Unknowable


God is unknowable
but here’s what I know:
God yearns to be known

God is sitting alone in the schoolyard
wearing black and listening to death metal
God’s not sure why
it sounds like a prayer

God is writing a poem
about us and isn’t sure
what’s missing
God is writing a letter
but can’t find an ending

God is refreshing God’s Twitter feed
God is liking posts on Instagram
God has 6 million unread emails
God’s connection is unstable

God is stuck in traffic
God is in the hospital waiting room
God is singing at a campfire
God is pulling an all-nighter
in the university library
God is sighing, buying fruit
in the grocery store –
even organic doesn’t taste
like the Garden

God is grieving
God’s own inability
to heal all who need healing
God is trying to remember
that when someone is suffering
God’s Presence is enough
No one wants to be
alone in the end
not even God
God is asking
for our forgiveness
on Yom Kippur

God’s not sure if God
believes in us but can’t
stop searching for us anyhow
It’s the world’s longest game
of Marco Polo

“Can you hear Me now?” God asks
“Did you call My name?
Or was it only the echo
of My own voice?”

Maybe we are God’s echoes
Maybe God is inside each of us
Maybe we are inside of God

Maybe God is unknowable
but there’s one thing I know:
God yearns to be known


This poem is also available on Ritualwell.

Out of the Narrows

A reminder that when the Israelites became free, it didn’t happen all once. They left the narrow place behind and crossed the sea singing. Then they wandered in the desert. It was as if the narrowness came with them. They had to keep freeing and re-freeing themselves. It took a long time before they could embrace their new identities after generations of enslavement.

A reminder that as our world encounters a new freedom with access to vaccines, it won’t happen all at once. We will leave the confines of our homes and cross the thresholds of our doorsteps, entering new-old spaces we haven’t encountered in well over a year. Some of the narrowness will come with us. We will need to keep freeing and re-freeing ourselves. It will be a long time before we can embrace our lives again.

Consider this your invitation to go slowly, to be gentle. To remember what you’ve learned and celebrate every breath. To be hopeful and to find holiness in every “first” that feels like it really is the first time.

Shabbat Shalom, beloveds, and chag pesach sameach. Next year, may we truly be free.

Between the Lines

I often invite grief counseling clients to write letters to their beloveds after their beloveds have died. This is a letter I imagine that Rabbi Yohanan might write to Reish Lakish, after Reish Lakish has died. This letter is based on the text of Bava Metzia 84a.

Dear Resh Lakish,

I think about you when I walk by the Jordan River. I haven’t been able to swim since you died. It’s so cold, and my body feels like a rock, heavy with the absence of you. If I were to enter the Jordan now, I, too, would descend, without your laughter to lift me.

I often wonder why you jumped in after me that day. You were a pirate, a highway robber, a bandit – what did you want with a Torah scholar? You must have known I like the chase -the challenge – just like you did. You must have seen the pirate inside of me, just as I saw the scholar inside of you. That’s why you were too weak to return the shore to get your armor. When we saw each other, in our totality – me, seeing the scholar in you, and you, seeing the bandit in me…we disarmed each other. Now when I try to see myself the way you saw me, it’s as though I can’t see at all. I have been blinded by the loss of your gaze. 

I knew I couldn’t give you my own hand, so I gave you my sister’s instead. I think she understood, even if we never spoke the truth to one another. She never protested when we spent the night protesting one another’s arguments in the Beit Midrash. How I long to wrap you in just one more line of text, to entangle myself in your words again, to push and pull and resist, to tease out one last spark of wisdom. I was an accomplished scholar before I met you, but learning with you elevated my experience in ways I never could have imagined. 

Reish Lasish, Reish Lakish, it’s all my fault. I’m a stubborn and angry fool. You knew it and you loved me anyways. I’ll never forgive myself for what I did to you. What I did to us. 

