ve been thinking about this teaching from Parker Palmer a lot lately. Yesterday was the 17th of Tammuz. Traditionally, this is a Jewish fast day commemorating the breach of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple.  It also marks the beginning of the three-week mourning period leading up to Tisha b’Av, the day when the first and second Temples were destroyed. These three weeks are known as Bein ha’Metzarim, between the narrows. No Jewish marriages or other celebrations are allowed at this time, since the joy of these occasions conflicts with the mood of mourning.

The 17th of Tammuz also arrives 40 days after Shavuot. This is the day when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai and found that the Israelites had built a golden calf while he was receiving the Torah. Moses was furious and he shattered the tablets. He went back up the mountain, and the Israelites went back to…waiting. Waiting with their grief, their fear, and their brokenness, the shattered tablets laying before them. 

We have been sitting in our own waiting place, Bein ha’Metzarim. By my count, it’s been 120 days since the quarantine started. Even if you are numb at this point, the emotions that surfaced at the start of COVID are still there, exacerbated by losses due to racial violence. Some days it might feel like you’re moving through molasses – there’s a fatigue you just can’t sleep off. Maybe you’ve snapped recently at someone who did nothing wrong, or there was a moment when a minor stumble felt like a disaster. All of it is grief – for the 135,000 who have died from COVID-19 in the US alone, for racial violence, for the special moments we’ve had to share on Zoom instead of in-person, and for all the plans we can’t fulfill. In progressive Jewish communities, we don’t often observe the three weeks or Tisha b’Av. However, as we wait at the foot of the mountain, sitting in our collective brokenness, and unsure of what comes next, it may be necessary to engage with this part of our tradition. And we should engage with it, as Parker Palmer has said, with a broken and supple heart. 

The Talmud teaches that when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai the second time, with new tablets, the Israelites kept the broken ones. They placed them, along with the new tablets, in the holy ark. Why? Because our ancestors knew brokenness and wholeness live side by side, in the ark and in our hearts. Some even taught that brokenness is not only natural – it’s necessary. The Kotzker Rebbe taught that “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.” And in a Hasidic folk tale, a disciple asked a rebbe: “Why does Torah tell us to place the words of the V’ahavta upon our hearts instead of in our hearts?” The rebbe answered: “It is because our hearts are closed. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.” The Lurianic kabbalists taught that brokenness itself is holy: When God created the world, God tried to contain God’s light in vessels that shattered into millions of pieces. We each contain a spark of this Divine light, this symbol of God’s own brokenness. 

The message from our tradition is clear: Our hearts have to break. We have to feel our grief. And we do not to have experience our brokenness alone. These three weeks are a time when we can grieve with community. When we are Bein ha-Metzarim, we are like the tablets in the holy ark. We are held in our brokenness, we are whole in our holiness, and we are healed when we hold the shattered pieces for those around us.

As we sit with the shattered tablets, as we wait in our brokenness, I want to bless each each of us with a heart that is supple – one that is open to our own suffering and to the suffering of others, so that the words of our prayers fall in, and so that we may we renewed again. 

Grief in the Book of Ruth: A Letter

On Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth. There are many fantastic interpretations of this story – some of them ask if Ruth and Naomi were lovers, others explore the nature of the relationship between Ruth and Boaz, and others focus on Ruth as the paradigmatic convert. In reading the story and a number of articles about it last month, I found that no one had really explored Ruth from the perspective of grief and loss. Her husband died before she left Moab, and Boaz’s wife died the day Ruth and Naomi arrived in Bethlehem. The widow and the widower marry each other. As a grief counselor, I often invite people to write letters to the people in their lives who have died. Below is the letter I imagine Ruth would write to her late husband, Mahlon.

Beloved, 

I don’t know if you’ll ever read this. I used to be certain there was nothing but nothingness after death. But now there are days when I swear I feel your eyes upon me. Before we left Moab, every laugh I heard by the water where we skipped stones made my heart skip a beat. I’ve seen you in dreams but not only in dreams. Since you died, the doorway between life and death has cracked open, leaving me with more questions than answers. I don’t know if you’ll ever read this. But I have to try. 