The others thought it was about the question in front of us. But there was so much more than that. The sword, the knife, the dagger, the spear, a hand sickle, and a harvest sickle, from when are they susceptible to ritual impurity? From the time of completion of their manufacture. When is the completion of their manufacture? 

What makes a sword, a sword? When does a dagger become a dagger? What makes a man into a man? A thief into a scholar? A scholar into a lover? When does it begin? When is the transformation complete? You knew your weapons like I knew my words, and we knew how to wield them against each other. But we never knew when to stop. 

Our final words slashed through the air, clanged against one another. I can hear them still. “What benefit did you provide me,” you taunted. “There, they called me: Leader. Here, they call me: Leader.” Your words cut deep into my soul. Did I not transform you, as you transformed me? As the spear is transformed at the completion of its manufacture? “I provided benefit to you,” I said, “under the wings of the Divine Presence.” I couldn’t contain my tears, so I turned away from you. If I’d known that was the last time I would see you alive, I would have held your gaze. Even a blurred vision of you, blinded with my own tears, would grant me greater clarity than I have now. 

When my sister came to beg me to pray for your recovery, my pride was too great. I couldn’t do it for me – so I couldn’t do it for her, or for her children. I’ll never forgive myself. The rabbis sent Elazar ben Pedat to comfort me, saying “his statements are sharp.” Sharp like the daggers and knives and swords of our final argument? Sharp enough to sharpen my argument, as you always did? 

No. There was no one like you. He offered me a baraita to support my opinion. To support me! I didn’t need his support, or his baraita. I needed YOU. You would have cut through my answers. You would have raised 24 difficulties against me. I would have given you 24 answers. The halacha would have broadened. 

You would have seen what I could not. You always did. And now you are gone. 

I keep calling out to you, searching for your voice in my throat. But I only hear my own.

I look for you between the lines of text in the Beit Midrash, but I get entangled in my thoughts. I can’t pull the letters apart. They blur together without you to sharpen my gaze.

I write this letter in hopes that I might find you in my pen, but I am alone. 

No one sees me. No one can reach me.

Perhaps I’ll try the Jordan River again. Maybe I’ll descend…

Searching for you until I find myself again,

Rabbi Yohanan

Voice from the Void: 30 Scatteredleaves Creations from 2020

Sometimes words bang on the doors of me, begging to be let out. Is it a striving desperation to make meaning out of madness? To tame an untamable experience by shaping it with narrative?

Several weeks ago, my classmates and I encountered Rebbe Nahman’s texts about The Void – and the silence within it. For many of my classmates, facing that silence led to more silence. But for me, it just made the words louder. I write constantly. Sometimes the words rush from my fingers faster than I can type them, an unstoppable flood pouring from the rock Moshe hit with his stick, when he couldn’t find words himself. It seems the harder it is to find the words, the more the words find me.

Chaim Bialik writes, “It is that very eternal darkness that is so fearsome – that darkness from the time of Creation…Every man is afraid of it and every man is drawn to it. With our very lips we construct barriers, words upon words and systems upon systems, and place them in front of the darkness to conceal it; but then our nails immediately begin to dig at those barriers, in an attempt to open the smallest of windows, the tiniest of cracks, through which we may gaze for a single moment at that which is on the other side.”
Perhaps writing is one of my attempts to create a penimi from a maqqif (something I can grasp within that wish is ungraspable). A way to crack a hole in the darkness of the void. A way of finding God in a place that appears empty, so that I can chase the next void, and the one after that.

With that in mind, I share a list of things I created within the void of 2020 – rituals, poems, prayers, and videos. This is not a comprehensive list. I only included the creations I felt I could publish or name in this space or elsewhere. The list doesn’t include all of my school writing (one of my classes had weekly reflection assignments) and it doesn’t include every private ritual I created for people who needed them. It also doesn’t include the virtual programs I built. But it’s a start.

I’m grateful for all the words that found me in the emptiness, but I pray for a 2021 that is full – full of inspiration, full of healing, and full of hope. Blessings on your journey, beloveds. See you on the other side.

Published on Ritualwell:

  1. Prayer Before Starting IVF
  2. Postponement Prayer (also published in When the World Turned Inward, Vol. 2)
  3. Virtual Memory Circle
  4. Hearing in our Hearts
  5. God’s Lament: A Letter to Daughter Zion (from Reb Shulamit’s class)

Videos:

  1. What Have We Lost?
  2. History of Loneliness
  3. History of Languages
  4. Looking Behind: A Monologue from Lot’s Wife
  5. Light and Darkness

Published in the Forward:

  1. ‘In the Torah, name changes signify moments of transformation.’ In the lives of transgender Jews, they are just as powerful

On my blog

  1. Nahman’s Dancing Circle, Chayei Sarah, and Pixar’s Inside Out (reflection assignment for Reb Elliot’s class)
  2. Get In, Get Real, and Grow (reflection assignment for Reb Elliot’s class)
  3. Letter to Rebbe Nahman (reflection assignment for Reb Elliot’s class)
  4. Shelters (in Place): A Pandemic Sukkot
  5. Holding the Shattered Pieces
  6. Grief in the Book of Ruth: Ruth’s Letter to Mahlon (from Reb Shulamit’s class)
  7. Silent and Sacred: Parshat Shmini for 2020
  8. Letter from God to the Ones Who Struggle: A Reinterpretation of Song of Songs (from Reb Shulamit’s Class)
  9. Alone Together: Parshat Vayikra
  10. Where Are You?

Publishing in 2021, but written in 2020

  1. Letter from Vashti to the New Queen of Shushan (publication set for February, I hope) 
  2. Prayer for the Covid-19 Vaccine
  3. Havdalah for Letting Go 
  4. Mezuzah Ritual for Moving into a New Home

Papers for Biblical Civilizations class

  1. A Tale of Two Floods 
  2. “To Teach and Enlighten:” The Book of Joshua and the Book of Judges
  3. Three Contemporary Prophecies written in the style of the prophet, Ezekiel
  4. A Contemporary Apocalypse in the style of the Book of Daniel
  5. Bringing Biblical Life and History to Hillel 

Nahman’s Dancing Circle, Chayei Sarah, and Pixar’s Inside Out

“Sometimes a group of people happily dancing together take hold of someone who is standing miserable and depressed on the outside. They pull him into the dance circle despite himself, forcing him to rejoice with them. Similarly, when a person is happy, his pain and sadness may move to the sidelines. But a higher level is to pursue the sadness itself and pull it into the dance circle.”

– Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, on bringing your sadness with you 

This text is a really important one for me. What I love the most is that it is about an interplay – it’s not about avoiding sadness, respressing sadness, or leaving sadness on the sidelines. “The higher way is to pursue the sorrow,” Nahman says, to bring it with you into the dancing circle. I also appreciate that he uses the language of transformation. That doesn’t mean the sadness disappears – it’s part of that transformation.

I can’t help but think about the characters of Joy and Sadness and their transformations in Pixar’s Inside Out.  At the beginning, Joy doesn’t want anything to do with Sadness. She tries to put Sadness in a circle – or, as Nahman might say, leave Sadness on the sidelines. 


In the closing scene (SPOILER ALERT) Joy and Sadness work together to bring about a sort of Nahmanian transformation. It’s beautiful, and if you haven’t seen it (or haven’t seen it recently), I recommend watching it with Nahman in mind.

While music and dance don’t exactly* show up in Inside Out, according to Nahman, these spiritual technologies are an instrumental** part of the sorrow/joy transformation. Michael Fishbane writes that for Nahman, “Dance is both the arch-act and the arch-metaphor” for the “cathartic process” that “pursues the agents of one’s depression in all their guises and transforms them through the agency of joy…Rabbi Nahman goes on to stress how depression is an illness, a hola’at when the cords of joy are snapped…The antidote is the joy of dance. Its circular swirl draws the heavenly Shekhinah down to the earthly realm where it may alight upon the sick soul (holeh) in healing union.”