When I found you dead, there was so much screaming. I only realized later that the voice was my own. How could you leave me, Mahlon? After a night of gentle warmth, I woke with your cold skin resting on mine. I don’t remember much of what happened next. Orpah found me shaking you, sobbing, begging. It was too late. 

Soon, your mother was all I had left of you. When Naomi held me, I felt you in her arms. She told Orpah and me to stay behind, to return to our parents. But losing Naomi would have been losing you all over again. So I gave her the same vow I shared with you on our wedding day: Wherever you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I shall lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. We walked together to Bethlehem. 

I never planned to marry again. But two women can’t make it on our own in Bethlehem, or anywhere else for that matter. When Naomi told me to go to Boaz at night, your voice was in her mouth, telling me to take care of her. To take care of us. I’ll do what I have to do. And…there is one more thing.

Boaz is a widower. His wife died the day your mother and I arrived in Bethlehem. He’s grieving too. He never expected to find me on the threshing floor. Boaz didn’t want to make love to me. His heart breaks for his dead bride, just as my heart breaks for you. We stayed up all night talking about you and about her. Maybe, just maybe, we can mend our shattered hearts if we hold the broken pieces together. 

My dear Mahlon, I don’t know what happens after death, and I don’t know what happens now that you’ve died, but I know Boaz is asking the same questions. The doorway between life and death has cracked open, and Boaz is standing in the doorway with me. I hope you know I’ll never stop missing you, even though I am marrying him. I hope you can forgive me. I hope I can forgive myself. I don’t know if I ever will. But I have to try. 

And I will take care of Naomi, Mahlon, just as she takes care of me. Our stories are one and the same, and my vow to you – and to her – remains. Wherever you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I shall lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. 

I carry you with me, always.
Yours,

Ruth

Silent and Sacred

Parashat Sh’mini for 2020

In this week’s Torah portion, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, brought an offering to God. Their offering was an “aish zarah,” a strange fire, which, the Torah says, God did not command them to bring. For reasons that are unclear in the Torah portion, “a fire went out from God and consumed them, and they died before God.” Why did God kill Nadav and Avihu? The rabbis scrambled for reasons.

Medieval scholar, Rashi, said that Nadav and Avihu were punished for their father Aaron’s sin of worshipping the Golden Calf at Mt. Sinai. Other rabbis’ views were documented in Midrash Rabbah. One posited that Nadav and Avihu were killed because they were drunk, referring to a later verse stating that you should not drink at the tabernacle. Others thought Nadav and Avihu were killed because they entered the sanctuary without washing their hands and feet, or that they were killed because they didn’t have children. The root of the word “zarah,” strange, is “zoor,” which can also mean profane. In the same Torah portion, we are commanded to separate the sacred from the profane, a teaching that appears in our Havdalah blessings, when we separate Shabbat from the rest of the week. Some argued that God killed Nadav and Avihu because they brought this strange, profane fire into the tabernacle, into the realm of the sacred. The truth is that none of these reasons justify their deaths.

After Nadav and Avihu died, the Torah says, “veyidom Aharon.” And Aaron was silent. The word sacrifice in Hebrew is korban, which means “to draw near.” Aaron watched his sons make an offering, drawing near to God. And then he watched, helpless, as God burned them to death. For their father, there were no words. There were no answers, or reasons. Aaron, who spoke for Moses when Moses could not find his voice, became voiceless himself. Veyidom Aharon. Aaron was silent.

There are prayers that are spoken and some that are silent, but our Amidah, our private prayer to God is distinctive. It is whispered because it is based on the prayers of Hannah, who was infertile. Hannah ached so desperately for a child that she couldn’t voice her pleas to God. In Tosefta Brachot, the rabbis said, “Hannah spoke in her heart,” meaning that her lips moved, but sound did not escape them. Another kind of silence in the face of suffering.

Over the last month, we have seen suffering – this illness, a different kind of strange fire shared by those who draw near to each other. Over 33,000 people have died from coronavirus in the United States alone. We don’t know when it will end. We don’t know if it will come back. We refresh our Twitter feeds, reading articles with conflicting information. Sometimes, like the rabbis, we scramble for reasons when death seems reasonless. Other times, we cry out or we protest, looking for something or someone to blame. Sometimes we whisper in prayer, like Hannah. Other times, like Aaron, all we can muster is silence. 

Why did God kill Nadav and Avihu? Why have so many people died from coronavirus? Why are we still being punished for drawing near to each other? How many of us, in the last month, have ignored that nagging voice inside – the one that dares to ask God why this happened? 

In Brachot 7a, the rabbis ask: “What does God pray?” Their answer? God prays, “May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger.” Even God is horrified when God’s wrath outweighs God’s mercy. Even God is devastated by corpses in refrigerator vans, hospitals overwhelmed, and by God’s own inability to heal all who need healing.

Our Yom Kippur Torah portion takes place immediately after Nadav and Avihu are killed. And sometimes, when we approach God on Yom Kippur, I follow the lead of theologian, David Blumenthal, and I imagine that God asks for our forgiveness too. For those moments when God’s mercy did not outweigh God’s wrath. For Nadav and Avihu. For asking Abraham to sacrifice his son. For asking us to sacrifice our healthcare professionals, grocery store employees, and others who are deemed “essential.” It’s a day for God to join us in grieving and atoning.

“For the wrong I have done before you
by allowing my wrath to consume me,” God prays.

“And for the wrong I have done before you
by allowing my fire to consume the innocent.

For the wrong I have done before you
by separating sacred and profane

And for the wrong I have done before you
because I should have known that everything is sacred.

Shema Yisrael, Listen, My children, My God-Strugglers,
Pardon Me, Forgive Me, Atone Me,” God weeps.

I am shema-ing, I am hearing You. And like Aaron, all I can muster for now is silence. But dear God, Moses was beside Aaron in Aaron’s silence, and we will be in this silence together. God, You heard Hannah’s whispered prayer, and we will hear each other across the distance. We learned to separate Shabbat from the rest of the week, and now we separate from one another, not because any one of us is profane, but because every soul is sacred. When we are safe again, we will join hands, as well as voices. We will stay in the struggle with You, God. And we will sing. 

Letter from God to the Ones Who Struggle

after Song of Songs

O you who linger in the garden,
a lover is listening; let Me hear your voice.

The first time I created you,
we were alone together
in My garden

I separated light from darkness
sea from sky, and sky from the branches
who reach for her
But when I created you,
we were One.

Like an apple tree among trees of the forest, so is My beloved among the youths. I delight to sit in his shade, and his fruit is sweet to My mouth.

Oh how you longed for My fruit
when it was forbidden
Now I long for you
And I must seek you
wherever you roam.

“I must rise and roam the town, Through the streets and through the squares; I must seek the one I love.” I sought but found him not.

I sent you away from My garden
separating one from One
I have followed you ever since
across the sea and through the wilderness
into the Land that I have shown you
into The Place you did not know

“Whither has Your beloved gone, O Fairest Of Women?
Whither has Your beloved turned? Let us seek him with You.”

My love for you is boundless
You who return My love and you who turn from Me
You who struggle, and you who draw near
You who doubt, and you who dream
all of you are part of Me.

I opened the door for my beloved, But my beloved had turned and gone.

You wrote your love for Me
on the doorposts of your house
and then you closed the door behind you

I sought, but found him not; I called, but he did not answer.

When you call out to Me from your narrow place
I will always answer, even if you cannot hear Me

My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices, to browse in the gardens and to pick lilies.

Our love began in a garden
It will grow there too
You’ll find Me among the lilies
waiting, always, to love you.