I’ve been in that circular swirl many times before. I wrote about a few of those moments already in my letter to Nahman two weeks ago. But one of them in particular rises to the surface for me each year around this time, because it feels linked to Parashat Chayei Sarah, which we read this coming Shabbat. In the parsha, Sarah dies and her son Isaac marries Rebecca. Abraham, Sarah’s husband, marries a new wife named Keturah, and Abraham dies at the end of the chapter. Isaac takes Rebecca to his mother’s tent and she comforts him in his grief. This is a story that includes two weddings and two burials. Joy and sadness, grief and love, all in the same unfolding story.

Similarly, in December 2015, I officiated my grandmother’s funeral the day before I officiated my brother’s wedding. Loss and love, celebration and grief, crammed up beside one another in Torah, and in life. We can try to compartmentalize; we can pretend to leave the losses behind before we jump into joyful celebration. But at the wedding it felt like she should have been there, and we danced with her memory, grateful and grieving all at once, as the night turned to morning, and a new day began. Sadness was not sidelined at the wedding. It was right in the circle with us, holding hands with Joy and transforming with us, one musical note at a time.

*I might argue that play is analogous to dance in this movie, especially as it relates to the character of Bingbong.

**Pun intended

Get In, Get Real, and Grow

Closing reflections for a semester-long deep dive on the works of Rebbe Nahman of Breslov

I looked back over all my course posts from the semester. I remembered where I was when I wrote them, what I was worried about, what I was celebrating, what I was hoping for. I read the post I wrote when I was unable to enter the Arafel, after receiving bad news. I read the letter I wrote to Nahman, where I thanked him for arriving at the moments when I’ve needed him the most. I read about teaching nekuda tova to those who needed to find just ONE good thing about themselves – one nekud to change the word, the sentence, and the story. I read the unstoppable flood of words that poured out of me when I encountered Nahman’s wordless void. 

The key takeaway that emerges for me, from the stillness at the center of the dancing circle – the message that appears with clarity when I emerge from the mystical forest…is to GET IN, GET REAL, AND GROW. Nahman wants us to engage with our pain, to be authentic, and to learn from everything. Every text we encountered somehow landed on one or all of these points for me. Face your meniot, don’t avoid them. Shatter the rock, shatter your heart, carry the broken pieces – it’s easier to bring them up the stairs when they’re broken. Bring your brokenness with you into the Arafel. Sigh deeply in your darkness. Find your way through that darkness to a forest. Once you’re there, interbreathe with the trees, surrender, and pour your heart out to God. Hold nothing back. When you get lost in that forest, find a guide who can help you experience your fear and your wonder in their fullness. Then emerge, changed into who you really are, who you were meant to be all along. If you forget who you are, find just one good point, and focus on it so you can become a better version of yourself. Do whatever it takes. If you lose your words, live the silence, or sing a song without them. Dance to that song. Bring your sorrow with you into the dancing circle. Be transformed. 

I’m trying, my rebbe, to be as real as you were. To lean into my vulnerability. To learn from my meniot. To dance with my sorrow, to find wonder on the other side of fear, to enter the Arafel, trusting that God will find me there. To remember that being with myself is the path to becoming myself. I try to cleave to God when I feel desperately distant. I search for my own nekuda tova as I invite my counseling clients to find theirs. I hear your halavi teachings when I offer my own. None of us – not even you – ever fully live up to the lessons we share with others, but it’s worth trying. And that’s what you taught me to do, Rebbe Nahman: Get in. Get real. Grow. It’s always worth it.

Letter to Rebbe Nahman

This is a letter I wrote for a class assignment partway through a semester-long deep dive into the work of Rebbe Nahman of Breslov in fall 2020.