Image credit: Egon Tschirch, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81436538

Alone Together: Parshat Vayikra

How can we draw near in a moment when we are so far away from each other? In this week’s parsha, God shared a list of sacrifices for the Israelites to bring to the Mishkan, the holy sanctuary. Two weeks ago, when many of us began the quarantine, the Israelites built and worshiped a golden calf. Moses was up on Mt. Sinai, and they didn’t know when – or if – he was going to come back. In their fear, they built an idol they could touch, something they could connect with, physically. Something they thought they could trust to be there. Now, two weeks later, the Israelites have built a Mishkan instead. They were finally ready to sacrifice, ready to connect with the God they could not touch. The word for sacrifice in Hebrew is “Korban,” which means “to draw near.” They Israelites drew near to the God Who could not be seen, but could be deeply felt.

In the last two weeks, we, too, have been building sanctuaries. Sanctuaries in our homes, sanctuaries online, sanctuaries with our voices raised in song and prayer. We have been alone, afraid, and uncertain. We cannot reach out to touch one another. But we, too, have drawn near in ways that can be be felt.

One of my teachers, Reb Eli Cohen, pointed out that one of the names for God is HaMakom, which means The Place. Maybe while we have been sheltering-in-place, we have also been sheltering-in-The Place, embraced by the nurturing Source that holds us all. In our evening liturgy, we sing Ufros Aleinu Sukkat Shlomecha – asking God to spread over us a shelter of peace. Throughout these last two weeks, I’ve envisioned the lights from our screens, shining in our hands and on our desks all over the world. We cannot touch, but we have found ways to draw near to each other, to create sanctuaries, and to face our fears, embracing the Oneness that connects us all.

Shabbat Shalom, l’kulam. May it be a Shabbat of peace, wholeness, and healing, as we who are far away from one another draw near in every way we can.

Where Are You

“Where are you going?” She’s checking my bag.
It’s not supposed to be an existential question.

“Where are you going?”
The security guard catches me off guard.
Am I on my way there or on my way back?
Am I leaving or arriving?
Am I returning?

“Where are you going?”
I left the rain last week and arrived in the sunlight.
When I landed, tears arrived too,
my eyes and heart unused to piercing brightness.

“Where are you going?”
I’m going to snowy branches and a frozen lake.
I’m going to a fireplace, a sanctuary,
warm hugs and warmer hearts.

“Where are you going?”
I’m leaving the community
that reminds me where I come from.
I’m going to the community that reminds me who I am.
Life is in flight, community is fluid, time is an illusion,
and distance means nothing at all.

“Where are you going?”
I’m going toward myself, I’m going toward growing.
I’m going away, I’m going to, I’m going, going, and gone.
I am in flight, I am landing, I am bringing
too much baggage for carry-on.

“Where are you going?”
I don’t know, I don’t remember,
nothing is certain but
“You are flying out of Gate 19.”
I am ready for take-off.

Not Alone: Parsha Shemot

You’re walking through the desert, and you’ve been walking forever. There is sand between your toes and there’s a pebble in your sandal that’s just large enough to be an annoyance, digging into your heel. You don’t stop to remove it because you are compelled, with a focus you’ve never felt before, to just keep walking. Nothing will stop you. You’ll never go back to Egypt.  But then you see the light. The light of a thornbush on fire, burning but not consumed. Where is all the smoke?

This Friday, we read the the beginning of Exodus, which includes Moses’s first encounter with God, through a burning bush. When Moses moved toward the strange burning, God called out to him. “Moses, Moses!” Moses stopped running away. Hineini, he said. “Here I am.” 

“Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

You have removed your shoes, the pebble lost in the sand now. Your heart is pounding in your head and the voice is pounding with it. I AM I AM I AM, it says. Hineini, you respond. I am, too.

“R’oh ra’iti,” said God: “I have truly seen.” This is a unique construction in Hebrew. “Ro’eh” means “I have seen,” but “R’oh ra’iti,” which repeats the verb “to see,” means “I have truly seen.” “I have truly seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt,” said God. “I have heard their cry. I know their sufferings.”

Their cry and their sufferings have enslaved you too. You tried to leave them behind, you tried to run away, but somehow they came with you — their voices, their faces twisted in sorrow. You tried to escape it, but memory makes escape impossible.