Dear Rebbe Nahman,

The first time I met you, I was an undergraduate student at UC Santa Cruz. A dear friend had died suddenly, and then another close friend was diagnosed with cancer. When I asked my rabbi for support, he introduced me to you: a chronically depressed hasid, obsessed with death and brokenness, yearning deeply for joy, and cleaving desperately to God. My rabbi recommended Hitbodedut, so I hiked off into a redwood forest (which burned last month in a massive fire). The fire inside me fueled a flood of words, pouring from my heart in a great gush of nouns and verbs and exclamation points. I didn’t know it at the time, but you became one of my rebbes that day. I’ve never forgotten it.

We’ve connected many times since then. Your words about bringing sorrow into the dancing circle arrived for me when I was at my youngest brother’s wedding, which I officiated the day after officiating my beloved grandmother’s funeral. The dancing circle appeared for me again when it was time to give my presentation on your teachings in the History of Hasidism class, at the end of the week when I lost a pregnancy I’d yearned for. As a neo-hasid (of sorts), who shares your obsession with death, grief, and brokenness, your work has been a source of comfort whenever I’ve felt alone in the joy-driven world of Renewal Judaism. I wonder sometimes if you felt alone in the joy-driven world of hasidism too, and if it was loneliness that drove you to tell yourself (and us) that “it’s important to be happy, always.” You had to have known that’s impossible. But I understand the impulse. When you’re alone and suffering, it’s easier to say “I must always be happy,” than it is to accept your own pain.

It’s so human to push the pain away, and I love how human you are. That’s why I struggle when you try to be more than that. I don’t understand your messianism. I do (sort of) understand your belief that it was your presence that killed your son, or that your presence might kill your daughter and grandchild…it’s easier to assume you are responsible for death than it is to accept there was nothing you could have done. Sometimes it’s hard to understand how you could be filled with self-loathing (as I sometimes am), and still believe you had the power to absolve people of their sins. Were you trying to convince yourself by convincing others? I admit that I desire attention and accolades for my writing and teaching, despite my own self-loathing. Maybe that’s similar to your messianism – a desire to see yourself, and be seen, as big…when the truth is that you felt small, sad, and alone.

But here’s the thing, Rebbe Nahman, what makes you big for me – what I appreciate about you most of all – is that you wrote openly about things that made you feel vulnerable. Your words have encouraged me to be less afraid of my own, and to share more openly, even – or especially – when it’s hard. I can’t always do it. But I try.

Thank you for joining me in the woods in 2005. Thank you for dancing with me – and with my sorrow – at my brother’s wedding in 2015, and thank you for reminding me that I could bring sorrow with me when I presented your teachings in 2018. Thank you for walking the narrow bridge, for teasing meaning out of madness, and for seeking Divine Light in the Sacred Dark. And thank you, most of all, for writing about it, so that I could find my own experiences reflected in yours.

With gratitude,
Heather

Light and Darkness

In the week leading up to Hanukkah 2020, I invited people to respond to two questions:

What is your source of light in the darkness?
How will you bring light to others in the days to come?

I received 105 responses on social media.These are some of the results. Our world is in darkness, but there is light inside each of us. Happy Hanukkah, everyone. Thanks to all who share their light with the world.

Created by Heather Paul with music, “Yedid Nefesh,” by Geo Poor

Illuminate the World: a Peace Prayer

God, You scattered the divine sparks 
so that we may find them in each other,
but sometimes, we forget to look. 

We are Your glittering fragments,
Your shards, Your stars. 
We stand here before You, 
ready to gather the sparks, 
ready to illuminate the world
like One holy campfire. 

We may be scattered, shattered
but we will glow together, grow together,
we will see each other’s shine

and maybe then, dear God,
we will finally be ready
for peace. 

Barukh Atah Adonai, mevarech et kol ha’olam b’shalom 
Blessed are You, God, who blesses the world with peace.