God was not enslaved by the Egyptians, and yet, God knew the pain of the Israelites just by seeing the affliction and hearing their sufferings. This is empathy: to know the suffering of others, whether or not you can personally relate. According to medieval scholar Rashi, God demonstrated that God was with the Israelites in their affliction by appearing in a thornbush, instead of a more innocuous plant or tree.

“The cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them,” God said. “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”

“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”

God, the God of my Ancestors, I am Here, but Who am I? I am the pebble in my sandal, I am trying to escape, I have been walking because I am afraid.

“I will be with you,” God said. “I will be with you.” God didn’t say “It will all be ok,” or “Don’t be ridiculous; of course you can do it.” God truly saw not only the Israelites’ suffering – God truly saw what Moses needed too. God didn’t tell Moses “This is your job — now deal with it.” God never tried to convince Moses that the exodus would be easy. Instead, God showed Moses that he would not be on this journey alone. 

There’s no way they’ll believe you. You’re not sure if you believe you. But you’re beginning to wonder. What is the name of this Burning? What does this Light truly see in you?

“When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is God’s name?’ what shall I say to them?”

“Eheyeh-Asher-Ehyeh,” God said. “I Will Be That I Will Be. Tell the Israelites ‘I Will Be’ has sent me.” 

In Brachot 9b, the Gemara asks: Why did God tell Moses to tell the Israelites that “Ehyeh, I Will Be” has sent Moses? We just learned that “Eheyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, I Will Be That I Will Be” is God’s name. “I Will Be” and “I Will Be That I Will Be” are two different names. Why the change?

The Gemara says that “I Will Be That I Will Be” means “I was with you in this enslavement, and in this redemption, AND I will be with you in the enslavement of the kingdoms in the future.” Then, according to the Gemara, Moses actually advised God, becoming the leader that God knew him to be.

“Master of the Universe,” Moses said. “It is enough for them to endure. Let the future suffering be endured at its appointed time. There is no need to mention their future enslavement.” 

You are not alone. They do not have to be alone. And they do not need to know that more suffering awaits them after this redemption.

God agreed with Moses and said to him: “Go and tell the children of Israel only that, “’Ehyeh: I Will Be‘ has sent me to you.”

You don’t know what’s coming next. But this Burning, the God of your ancestors, has r’oh ra’iti – has truly seen the suffering, has truly seen you, and has heard you. You will lead, and you will lead with this Light. 

Just as God showed Moses true empathy, saying “I will be with you,” Moses taught God about empathy by pointing out that the Israelites couldn’t hear about future suffering. God guided Moses, truly saw Moses as a leader, told Moses he was not alone, and as a result, Moses was able to see himself as a leader, someone who could provide feedback on God’s communication plan.

Over the course of this parsha, with the Gemara for context, we watch Moses transform, through empathy, from a shepherd, running away from his problems in Egypt, to a leader who partnered with God to free the Israelites from Egypt. The Hebrew word for shepherd is pronounced “ro’eh,” but it’s spelled differently from the verb “to see.” Moses went from a ro’eh, shepherd to ro’eh, see-er. 

God “ro’eh ra’iti,” truly saw the leadership in this shepherd, Moses. And God made sure that Moses didn’t have to free the Israelites alone. Once Moses saw himself as the leader that God knew him to be, Moses knew he couldn’t leave the Israelites alone either. And, finally, Moses ensured that God was not alone in the project of redemption. 

I work with young leaders all the time and I’ve learned over and over again just how important it is to tell them what I see. Once I show them I have truly seen them – that believe in them and I remind them that they’re not alone, they rise to face the challenges of their work. Recently I’ve been grateful for friends and mentors in my own life who have shown me empathy as well – giving me the blessing of being truly seen, supported, and recognized for my own leadership. In seeing ourselves through the eyes of those who love and believe in us, we, like Moses, are able to fulfill our potential. And we, too, are able to partner with the Holy One in the work of creation, healing, and redemption.